22 for 22: Should Nassir Little be Suns’ trade asset or reclamation project?

Jun 12, 2024, 7:34 AM | Updated: 9:44 am

It’s rather difficult to believe, but in hindsight is at the time of the Deandre Ayton trade, there were plenty of smart basketball people who thought Nassir Little was the biggest part of that deal for the Phoenix Suns.

Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen had their own shortcomings prior to arriving in the Valley. Then Nurkic was legitimately good for the first few months of the season before tailing off toward the end, still grading as a starting-caliber center. Then Allen had a career-best season, with his elite shooting and intangibles making him too valuable to keep out of the starting lineup despite it giving Phoenix a three-guard look.

Those two players alone already made the trade a definitive win for the Suns, especially given the (correctly set) low expectations for the return Ayton would bring and the benefit of sending away Ayton’s long-term salary.

And then there was Little. This was ESPN’s Kevin Pelton at the time of the trade, who at least saw Little as more of a get for Phoenix than Nurkic.

To me, the better addition for Phoenix from the Blazers is Little, who has a chance to emerge as a starter. Still just 22, Little shot a career-best 37% from 3-point range last season and has the skills to serve as the Suns’ primary perimeter defender. Little never seemed to fully win over Portland coach Chauncey Billups, however, averaging just 18.1 MPG off the bench. If Little continues to develop, the four-year rookie extension he’s starting worth $28 million could be an enormous bargain.

The first year in Phoenix did not pan out for Little. Even though he wasn’t much of a contributor, he has become one of the most frequently named members of the Suns this offseason because of that contract and how using it in a trade is one of only a few ways to upgrade the roster.

Little, however, has a slim amount of trade value remaining at this point after not locking down a role and again struggling with injuries. So the question now becomes if Phoenix should move Little regardless — or if they should give him one more year to earn that role, filling the wing need on the depth chart without having to do anything transactional this offseason.

His 2023-24 season probably didn’t go down the way you remembered it, and that’s OK because there was a lot going on.

Little did not separate himself in the summer and instead found himself getting spot minutes in the first couple weeks of the season, even with all the injuries Phoenix had going on. He played well in those situations, earning consideration in mid-November for a rotation role. Little continued to make an impact, looking the part of someone turning the corner and giving Phoenix the extra wing it desperately needed.

This was before Little took his turn in a season-long tradition of a Suns player getting hit in the face, this time on Dec. 8 in a collision that gave him an orbital fracture and concussion.

Lock in here and stick with me through some injury statuses for his left knee that bothered him for the following few months.

Little only missed one game before returning, and in that first game back, had to exit before coming back in. He confirmed after the game he was suffering from crampin.

Little played one more contest and then for a Dec. 15 matchup was listed as questionable due to left knee soreness. He kept playing, and then three games later was listed as out for the Christmas showdown with Dallas. Little’s injury designation was then changed to questionable pregame and he played but just for three minutes. Two days later, he played 16 minutes and then went back on the shelf.

It was a two-fixture break before getting set as available on Jan. 1. And then he was out for the next four games, again because of a sore left knee. He got minutes on Jan. 11 and was mostly off the injury report until late February for inflammation in that left knee forcing him to sit another two weeks.

Little came to Phoenix with concrete injury concerns already and unlike Nurkic was not able to dispel that label. His last season with the Trail Blazers remains his career high for games played with 54, although he would have gotten close to the 60s with Phoenix if he had been in the rotation all year. But part of that had to do with him losing his role while injured, so.

We won’t focus on Little’s season-long numbers too much because honestly, he played a decent chunk of his minutes in garbage time. Across the 17 games he held the rotation spot in, Little shot 48.7% from the field and 32.5% at 3-point range. The only real takeaway there is he was finishing around the rim but the triples weren’t dropping enough.

With a player of Little’s skill set, all it comes down to next season is if he earns the trust of the coaching staff. What that boils down to is if he’s zooming around in the proper defensive rotations, executing the scheme, getting in the correct position offensively and making the right decisions with the ball when it comes his way.

Whenever you’re particularly upset about a middle-of-the-line depth piece playing over another, most of the time it’s due to one guy doing that stuff better than the other. Let’s say Little proves he is capable of all that in training camp. Well, then he will play, and that’s because he is an impactful on-ball defender who plays really hard.

Little can stonewall drives, and his best NBA attribute is probably his ability to stay attached.

The energy plays will compile over time.

To steal an NFL term for a dude who would have been a killer tight end, Little is terrific at getting to the “high point” on a ball when he’s rebounding. You know those times a guy snatches one and he draws an audible response from the crowd? He does that and also just gets involved for some tip-outs as well.

The offense simply comes down to hitting shots and not killing possessions when he has to make a play off the bounce.

Look at how much space Little has for these 3s. What he deserves credit for is confidently taking them. We didn’t see much of him hesitating, a problem some of his counterparts ran into over the course of the season.

The drives were a mix of good and bad.

A few saw the athleticism pop like below. Some of the others were slightly out of control, allowing the defense to either fully recover or force a bad look.

Little was at 15 assists and nine turnovers in those 17 games, a ratio that has to be better when considering how many times the ball will find him over the course of a game.

You can argue a competent third wing off the bench behind Kevin Durant and Royce O’Neale in the pecking order is still in there, with a quality level of play shown in a Suns uniform just last year. It is also fair to discount him due to concerns about his shooting or injury history.

Let’s explore trading him: The big issue here is that thanks to the second apron rules, Little’s salary cannot be combined with another in a two-team trade. So, it has to be Little straight up for another player and that player has to be making just slightly less money than Little’s $6.8 million.

Value-wise, we will operate under the assumption the 22nd pick in the 2024 NBA Draft has to be included with Little to get back a rotation player. PHNX Sports’ Gerald Bourguet perused potential swaps and some plausible matches with that pick included are Ochai Agbaji in Toronto, Kenrich Williams in Oklahoma City and Davion Mitchell in Sacramento.

All three players aren’t necessarily surefire rotation guys who are large upgrades over Little, so at that point, it seems more worth it to hold onto the pick and take a swing on a wing there instead or use it in another way. Because of Little’s relatively low salary number, there isn’t really a match value-wise if Phoenix wanted to use the 2031 first-round pick, either.

It is worth mentioning multi-team trades, a wrinkle and workaround for second apron teams to increase the functionality of deals. The Suns could trade away multiple players to multiple teams in those formats, but of course, matching the salaries and getting three or more front offices to agree is not easy. The Suns hired Brooklyn’s Matt Tellem for his creativity in these spaces and if Phoenix makes a trade this offseason it’ll probably be his brainchild.

Odds are that Little, like Jusuf Nurkic, is back with the Suns this year. And under a new coaching staff getting a fresh look, perhaps Year 6 of his career is truly when everything can finally come together for him.

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22 for 22: Should Nassir Little be Suns’ trade asset or reclamation project?