UNC’s Little on his improvement: ‘I had to re-evaluate things, take a step back’
Nassir Little credits Coby White with the nickname and, for White, it was obvious enough. During the past several months, White has realized that Little is “a deep guy” and “very intellectual,” White said, and also one who sees the world a bit differently – especially from those so eager to define Little and his freshman season at North Carolina.
“Nas tries to add philosophy, or he tries to argue everything,” White, the freshman point guard, said recently of his classmate, Little, who arrived at UNC surrounded by higher individual expectations than anyone since perhaps Harrison Barnes in 2010. “No matter what it’s about. He’ll try to go back and forth with you, and he always tries to use logic and high terminology to just describe it.”
And so when Little recently earned academic all-ACC honors, becoming UNC’s fifth freshman men’s basketball player to do so, White created a new title: “Congratulations, Philosopher Nassie,” he told him. The nickname “just stuck,” White said.
Philosopher Nas, as Little abbreviated it during a recent interview, is an apt description for someone of Little’s disposition – calm and introspective and impervious, at least externally, to all of the noise that has surrounded him for years. For months, that noise has grown louder: about everything from the “expectations” to Little’s happiness at UNC to the status of his NBA draft stock.
Little’s thoughtfulness, his mental depth, has allowed him to handle the talk. Some of it, he has found crazy – “crazy can go into so many different avenues of crazy,” he said – yet even some of the more well-reasoned talking points can be relentless: Has Little been a disappointment? Has UNC not used him properly? Why hasn’t he been something different, and more like …
… the freshmen at Duke?
Little, at 6-foot-7, is known for his enviable athleticism and he already possesses the build of an NBA veteran. He arrived at UNC the No. 2 high school prospect in his class – ahead of Zion Williamson, who has achieved super-stardom at Duke, and just behind R.J. Barrett, who has also achieved fame at Duke, where four freshmen (Tre Jones and Cam Reddish are the others) play leading roles.
Yet unlike Williamson and Barrett and others Little played alongside or against throughout years of AAU competitions and high school all-star games, though, Little’s freshman season has become, more than anything, an exercise in developing patience and perspective. It’s not necessarily what he thought would happen about a year ago, when he earned MVP honors of the McDonald’s All-American game.
More recently, Little grew introspective, as he often does, while he considered the question of whether his freshman year really had been more difficult given the neighborhood company – the relative success of players his age right down the road at a rival school.
“Zion and all them, you know, they well deserve it,” Little said. “They’re amazing players. I’m not taking anything away from them. Like, everything they get, they all deserve it. But at the end of the day, man, it’s just different paths.
“We all have our own path to where we want to get to and this is just mine.”
Throughout it all, Little has tried to practice stoicism, even if he didn’t necessarily know that he was doing it. Little hasn’t taken a formal philosophy class at UNC, or anywhere else, and yet some of it comes naturally to him, anyway – the things the ancient Greeks spent centuries studying, and the mental approach that Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor, wrote about in his book, “Meditations.”
“I just understand stuff at a deeper level than anybody else, I feel like,” Little said, describing why his freshman season hasn’t necessarily bothered him the way it has those who expected it to be so much more. “I don’t really get too high or too low on things. I just accept it for what they are.”
Which isn’t to say that he dismisses those high expectations, or even the ones he carries for himself. Even now, approaching the end of a season in which he hasn’t started a game, and one in which he’s averaging fewer than 10 points per game, Little said that people would likely “think I’m crazy for how I look at myself.”
“Because I still think I’m the best player in the country,” he said. “But what happens is, it’s just confusion. You know, I’ve got a conflict between what I know I can do and then what the coaches want me to do. And then it kind of creates – causes me to be hesitant, which doesn’t make me play as well.”
Yes, Little acknowledged before the ACC tournament, he “thought I would play more” and “be used in a more spotlight role, I guess, for lack of better terms.” And he knew coming in what everyone else thought would happen, too: “Probably thought I’d come here, start, average like, 15 to 20 points, play like 35 minutes,” he said. “You know, that’s probably what people thought.”
What’s more important for him now, though, is that he has understood how to react when things didn’t happen the way everyone envisioned – the starting role, the opportunities to score, the extended playing time.
“That’s not how it went, you know?” he said. “And I don’t look at it negatively. I mean, we’re winning, so people probably didn’t think we were going to be this good this year.”
Indeed, UNC enters the NCAA tournament on Friday as a No. 1 seed, and among the favorites to win a national championship. These Tar Heels are built like those of 2016 and ‘17, when a nucleus of juniors and seniors led to national championship game appearances in consecutive years, and a national championship in 2017.
The make-up of this UNC team, with its reliance on experienced players who’ve been there and done that, for years, has perhaps allowed the Tar Heels to exceed the expectations that surrounded them entering the season. At the same time, the team’s construction has also reduced Little’s opportunities.
He arrived just in time to play behind three seniors: Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams. It has been easier for him to accept his role as the team’s sixth man, he said, given those ahead of him.
“This isn’t a defining situation of what I can do as a player,” Little said. “I mean, I came in, Cam’s playing amazing, Luke’s playing amazing, and Kenny with his defense, and things he does. …
“Those are the guys I’m playing behind. And they deserve it.”
Still, the sporting world can be impatient and cruel, especially for a high-profile basketball player who has never known anything, on the court, aside from immense success. For players who arrive in college as esteemed as Little did, the transition is supposed to be easy, effortless, and when it doesn’t happen, the absence of perceived success can be glaring.
But what if his season has been successful, just not in the way that was anticipated? For one, Little’s statistical production, according to kenpom.com, which is the data bible of the sport, compares favorably to that of Marvin Williams during his lone season at UNC. Williams is remembered fondly for his role on the Tar Heels’ 2005 national championship team.
Then there’s everything that doesn’t show up in a box score. Little has been challenged in a way that he’d never experienced. He has had to learn how to fit into a system in which he’s not necessarily a focal point and in which his skills don’t naturally fit a position, and he has had to learn what it’s like not to start. Most of all he has had to learn that, sometimes, things just don’t go as planned.
One of his former AAU coaches, Darryl Hardin, with whom Little remains close, has tried to remind Little of the value of those lessons. Hardin and Little talk often, about four or five times per week, and sometimes Little does need reminders. Mostly, though, he has been able to handle the challenges of his freshman year through mechanisms he already possessed by the time he arrived at UNC.
“Nas has always been a kid that is very aware,” Hardin said. “And so he knows that he doesn’t have to answer outside expectations. It’s the way he believes in himself and it’s really what (UNC coach) Roy (Williams) wants him to do. …
“He wants to do and execute what Roy’s asking him to do. And he came to Carolina to win a championship and that goal is still intact and that’s what he’s focused on.”
For his part, Little said he’s “perfect” for the circumstances in which he finds himself in Chapel Hill – those being playing the role of a reserve after arriving in college amid considerable hype. Little has not complained about things such as playing time, and he has not grumbled about his role, and he has not caused the kind of dissension that might cause a weaker-willed player to derail a team’s chemistry.
He has, according to those around him, like his teammates, simply gone about his business.
Recently, Little considered the thought of whether it’s all been worth it, the relative struggle, or if maybe he’d have been better off somewhere else, with more of a chance to showcase himself. If he had to do it all over again, would he come to UNC to play the role that he has?
His answer came quickly: “If we win the national championship, yeah.”