CHAPEL HILL — After 20 games of extreme ups and downs, the North Carolina basketball team may finally have found its identity.
It’s a discovery that has come about only because its most talented young player finally remembered his own identity.
“It’s just fun, man,” freshman Nassir Little said after scoring a career-high 23 points in a win against Virginia Tech on Jan. 21. “This is the basketball I’m used to playing. This is me.”
Little is the Tar Heels’ highest-rated recruit since Harrison Barnes arrived in 2010 and was considered a top-five national prospect rated ahead of Duke’s Zion Williamson by Rivals.com.
But while Williamson and fellow freshman RJ Barrett have thrived with the Blue Devils, becoming darlings of the national media along the way, Little has been slower to come along on a team with an already established nucleus of three proven seniors.
Despite rumblings that coach Roy Williams was holding his young star back by having him come off the bench, Little’s inconsistent play — especially on defense — didn’t warrant extended minutes.
The 6-foot-6 wing has had his moments, including a 21-point, seven-rebound effort against Elon and a 19-point game against St. Francis in which he went 8 of 9 from the floor. But his early contributions were inconsistent at best. Over his first nine games against Power 5 opponents, Little averaged just 6.9 points and shot 29.3 percent from the floor while going 1 of 18 from 3-point range.
Little placed the blame for his struggles on himself, saying he was being “too robotic” out on the court.
“When you’re trying to learn things, everything is a thought process,” he said. “You’re trying to take what you learn and apply it to the game in a heartbeat. I’ve been playing basketball for a while and I’m a unique player, so I’ve just got to play.”
The difference since his mindset adjustment has been dramatic.
In the 44 minutes he was on the court from the second half of a win against Notre Dame on Jan. 15 through last week’s rout of Virginia Tech — a period spanning three games — Little contributed 46 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals. He made 15 of his 23 field goal attempts and went 14 of 16 from the line during that stretch.
His energy on both ends of the floor, along with a pair of made 3-pointers, helped spark a 20-0 run that catapulted the Tar Heels to their impressive victory against the Hokies.
Little finished the game with 23 points, six rebounds and three assists while combining with fellow freshman Coby White to score 50 of their team’s 103 points.
Tuesday at Georgia Tech, his role expanded to 23 minutes — the second most he’s played this season — while contributing nine points and seven rebounds in UNC’s 77-54 win.
“I just think he’s getting more comfortable,” Williams said. “I’ve been telling you all along that he’s coming. He’s coming, but it’s just that with some guys, it takes them a little longer to get more comfortable than other guys.”
While Little has begun playing more like the one-and-done talent most believe he is, he still has plenty of room to grow.
He’s by far the most athletic player on the team, but he still needs to learn to use that natural ability to its full advantage by scoring at the rim and drawing fouls rather than settling for too many perimeter jumpers.
By doing so, Little can force opposing defenses to collapse on him, creating more open shots from the perimeter for teammates Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams. With a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he also possesses the physical tools to become a more effective defender than he has been to this point in his young college career.
Although he has been something of an afterthought compared to other high-profile rookies both in the Triangle and nationally, including one of his own teammates, there’s still time left for him make a major impact for the Tar Heels.
According to classmate White, Little’s continued aggressiveness and more consistent production are critical to the Tar Heels’ chances of advancing deep into the NCAA Tournament come March.
“He’s always had it in him, and now he’s starting to put everything together,” the UNC point guard said. “He’s going to become the monster everybody has been waiting for.