The Phoenix Suns continued their winning ways on Sunday in the Mecca of basketball, outlasting the pesky New York Knicks, 116-113. Franchise cornerstone Devin Booker hitting the dagger three over two opponents to notch the seventh straight win for the franchise.
Kevin Durant missed his second straight game with foot soreness, while the third member of their “Big 3” in Bradley Beal is still several weeks from being reassessed. The back issue that has plagued the beginning of his tenure in The Valley persisting a lot longer than the organization would have liked.
With all three of the Suns’ top players missing time through injury, few players have taken the opportunity to play more minutes than Nassir Little.
Little was seen as somewhat of an afterthought it the trade that sent Deandre Ayton to the Portland Trail Blazers late in the offseason. The Suns landing Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen in the deal, with both having played their part for the team so far this season. The Suns also got Keon Johnson, but he was waived not long after joining.
Which left Little as the fourth player in the deal, and one who looked like he was going to struggle to get much of a look in. Beyond Durant, Booker, Beal and Nurkic, the next grouping of players on the roster was some combination of Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks and Jordan Goodwin.
Yet Little has seized the opportunity with both Beal – and now Durant – out injured, and has managed to appear in 12 games so far this season. None have been starts, but when he checks into the game (Little is playing just over 14 minutes per night), there is a notable uptick in energy for the group.
This comes on both ends, with Little producing some finishes around the rim and timely shots from beyond the arc (shooting 35 percent from 3-point range in the month of November) when the team needs them. Little is by no means the engine that is powering this impressive Suns run, but the team is 8-4 in games he has played in so far this season.
Given the way in which Little plays, there is every reason to think he can continue to force his way onto the second unit, taking minutes away from more specialist players like Watanabe and Bates-Diop. Not that there is anything wrong with either of these players, but Little is a more physical inside presence than Watanabe offensively, and offers a different look defensively to Bates-Diop.
When Little is on the court, the Suns have a better defensive rating (112.4, compared to 113.8 for the team as a whole), although offensively the team are not better as a group when Little is out there. With that being said, this month his 6.9 points and 83.3 percent free-throw percentage are up on his career averages (six points, 73.3 percent).
By the time the playoffs roll around, there is still reason to believe that Little is not going to get much game time. Once head coach Frank Vogel shortens the rotation, his minutes are going to be taken by the likes of Gordon and Allen, while even Bates-Diop or Watanabe may be called upon first depending on the matchup.
But the Suns were always going to need little sparks throughout a long campaign to keep them going, and in the dreary month of November, Little has been a part of the biggest win streak of the season for the franchise. It has only been a small role in the team’s success, but already he has surpassed the expectations that were set for him coming over in the Ayton deal.