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With Yuta Watanabe out, Nassir Little is providing sustained production on both ends of the floor

Yuta Watanabe is out with an injury, which has made way for Nassir Little to earn minutes. He is taking advantage of the opportunity.

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

When the phone rings, you better answer it. In the case of Phoenix Suns’ wing Nassir Little, he did just that. Frank Vogel has called upon him and he has eagerly answered the call.

Little has always been a highly touted prospect ever since his days at the University of North Carolina. He possesses elite athleticism but has yet to see his basketball star rise at the rate many thought would; he was the #2 overall high school prospect in 2018 out of Florida, per 247sports. Injured throughout his career and inconsistent while on the court, many viewed Little and his $6.3 million contract as a throw-in to make the money work in the Deandre Ayton for Jusuf Nurkic deal.

What Suns’ brass saw, however, was a player who possessed a skillet that complemented the roster that they were constructing. But Little had to wait.

Frank Vogel has been experimenting with the numerous new faces that he has on the roster this season. For the first 12 games of the season, Vogel opted to play Yuta Watanabe — a three-point specialist — who had played previously with Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. Watanabe was typically part of the first rotational sets deployed by Vogel and the hope was he would bring his career shooting average of 39% from deep into the game and provide continued offense when the starters sat.

Yuta has had his challenges. Yes, he’s shot 37.2% from deep on 3.6 attempts in 18.6 minutes, but his adjustment to Frank Vogel’s defensive schemes has taken some time. He has looked lost on that end of the floor, rotating late to provide help on some possessions, overrotating on others.

And then injury occurred.

Vogel said that the injury was a “deep” thigh bruise and it was “really painful”.

Suns’ broadcaster Eddie Johnson mentioned during the Utah Jazz game on Sunday that, while on their off day in Salt Lake City, Yuta other Suns’ players were practicing. Watanabe caught a knee to the thigh. Vogel said that the injury was a “deep” thigh bruise and it was “really painful”.

Prior to Yuta’s injury, Nassir Little was beginning to garner playing time as Frank Vogel was desperately seeking to inject athleticism and defensive acumen into his rotations. After four DNP’s, Little played in some mop-up duty against the Minnesota Timberwolves but was then provided 11 minutes of playing time on Friday night’s victory over the Jazz. He was part of a defensive lineup that bridged the third and fourth quarter.

Little went 2-of-3 from the floor for 5 points in that small sample size. Yuta was injured the next day and Nassir was given the nod to replace his minutes.

In 20 minutes on Sunday, Little scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting and added three blocks and three rebounds. That was him answering the call.

On Tuesday night against his former team, it was Little's insertion into the lineup in the third quarter that helped turn the tide. Phoenix started fast as they typically do, but the team fell apart in the second quarter both offensively and defensively. The halftime adjustment? Attack the interior of the Trail Blazers and do so with intensity.

Enter Nassir Little.

When Phoenix is playing right, they are moving. They are slashing. They are forcing the issue. Little brings that type of intensity to his game, and it has been well-received thus far.

He ended the night with 13 points and 5 rebounds, but it was his weak-side defense that impressed. An inconsistent off-ball defender, Nas was thoroughly engaged and disrupting the Blazers' attack by being a pest on that end of the floor.

That is the type of thing that will catch the eye of Frank Vogel. “He’s playing solid two-way basketball,” Vogel said of Little following the game.

What began as a third-quarter substitution against the Utah Jazz last Friday has turned into an opportunity that Little might not let go of. History shown that little ability to play consistently is a challenge. But given the appropriate opportunity, coupled with his maturity, this could be the start of something special for the sixth-year wing.

It feels like Josh Okogie a season ago. JO had talent and was brought to Phoenix to fulfill a specified role. When injuries began, he seized his opportunity, and wouldn’t let go. The only thing stopping him was then head coach, Monty Williams.

Will the Little Story be the same this season? Will his ability to affect both sides of the ball force the hand of Frank Vogel to keep him in the lineup and earning minutes? Regardless of the outcome, it was a joy to see him inflict revenge upon his former team and be a part of the energy that led to a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

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