It was a matter of time. Nassir Little finally had a breakout game. The North Carolina Tar Heels freshman small forward stole the spotlight in the team’s 103-82 victory over Virginia Tech Monday night. His 23 points, six rebounds and three assists were a career-high, propelling the Tar Heels to the school’s 15th win of the year. His ability to take over the game demonstrates why North Carolina should rely on its freshman more as March approaches.
“This stigma about North Carolina not playing freshmen… I think we were kind of vibing with that and just rocking out how we played,” said Little after the game.
Little Came to North Carolina with Expectations
The buzz was real when North Carolina decided to commit to Nassir Little. The 6’6 small forward was considered one of the top recruits in the nation. Born and raised in Florida, Little committed to Orlando Christian Prep. From early on, Little showcased tremendous defense, moving his feet well and accomplishing any defensive assignment given to him. He is spectacular on the transition, and can use his physical size to attack the basket.
His accolades at high school were profound. He was an All-American, the MVP of the All-Star game (28 points) and the Jordan Brand Classic, where he put up 24 points in just 25 minutes. When Little committed to one of the most prestigious college basketball programs in the country, it would appear that he would be on the path to greatness.
But the start with North Carolina wasn’t as planned. Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams decided to move Little to the bench, opting to give more experienced players the chance to start. This stirred a lot of controversy in Chapel Hill, as many felt that the three-time National Champion head coach was limiting Little’s ability to perform.
“The guy that is playing in front of (Little) makes six out of eight from the three-point line and was an ACC Player of the Week, so that’s all I’m going to say about some report,” Williams said, referencing Cameron Johnson, who is leading North Carolina in scoring with 16.6 points per game.
Little Starting to Make Most of Time on Court
“Freshmen and big guys are about the same. They come at a different rate. Big guys, you never know when they’re going to wake up and the light switch has gone on and I think freshmen a little bit, as well. He needs a game for him to really have a good game defensively to give him a little more confidence there I think and then needs a game for a couple of jump shots to go in.”
Roy Williams said this back in December. And he’s spot on. It was clear that Nassir Little was a victim of high expectations. Sure, he is a talented basketball player but every future star needs time to develop and grow.
Despite the limited minutes, Little is making his presence felt on the court. He has been able to string together positive performances the last few games, including putting up 12 points against Miami on Saturday.
“I think I took a really big step forward,” Nassir Little said. “It’s easy to get discouraged. The coaches have helped me get through tough moments. I’m trying to figure things out and get better.”
On Monday night in Chapel Hill against Virginia Tech, the freshmen players stole the show. Down 25-21 at the half, it was Little’s steal on Ty Outlaw which he took for a breakaway slam dunk that got the Tar Heels going. That moment spurred the North Carolina freshmen into generating 18 consecutive points, translating the deficit into a 14-point lead. The performance by not only Little but also freshman Coby White, who generated 27 points and was 9-for-16 from the field.
“I think they combined to score 50 points,” senior Kenny Williams said. “I can’t explain to you how big that is. That’s huge to have the two young guys step up and do that in a game like this. They’re ranked No. 10 in the country, so that was just pure joy. I was just celebrating tonight with them.”
For Nassir Little, the objective is to continue to get better. He has the tools to be a really solid basketball player and with time, he will get the minutes. With March around the corner, the opportunity might happen sooner rather than later.