Why basketball recruit Nassir Little’s commitment is so important for UNC

Nassir Little in action during the Pangos All-American Camp at Cerritos College in Norwalk, CA in June 2016. Brian Rothmuller AP
Nassir Little in action during the Pangos All-American Camp at Cerritos College in Norwalk, CA in June 2016. Brian Rothmuller AP AP

Nassir Little might turn out to exceed his considerable expectations when he arrives at North Carolina next year. He might not. What matters now, though, isn’t what Little might eventually become.

It’s what he already is: the Tar Heels’ most important recruiting victory in years.

Little, a 6-7 wing forward from Orlando, Fla., announced on Wednesday, in a post on Twitter, that he had committed to UNC. He’s the No. 9 prospect in the class of 2018, according to 247sports.com, and he ends UNC’s futility in recruiting prospects held in similarly-high regard.

It has been a long time, by its own standard, since UNC received a commitment from a prospect of Little’s caliber. Before Little, the most recent top-10 prospect to commit to UNC was Justin Jackson, who did so in 2013. That’s not to say that UNC hasn’t been recruiting good, or even very good, players in recent seasons.

Clearly, based on UNC’s success, the Tar Heels have. Tony Bradley, for instance, played an important role on the Tar Heels’ national championship team during his freshman year last season, but he was considered a top-25 or top-30 prospect when he arrived. Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, the only members of UNC’s 2015 recruiting class, were lesser-regarded prospects but both played important roles, at various times, last season.

Bradley’s commitment, which came about two years ago, ended another long recruiting drought. It had been a while, by then, that any player at all had committed to the Tar Heels. All the while, UNC coach Roy Williams attempted to recruit the best of the best high school prospects.

And all the while, UNC had been striking out with top-5 and top-10 high school players – and doing so at such an alarming rate that it raised the obvious question of why. Why had one of the most traditionally successful programs in the country, long a preferred destination of the best high school players, gone dry at the highest levels of recruiting?

The recruiting difficulties frustrated UNC fans. The problem bothered Williams, especially, and he often cited the “junk” – the NCAA investigation, and the long-term uncertainty that has come with it – to explain why top prospects had shunned the Tar Heels.

In a strange twist, Little’s commitment came amid his own “junk,” as Williams might describe it. Little is believed to be one of the high school players caught in the middle of the nefarious scheme involving AAU coaches, adidas representatives and college basketball coaches. The Department of Justice revealed the alleged corruption after a two-year FBI investigation.

Little is not named in the federal investigation but his AAU coach, Jonathan Augustine, is one of 10 men charged in the case. Based on context clues in the federal documents detailing the case, at least two schools, believed to be Arizona and Miami, were willing to pay $150,000 for Little, who, along with his family, has denied knowledge of the scheme.

Little perhaps alluded to the swirl surrounding him when he announced his commitment to UNC. He did so through a video he posted on Twitter. In the video, he carries on a text-message-like conversation with his father who, at one point, writes: “It’s a lot of stuff going on right now.”

“Fact!” Little writes in response. “But lions don’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.”

Moments later a graphic appears, with Little wearing a Carolina blue No. 23 UNC jersey, that makes his intentions clear. The announcement, and the fanfare that followed, came in contrast to UNC’s other high-profile recruitments in recent years, just about all of which ended in disappointment for the Tar Heels.

Since Jackson’s commitment in 2013, UNC had been spurned by a long list of top-10 prospects, including several who grew up in North Carolina. UNC during those years lost out on Brandon Ingram and Harry Giles in-state, and many others held in similarly-high regard out of state. All of which led to the questions, some of which Williams raised himself, about UNC’s recruiting.

Aside from the NCAA cloud, other theories emerged, too: That other schools, primarily Duke and Kentucky, had become to top prospects more culturally relevant – perhaps “cooler,” for lack of a better way to put it – than UNC; that Williams had lost his recruiting touch; that UNC simply wasn’t attractive for players who hoped to play only one season in college before departing for the NBA.

Little’s commitment puts an end to all of that talk, at least for now. He is the first top-10 prospect to commit to UNC in four years.

Jackson, the most recent to do so before Little, helped lead UNC to the national championship last season before leaving school to enter the NBA draft. Like Little, Jackson was also considered to be ninth-best prospect in his class. He earned ACC Player of the Year honors last season, as a junior.

Little may follow a similar path during his time at UNC. He may not. He may arrive with the goal of leaving as quickly as possible to pursue his professional aspirations. He may stick around and spend more than one season in college. All of that is yet to be determined.

Yet without setting foot on campus, and much less a basketball court, Little has already become an important part of the next chapter of Williams’ program, however it’s written.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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