The Portland Trail Blazers roster for the 2022-23 NBA season appears to have been set. Except for the mega trade, the group currently under construction will be the one to take the floor on opening night in mid-October. As in years past, the team has an abundance of talent in the backcourt, but is relatively smaller up front. While prospective starters Yusuf Nurkic and Jerami Grant are proven commodities, perhaps the biggest factor in the team’s overall success this season is the health and development of young striker Nasir Little.
The UNC Fourth Year player was limited to just 138 out of 228 games during his first three professional seasons. In the first round in 2019, Little struggled to break into former coach Terry Stotts’ rotation at the start, and has been repeatedly stung with injury since – including missing the last 45 games last season with a tear in his shoulder. He still has to cross the 50-game mark in one season.
Despite this, he showed incredible promise and growth when he saw the floor. After showing flashes of brilliance during his first two seasons, he finally got a long-range shot due to injuries last season. In his last 12 games, he has averaged 13 points and 5.7 rebounds in 31.5 minutes, hitting 45% from the field and 40% from the ground with three points. He looked ready for the second half before a shoulder injury in late January.
Few will likely compete with Josh Hart to be Portland’s junior forward next season. While the two are roughly the same height (6’5″), Little’s 7’2″ wingspan gives him an extra length that Hart just can’t match, making him fit more conventionally as a first player. If coach Chancy Billups picks the three-guard lineup, as the team did with Norman Powell, Little still faces a big role off the bench.
Should he come off the bench, Little would start almost immediately as the highest-scoring option, mostly out of necessity. Assuming Anfernee Simons started alongside Damian Lillard, Portland’s reserve unit would include the likes of Gary Payton II and Justise Winslow, known more for their defensive prowess than their scoring ability.
However, assigning such an unqualified player to such an important role is reminiscent of the scenario the Blazers found themselves with as Simons entered the 2019-20 season. Nasser certainly has a lot more experience than Ant had, with Simons only entering his second season, and first as a regular contributor. However, with all the time away from the ground, Little’s maturation process as an NBA player has been repeatedly interrupted, making it difficult to truly judge his progress.
Whether starting or serving as a key piece from the bench, Nasser Al Sagheer faces a tough task ahead of his fourth professional season. For the Blazers to succeed, they will need consistent production from the young striker, as he showed in January of this year. Plus, they’ll need him to stay healthy for the first time in his NBA career. With the depth scheme already strained, the prolonged absence of a major contributor could torpedo any chance the Blazers have of making the (actual) playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.
There will be a lot of pressure on all of the Blazers’ key players to deliver a top-level performance this season, starting at the top with Lillard. With his career up and down, Little feels like the real wild card of the group. He’s by no means the most important player on the team, but since he’s the unproven commodity, his contributions may be the single biggest variable in the direction the team is headed.