North Carolina Tar Heels coach Roy Williams will go down as one of the greatest college basketball coaches in the sport’s storied history. And yet, for various reasons, he’s currently coming under fire for former five-star prospect Nassir Little not playing enough minutes.
How much is enough minutes? Whatever number, on average, predetermined by those who have taken to a platform to bash Williams’ handling of the situation. It’s a 2018 situation encapsulated — the ability to place blame, crushing another from a distance, without knowing anything other than some arbitrary information.
Little arrived in North Carolina with all the hype. One of the nation’s highest rated players, the 6-foot-6 Orange Park product is averaging just under 20 minutes per game. In that limited time, he’s scoring 10.8 points per game while shooting a tremendous 50 percent from the floor and a work-in-progress 20 percent from distance.
As do most freshmen adjusting to tougher competition, Little has occasionally struggled on defense, losing his assignment. Everything mentioned happens to be fine. Averaging 20 minutes per game isn’t the majority of minutes, although there’s a need to understand there’s only so many minutes to go around. The efficiency numbers, even the iffy 3-point shooting, shows promise. Little being a below competent defender, as a freshman, isn’t exactly shocking. In reality, rare are the freshmen who can step on campus and be a defensive juggernaut from day-one.
Nassar Little is a quality basketball player who projects to become better as time goes by. Roy Williams, however, isn’t operating at North Carolina solely to elevate the draft stock of one of his highly hyped players, though there’s meaningful repercussions looming if this situation turns sideways (more on that in a second).
Thing is, this doesn’t need to be a situation. It actually isn’t. At least not right now.
Little is stuck. Not behind a limitation in ability. Not underneath this polarizing, though magically popular narrative that Roy Williams is misusing him. He’s simply vying for minutes in a land of giants. Some of those being the sort who are more proven.
“I don’t care what the hell anybody thinks,” Williams said after North Carolina lost to Kentucky. “Think about this: If I’m holding the guy back, why am I playing Coby (White)?”
For those unaware, White is a freshman who players another position. He’s actually only averaging slightly over four more minutes per game than Little, but has added a specific aspect to the Tar Heels Little can’t yet offer, averaging 14.5 points on 43 percent shooting from the floor and making — far more importantly — 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.
That’s the freshman-on-freshman comparison, though it’s like offering a lengthy thesis on why apples and apple-flavored Pop Tarts are to be in the same sentence simply because there’s a supposed similar taste. While only an inch apart in listed height, the two youngsters always projected to play wildly different roles for North Carolina.
This is where Cam Johnson comes in.
“And the other thing, the guy that is playing in front of him made six out of eight from the 3-point line (in a win over Gonzaga last week) and was the ACC player of the league last week,” Roy Williams said, referring to Johnson.
Semantics can be argued about the traditional position placement of the aforementioned players (as well as Kenny Williams and Luke Maye), but this conversation needs to be expanded to positional value. Johnson is the player directly ahead of Little. The one taking minutes from the presumed 2019 NBA Draft lottery selection. He’s averaging 16.6 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the floor and 49 percent shooting from distance.
Is Roy Williams supposed to pull minutes from Johnson in order to provide more for Little? If not Johnson, where exactly are the “proper” 10 (or so) more minutes per game coming from? Williams already sacrificed roughly five minutes per outing when compared from last season. Maye is down nearly four from last season. One can surmise maybe North Carolina takes a few from forward Garrison Brooks, although he’s been equally as productive (if not slightly more so) in roughly the same amount of time per game as Little (worth noting, he’s gained nearly five more minutes per since his freshman run).
Let’s remove the logistics from this conversation completely, if we want to morph the discussion into something slightly more narrative-driven. Assuming Williams could pull enough minutes from other guys to provide Little with whatever minutes per contest would be deemed righteous by those who are critiquing him, would North Carolina be better off?
This is the eternal question when it comes to the handling of five-star recruits. Coaches like Roy Williams, the legends who want to traffic in one-and-done talent, need to be aware of their surroundings.
If Little isn’t yet as stellar as the guys currently playing more than him, the Hall of Fame coach still needs to dance on a tightrope to appease the talent in order to avoid future recruiting trail hiccups. After all, hell has no fury like a rival head coach using another’s five-star blunder as a way to land the Next Big Thing on the recruiting trail.
Furthermore, none of this accounts for a possible situation rarely mentioned on social media. With NBA Draft bloggers taking over college basketball in terms of driving the conversation, coupled with Little being considered a preseason darling, it’s easier to claim something wrong with Williams, the Hall of Fame entity, than it is to kick around the notion that Little isn’t yet ready to play 30 minutes per game for UNC… or that the stars attached to his name were a lie.
Similarly to the NBA Draft, not every player projected to be great is going to live up to other-worldly expectations. Periodically, and it has happened before, a five-star player is actually not as good as previously thought.
To be HARSHLY noted here: This is NOT what is happening with Little. He is excellent. He’s merely stuck behind guys who are currently ‘more ready’ for North Carolina at the moment.
Also, you know, 20 minutes per game is still plenty of run for a freshman playing on a team with Luke Maye, Camerson Johnson and a bunch of other studs. This isn’t Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz hiding in a power conference on an iffy program.
Mind you, whatever is happening in North Carolina with Roy Williams and Nassir Little appears to be going over well with the player. Little has earned nothing but praise, at least publicly, from everyone involved in the situation. The only whispers anyone hears out of the UNC campus is how much he’s looking to improve and how well he’s handling the situation.
“I’m trying to get him some more minutes out there,” Williams said. “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. He’s a kid that’s trying to learn, and he’s trying to learn against Texas, UCLA, Michigan, Gonzaga and Kentucky, and so that makes it hard as well.
“But I think he’s coming along. I love the way he wants to be good. He wants to be better. He’s willing to stay out there and shoot extra shots. He’s willing to do the things.”
Roy Williams catches flack for plenty of valid reasons. This, at least at this juncture, fails to be one of them.
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade at various outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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