Kevin Little knows you have to earn the right to swagger.

It took him years to get there on the basketball courts of Long Island, New York, where he grew up playing from sunrise till sundown despite suffering from asthma.

It’s taken him just one winter to get there at the University of Maine, where the pint-sized freshman is leading the Black Bears in scoring and sneering.

Little carries an 11.5 points per game average into Wednesday’s game at Massachusetts-Lowell. He also carries the respect of his teammates, who are increasingly turning to him when they need a big shot.

“He has an explosive first step and he’s the kind of guy who gives his teammates confidence,” said Coach Bob Walsh. “Our guys like having someone out there who’s going to step up and hit that shot.”

Little has worked his way into the starting lineup for Maine (3-22, 2-10 America East Conference). He’s also starting to become the focus of defenses.

It’s a stunning development for a player who smiles when he claims to be 6 feet, 155 pounds, as if he’s putting one over on you. And he came close to not playing at all this year.

Little’s season was derailed at the outset by questions of academic eligibility. He had to sit out Maine’s early practices while the university scrambled to provide the NCAA with documentation of Little’s work at Our Savior New American High School, where he completed his junior and senior years. The Centereach, New York, school is on an NCAA watch list, but no one told Little.

“I was supposed to keep my work my senior year just in case the NCAA wants to see it, but I didn’t know,” Little said. “What kid does that?”

Walsh said between the high school and university, they were able to produce 70 pages of documents. Eventually, after several tense days, the NCAA relented.

It wasn’t to be so simple, though. Soon the ankle injuries started, two to his left and one to his right. Little missed more practice time. He sat out seven games with injury and missed another to visit his ailing grandfather in South Carolina.

His teammates could see how dangerous Little could be, but it wasn’t until halfway into the season that fans got a sense of it.

“He has that scoring mentality,” said Zarko Valjarevic, who also has it. “People are still like, ‘He’s a freshman,’ stuff like that. I know in the next couple of years they’re going to realize he’s actually good.”

Little scored 25 points as Maine got its only road victory, at Hartford. He put up 21 to help the Black Bears down Binghamton on Feb. 7.

“I thought I would find my groove,” said Little, who uses an asthma pump before each game and a nebulizer at night. “I didn’t know it would happen this year, or so fast, but I knew at one point I would feel comfortable.”

Little was lightly recruited out of Coastal Academy in New Jersey, where he completed a postgraduate year after leaving Our Savior New American. Maine was one of the few Division I offers he got, and he became one of Walsh’s first recruits.

“I just bought into what Coach said. It was a new culture, he was new here and he just trusted me that I knew how to come in and play,” Little said. “He said if I worked hard the minutes would be there.”

The minutes are coming now: 28.3 per game.

Little’s shooting percentage is not good (34.9). He isn’t shy about putting up shots (195, third on the team despite playing in only 17 games). But for a team that has struggled, his brashness is welcome. It’s no surprise that Little lists Allen Iverson as his favorite player.

Like Iverson, Little can create mismatches to blowing by his man. Once in the paint, he can try to get a layup over taller defenders or pass to an open teammate on the perimeter. Little also has shown he can hit 3-pointers, even from NBA range. Against Binghamton in the first half, he drilled a pair right in his defender’s face, two cold-blooded shots that no doubt would have made Iverson proud.

“He’s a natural scorer but he also can make his teammates better,” Walsh said. “Now that he’s getting more attention, he’s going to have to make sure he makes the defense work rather than settle for the first look.”

All that’s yet to come.

For now, Little is happy that teammates and opponents are finding out what was previously discovered about him on playgrounds from Long Island to Harlem: He doesn’t back down.

“You can doubt me before the game, but at the end of the game you’ll have to tip your hat to me and say I did good,” Little said. “You have no choice but to respect how I play.”