The if of the 5th: New Suns wing Nassir Little still has 3-and-D upside

Oct 1, 2023, 10:30 AM | Updated: 11:13 am

Nassir Little drives on Devin BOoker...

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) defends as Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little shoots during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

The unofficial start to the NBA season in media day is within a week, and who the Phoenix Suns make the fifth starter alongside Deandre Ayton, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant is unknown.

Well, that was how we introduced this series on Tuesday, a day before Ayton (and Toumani Camara) was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a multi-team trade in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson.

Nurkic slots in for Ayton but the question still remains of who the fifth starter is, and now the Suns have even more options.

It is a compliment to the depth Phoenix has built up but also points to how necessary it is that they must figure that out. We are going to roll through eight candidates leading up to media day on Monday with respect to names like Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu and Ish Wainright, who could hypothetically start games this season as well.

While much intrigue is percolating in regard to the player receiving the nod on opening night in the Bay, we will instead preview all of the options under the optics of who starts the first game of round one in the postseason.

This means our conversations will naturally trend toward what these players have to do over the course of the regular season to earn that spot and how they can differentiate themselves over that time, as opposed to keeping it more theoretical by projecting how training camp and such goes.

That is likely how this will pan out. Head coach Frank Vogel will try different looks and grant various opportunities across a seven-month period. Injuries will force him to do so anyway. Could the Day One starter secure that job immediately? Sure. But Vogel and his staff would be wise to sift through everything he’s got.

Nassir Little is a two-way answer as Suns’ fifth starter

Why should he start: The Suns get a physical, switchable athlete alongside their stars who last year showed signs of breaking through as a shooter on a relatively high volume. And who knows? Maybe there is a lot more upside in a winning program for Little, who could receive a confidence boost by working through growing pains and being covered by the starters.

Pros: Little started 23 games, appearing in 42 total two years ago for Portland. He averaged 9.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists in just 25.9 minutes a night. He was also at nearly a block. A sturdy 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds with a plus-7-foot wingspan, Little is viewed as a jumbo Josh Okogie, a player who can switch from guards through power forwards to give Phoenix some of the secondary stuff.

A first-round pick by the Blazers in 2019, he just found a shooting stroke in 2022-23, hitting 36.7% from three on 2.9 attempts per game — but that was in just 18.1 minutes. He averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game last season, though he found a way to be efficient without tons of playing time. There is a question of how much more of an offensive force he can be as a mid-40s shooter for his career. That’s not terribly inefficient, and Little has a little off-the-bounce stuff to wonder if there’s more to un-tap.

Little has a smooth jumper albeit with a low release point, and he has enough wiggle to complement his strong frame when attacking the rim.

Cons: Is Little’s shooting success permanent? That is likely to swing his candidacy for this job, and there’s certainly room to wonder why Portland, with its lack of success the past two years, didn’t dig deeper to find out if there’s more to unlock in his game considering he still is viewed as a versatile defender with enough scoring chops to be optimistic — especially as a third-tier scorer on this iteration of the Suns.

One big question mark is whether he truly can go from bodying true power forwards and then hanging on switches with the elite point guards on the roster. Without tons of Blazers tape in the mental library, that’s a wonder for me as I project how easily Little can separate himself from Keita Bates-Diop and Okogie in terms of minutes and a chance to start.

He also has a variety of different injuries that have kept him from playing more than 54 games in a season. You could call it injury-prone, or you could say it’s bad luck and broken up any momentum in terms of his development.

Likelihood: 50-50. Little has everything you like and hasn’t necessarily done anything to hurt his stock. He has a reputation as a competitive, hard-playing guy, but there are red flags from his Portland tenure about why he didn’t get stronger looks considering how fluid and efficient his game is. Perhaps it’s because he’s not elite at any one thing, but if that means there’s a solid NBA player who at 23 years old is still taking tiny steps toward improving, it was worth Phoenix taking a flier on him.

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