CHAPEL HILL — Of all of the comparisons that Nassir Little has faced in his basketball career, Tuesday might well have been the first time that his name was mentioned as the same sentence as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
“I haven’t talked to him too much about what Nassir Little and Kierkegaard have in common,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I haven’t asked anybody their favorite philosopher.”
Ask the Tar Heels, and it’s Nassir Little, having earned the nickname “Philosopher Nas” from Coby White this season.
‘He does a great job of thinking outside the box as somebody who’s not focused on the thing you’d think about first, just making sure other people see different sides of different stories,” senior Luke Maye said. “He’s a really smart guy; one of the smartest guys I’ve been around.”
His immense physical gifts elite talent are obvious, but they haven’t always translated to the court during his freshman season at Carolina, leaving some wondering where the disconnect was between Little’s game and Williams’ system.
Over the course of the season, Little has proven one of Kierkegaard’s famous quotes true: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
the mTnd of Philosopher Nas seems to be paying off when it matters most for the Tar Heels after Little dropped 39 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 38 minutes during Carolina’s NCAA Tournament victories over Iona and Washington in the first and second rounds.
His 39 points are Little’s most over any two-game stretch of the season, passing the 35 points he posted in victories over Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in January.
Having come off the bench all season, Williams credited Little with learning to maximize his time watching the action and applying what he’s learned when his number is called.
“He’s adapted to that role and he’s studying the game more than just waiting to go in,” Williams said. “He’s a very intelligent young man … now I think he’s sitting there watching the game from a little bit different perspective from when he first got here.”
Perspective has been the key for Little since he arrived in Chapel Hill, billed by some as a potential All-American and ACC Player of the Year candidate with a chance to become the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft.
Things didn’t play out that way, with Little instead coming off the bench. He played well and embraced his role, and at the start of ACC play, Little appeared to be taking a step toward becoming an offensive force for the Tar Heels before an ankle injury against Virginia on Feb. 11.
“I think he was really coming until he got hurt, and I think that really set him back,” Williams said. “Now, I think he’s starting to come again.”
It all started on Feb. 23 when Little scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a win over Florida State. He’s averaged 11.7 points and 6 rebounds in 18.8 minutes over the nine games since then.
“He was super aggressive and he got results,” senior guard Kenny Williams said. “I think he did that this weekend in the two games. The key with Nas is just him being aggressive. If he’s aggressive, he’s so athletic, he’s so skilled … he’s going to score the ball, he’s going to get fouls and he’s going to be effective in the game.”
In particular, Carolina used him in the high-post position — the most important spot — against zone defenses from Iona and Washington. Rather than launching wild jumpers or forcing the issue, Little was cerebral in his approach, sometimes passing on good shots for great shots.
“He did some heavy damage there, dunking the ball, hitting mid-range shots and getting to the basket and drawing fouls,” Johnson said. “That’s what he’s good at; he’s a big-time player and he’s taken a lot of steps this year to get better.”
Maye, known academics in his own right as the ACC’s scholar athlete of the year, praised Little’s ability to make the right play.
“He’s pretty special when it comes to basketball I.Q.,” he said. “His game is definitely unique because of how he reads a defense and thinks about certain drives and certain shots.”
If Little’s current trajectory in the tournament continues, another Kierkegaard quote will ring true for his first — and likely, only — season at Carolina.