COLUMN: The case is clear. Start Nassir

Roy Williams better be careful.

With a trip to Sin City for the Las Vegas Invitational coming up, the North Carolina men’s basketball (5-0) coach is playing with house money in Nassir Little.

As that valuable chip showed in Monday’s 101-76 win over Saint Francis (1-3), the freshman and future NBA lottery pick deserves to start now. Not after the invitational that features Michigan State, UCLA and Texas. Not when conference play begins. Not when a starter goes down to injury.

He needs to start now.

“Obviously I’ve been starting my whole life, so it’s different,” Little said after the game. “But the way I look at it is to just do the best I can while I’m in.”

Little, who finished with 19 points on 8-of-9 shooting and 7 rebounds, flashed every bit of potential Monday that had him ranked as a top-ten recruit by most evaluation systems.

Although still developing a 3-pointer, Little’s got an arsenal of shots at his disposal headlined by a picture-perfect step-back jumper. As explosive of an athlete as Williams has ever had, he’s a highlight dunk waiting to happen in transition. And with a prized combination of size and speed, the 6’6 forward is just as capable of locking down a quick shooting guard as a bruising post player.

Oh, and Little outworks every player on the floor.

“I though Nassir was very active,” Williams said. “I like how hard he plays.”

While Cameron Johnson led the team with 20 points, it was Little’s tenacity that sparked an 11-0 run to Red Flash away for good after the Northeast Conference school pulled within six at 58-52 with just under 16 minutes left.

 Coby White drives into the paint against St. Francis. The freshman had four turnovers out of the point guard spot in the game. | Photo by Turner Walston.

Coby White drives into the paint against St. Francis. The freshman had four turnovers out of the point guard spot in the game. | Photo by Turner Walston.

During that decisive stretch, the five-star replaced Garrison Brooks – the sophomore who has started at center so far this year – at the 4, with Luke Maye shifting over to the 5.

Little contributed with timely defense and powerful slams that electrified the Smith Center crowd to squash any chance of a massive upset.

The reason that opportunity was ever there in the first place, though, could be a cause for concern for the future, and maybe as soon as Thanksgiving’s matchup with Texas.

UNC had 18 turnovers in the contest, its most of the young season.

Freshman point guard Coby White – who came into the game with 13 assists and 8 turnovers – especially struggled with just 1 assist compared to 4 turnovers. Backup Seventh Woods (7:2) fared better, but every Tar Heel who played more than 15 minutes had at least one turnover.

As more of a scorer than a distributor, inserting Little into the starting lineup likely won’t fix the turnover issue. But Carolina’s ball security issues were more likely a one-game aberration than a systematic problem. White’s decision-making will only get better as the season progresses, and the flashes he’s shown at quarterback have made his starting status more than warranted.

So, following that same logic, there shouldn’t be anything stopping Little from hearing his name called in introductions.

 Seventh Woods looks on during Monday’s win over St. Francis. The junior guard has been effective off the bench at point guard, dishing out seven assists on just two turnovers against the Red Flash. | Photo by Turner Walston

Seventh Woods looks on during Monday’s win over St. Francis. The junior guard has been effective off the bench at point guard, dishing out seven assists on just two turnovers against the Red Flash. | Photo by Turner Walston

And that’s nothing against Brooks. He’s a fine forward who provides valuable depth in the paint. He limits his mistakes and is tough-nosed inside.

But he’s no generational talent like Little.

If Williams truly wants one-and-done players as he’s contested in the past, he needs to show it. If he waits too long to start Little in the name of seniority, future top prospects will balk at the opportunity to play second-fiddle to lesser talent.

UNC needs more of Little. It needs more effort, more defense and more highlight-reel dunks (“I just thought that was a regular play”) like Little had in the first half.

Williams is gambling by not starting Little. For Carolina to reach its potential, he needs to play his best hand starting in Vegas this week.

Little is the Ace of that hand.

@jleland_

Header photo by Turner Walston