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UNC’s Nassir Little is getting better at defense at the right time for the Tar Heels

North Carolina’s Nassir Little following win over Elon

Nassir Little fields questions after leading North Carolina to a 116-67 win
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Nassir Little fields questions after leading North Carolina to a 116-67 win

North Carolina freshman Nassir Little has seen the tweets on Twitter and the comments on Instagram.

They include the criticism from people who expected him to explode on the college scene, like he did in high school, and the praise from those who see his potential, and think he should be a starter for the Tar Heels.

“It’s definitely loud,” Little said. “They have the right to say what they want, but at the same time, it doesn’t really hold any weight in regards to what’s going to happen on the court.”

Little is working on blocking out the noise and focusing on his game so that he can see more playing time. Little, a 6-6, 220-pound forward, is averaging 10.8 points, but in just 19.5 minutes per game.

He struggled, in particular against Kentucky on Dec. 22, where he played a season-low 14 minutes and scored four points.

After a reporter asked UNC coach Roy Williams whether Little had shown improvement since the Las Vegas Invitational, Williams appeared frustrated. He defended his handling of Little’s playing time.

“I’m trying to get him some more minutes out there,” Williams said then. “Today, we wanted him to drive the ball to the basket, and we settled for 3-point shots. In the All-American Game, they never guard anybody, so if you go down and dunk, you look pretty good in that, and he does that as well as anybody. He’s a kid that wants to be good.”

Little is desperately trying to improve.

When Little entered UNC, he was ranked a top 5 recruit in the 2018 recruiting class. He won the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic games’ MVP awards. Williams says he’s probably the most athletic player he’s ever coached. And many think, based on his potential, could be drafted high in the first round of the 2019 NBA draft.

But to the dismay of many UNC fans, he had not played much as they would like.

For Williams, his message has been simple. Play better defense and he’ll play more. That has been Little’s biggest hindrance this season. At times he has looked lost, making him susceptible to backdoor cuts, and not rotating when his teammate leaves his defender to help. Little admitted that making the adjustment from high school defense to college defense has been tough.

“I feel like guarding your man in high school was the thing that I was dominant at,” Little said Wednesday. “I can guard my guy, and my guy wouldn’t score. In college, it’s more of a team concept, where you’ve got to be able to make your rotations, be in the deny lanes, be on weak side help.”

Defense has been his primary focus in practices recently. He showed improvement in UNC’s most recent game against Harvard, a 77-57 win. Little had 12 points, seven rebounds, two steals and a block. Early in the game, he also locked down his opponent and helped force a shot clock violation. It was one of the 22 turnovers the Tar Heels forced.

He played 22 minutes, which was the second-most minutes he has played in a game this season. He played in 24 minutes against Stanford on Nov. 12.

“When you’re trying to learn things, everything is a thought-process, because you’re trying to take what you learned, and you’re trying to apply it directly,” Little said. “I’ve had talks with people. You know, I’ve just had to change my mindset more and just stop being a robot, and play my game.”

Little’s performance against Harvard was one of his best games and it comes at the right time. No. 15 UNC (10-3) will play at Pitt on Saturday to open up ACC play. Last year, Pitt didn’t win a single game in the ACC.

But the Panthers — under first-year head coach Jeff Capel III, who was formerly the associate head coach at Duke — are much improved with a 10-3 record.

Having an improved Little will only help the Tar Heels.

Williams said he has noticed an increase in effort with Little’s defense.

“He’s such a great athlete, he’s always able to do things because he wants to,” Williams said. “So he’ll run hard, he’ll go over and block a shot or steal your ball or something like that, but at this level, it’s hard to do that. You’ve got to be more fundamentally sound and he’s really working on trying to do that. And I think he’s handling everything great. I really do.”

Notes

-UNC sophomore forward Sterling Manley will miss his second consecutive game with a sore knee, according to Williams. He is averaging 4.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in 11.7 minutes per game this year.

- It is graduate senior Cam Johnson’s homecoming. Johnson, who is from Pennsylvania, played at Pitt for three years before transferring to UNC last year as a graduate senior.

UNC at Pitt

When: 12 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 5, 2018

Where: The Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh

TV: Raycom

Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.

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