It is becoming common knowledge around the NBA that the Los Angeles Lakers have a deep roster which includes reserves who are pretty good players. They have the highest scoring second unit in the league, and head coach Luke Walton recently proclaimed that this second group is one of the top units in the entire NBA, even including other teams’ starters. Walton is so reluctant to tinker with the second unit that even in the face of lingering injuries to two key starters, he will go to the end of the bench to find replacement starters so that Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Tarik Black, Larry Nance, Jr., and Brandon Ingram can remain together.
Most of the attention goes to Clarkson, Williams, and Ingram. The first two are counted on to score the points, and so far they are having career seasons. Ingram is a much-heralded rookie who was the league’s No. 2 overall draft choice this past summer and in the minds of many experts was the best long-term prospect in the draft.
Thus, he draws keen interest from fans and the media.
Clarkson has been a fan favorite since he was drafted three summers ago. He played in 79 games for the Lakers last season and started all of them. Aside from Kobe Bryant, he was their best scorer. He is scoring the same number of points per game this season while playing far fewer minutes, and his 46 shooting percentage greatly eclipses what he achieved in the first two years of his career.
Lou Williams is a former NBA Sixth Man of the Year when he played for the Toronto Raptors. Always a good scorer, he has an uncanny knack for getting to the foul line, but his shooting percentage has always been below average. This year, however, he is connecting on 40.5 percent of his three-point shots and 46.3 percent overall, both of which are light years above his career averages.
Clarkson and Williams are always in attack mode and are lightning fast. Along with Ingram, who fans are counting on to become the next Kevin Durant, they draw most of the media attention and receive most of the accolades. But the truth is, what separates the Lakers’ second unit from their counterparts on other teams is the play of the two lesser knowns, Larry Nance, Jr. and Tarik Black.
The front office was derided two years ago when the Lakers made Nance a first-round draft choice from the little known University of Wyoming. He played four years of college basketball, which is a black mark against young players today since the common belief is that anyone who is any good leaves college after one year. The son of a former NBA player, Nance showed he was mature and well-spoken right away, but could he play NBA basketball?
That question was answered quickly. While D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle were demoted and spent much of the year fighting for playing time, Nance was installed as a starter in his rookie season and would likely have stayed there all year but was injured and missed games for an extended period.
Still, Nance flies under the radar compared to his more famous teammates. The only thing most people see in Nance are his occasional, devastating, high flying dunks. They don’t see that he is the most consistent and perhaps one of the better all-around players on the team. He is reputed to be one of the team’s best defenders and is very effective on both the offensive and defensive boards. He recorded a double-double in the Lakers’ most recent win against the Atlanta Hawks scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He is connecting on 60 percent from the field which includes an improved mid-range shot, and his statistics are up this year compared with his successful rookie season in nearly every important category from shooting percentage to free throw percentage to assists, rebounds, steals, and points scored.
None of this, however, adequately reflects Nance’s true value to the second unit and the team. For whatever reason, as if by magic, the Lakers just play better when Nance is on the court. It is no coincidence that one of the team’s worst losses this season, to the lowly Dallas Mavericks at the Staples Center, was a game in which Nance could not play. With the game on the line in a close contest, you want Nance on the court. It is not always reflected on the stat sheet, but it is definitely reflected in the final score.
Nance is getting better all the time and unless he gets hurt his ceiling is higher than people think. He is still reluctant to shoot much and usually defers to others, but he has shown the skill and form to become a good scorer. When he finally gains full confidence and starts to assert himself more on offense, which is likely under Walton’s tutelage, Nance could become a star.
If Nance is obscured by the bigger names on the roster, Black is practically invisible. By all accounts, he shouldn’t be around after the way he was treated last year by Byron Scott. After a promising rookie season the year before, he shuttled last year between the D-League and sitting in street clothes on the bench during NBA games. The team was weak at the center position, but Scott stubbornly kept him under wraps.
Black was undrafted coming out of college, but he made an impact in a short stint with the Houston Rockets. When Dwight Howard was injured, he was the starter and acquitted himself well. When Howard returned, and the Rockets needed to make space to sign Josh Smith, Black became the odd man out. He was promptly picked up by the Lakers and played well his rookie year. But then came last season, which was a wasted one for Black, and it was unexpected when he opted to re-sign with the Lakers.
But he did re-sign, mostly based on the strength of his trust in Walton. He has played regularly all season as the center on the second unit, and he has quietly excelled. Although he averages only 15 minutes per contest, not a night goes by when he doesn’t grab a crucial rebound and/or block a key shot. In 15 minutes, he is averaging 5.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He is connecting on 50 percent of his shots. This summer he worked hard on his free throw shooting, and the results have been incredible: Last season he made 42 percent of his free throws and the year before 56 percent. This season he is making an astounding 87 percent of his free throws, and it seems he is getting to the line a few times each game.
Black played his finest game of the season against the Hawks. Dwight Howard was out to bury the Lakers and scored an easy 13 first quarter points against starting center Timofey Mozgov. Black came in and somehow, despite giving away inches in height, was able to deny Howard the ball and shut him down. Black played a season-high 27 minutes, and Howard scored only six points after the first quarter as the Lakers turned a large first quarter deficit around and won going away.
In the post-game show, the commentators raved about Thomas Robinson, Lou Williams, Nick Young, and Jordan Clarkson. They gave Mozgov credit for stopping Howard, which was untrue. There was hardly a mention of Black, but anyone who watched the game and knows anything about basketball knows that Black was a key to that victory and deserved his fair share of the credit, which he did not receive.
Black is articulate and comes across as a wise and mature 24-year-old basketball player. Mozgov has played better than expected, but he is up and down in his production and his defensive play, and he gets in foul trouble at times. Black has been consistent, fighting for offensive rebounds, contesting shots, and running the floor. Like Nance, he also is capable of throwing down the occasional monster dunk.
When people write and talk about the Lakers, it usually is all about Russell, Randle, Clarkson, Ingram, Williams, and Young. Clearly, those are the scorers, and they will always grab the headlines. But if it were not for Nance and Black doing the dirty work, hitting the boards, blocking shots, getting steals, and providing a never-ending supply of energy, the Lakers would not be enjoying a resurgence, and they would not have nine victories after the first month of the season.