Tarik Black’s path to a big contract with the Los Angeles Lakers has been a winding one. He wasn’t selected in the 2015 NBA Draft after playing his senior season at Kansas but caught on as a free agent with the Houston Rockets. He was waived just a few months later when Houston was making room to sign Josh Smith, who had been cast out by the Detroit Pistons, and determined that losing Black’s services was an acceptable opportunity cost.
With a roster full of misfit toys, the Lakers took a chance and scooped up Black off of waivers. At the very least, they figured they could audition the athletic big man for the remainder of the season while the losses piled up and lottery odds increased.
Black took advantage of the opportunity, averaging 6.3 rebounds and 7.2 points in 21.1 minutes of playing time while flashing potential as a mobile, rim-rocking, pick-and-rolling dynamo. It appeared as though the Lakers had struck gold.
They picked up Black’s option to return last season, but his sophomore campaign was surprisingly a disappointment, as he spent much of the year glued to Byron Scott’s bench or even banished to the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
Despite the rocky season, the Lakers decided to double down on Black this summer, signing him to a two-year deal that will pay him $13 million. The hope is that Black will be unleashed now that Scott is gone and new coach Luke Walton is at the helm. Should things not work out, part or all of the second year of Black’s contract is not guaranteed, lessening the risk for Los Angeles.
According to Black, Walton has promised to give him a fair shot this season, and it’s easy to see why. The Lakers have a squadron of guards who all thrive in the pick-and-roll, and Black is arguably the best big man on the team at running it. He sets a hard screen and has the quickness and explosive leaping ability to finish strong at the rim, something that passing wizard Marcelo Huertas took advantage of whenever possible last season.
Black may not have the vertical that human pogo-stick Larry Nance Jr. does, but he is a quick leaper. Black can get airborne and finish before the defense can react, often with devastating impact. His jumper is non-existent, which has resulted in 70% of his shots being dunks or layups, but that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. Black understands exactly who he is offensively and plays within himself, which coaches love. He relies on teammates to create looks for him (74 percent of his baskets are assisted) but that’s exactly what the Lakers need with guards like D’Angelo Russell, Jose Calderon, and Huertas dishing.
Defensively, Black isn’t a major shot blocking threat thanks to his physical limitations. He’s small for his position at 6’8” and has the second-lowest standing reach of the Lakers’ bigs, but his leaping ability and lateral quickness allow him to be a plus defender anyway. Most importantly, he can hedge when defending the pick and roll, which is a must these days.
Black may not rack up tons of blocks, but he can bother shots at the rim enough to lower his mark’s field goal percentage by an average of 2.5 percent, which is solid. What’s more impressive than his work at the rim, however, is that Black’s mobility allows him to negatively impact his opponent’s shot all way out to the three-point line, which is an increasingly valuable skill in the spacing-obsessed NBA.
By comparison, Roy Hibbert only disturbed shots at the rim by a measly .4 percent and got absolutely torched by anyone firing outside of 10 feet. To be fair to big Roy we have to note that he was defending starters all season while Black went against less-skilled reserves, but a strong argument can still be made that the Lakers defense would have actually been significantly better with Black in Hibbert’s spot.
Tarik Block indeed.
All of this makes it even more of a head-scratcher that Black struggled to find minutes last season. Now, with Walton’s endorsement, Black will finally get an honest chance to prove that he belongs.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.
Shooting limitations mean that Black is only an option at center, and there may not be as much playing time available there as it would seem. Timofey Mozgov should get somewhere around 30 minutes as the starter, and on paper Black is his backup, inheriting the 18 or so minutes leftover. Rookie Ivica Zubac may eventually steal a few of those away, but the reserve role appears to be Black’s to lose.
However, Luke Walton is a disciple of the Golden State Warriors system, which means that small ball will definitely be on the menu, even if it isn’t the main course.
The Lakers paid Luol Deng $72 million, and he spent last season proving that, at 31 years old, his best position is now the four spot, even if he will likely start at small forward for the Lakers. That’s too much money invested not to toss Deng some minutes where he is most effective, and the trickle-down effect could make things difficult for Black.
The problem is that the Lakers already have two developing power forwards in Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Should Walton decide to play small by moving Deng down to power forward, it’s conceivable that, rather than take minutes away from Nance or Randle to do so, he will instead attempt to play one of them at center for short spurts. Nance, in particular, could be intriguing in such a role if the three-point range that he showcased in Summer League is for real.
For Black, then, the challenge is not simply to prove that he is a capable backup to Mozgov, but also that he brings more value to the team at center than the spacing that Nance can theoretically add would.
A tall task, but then again, the odds have been against Black for years now. He’s undersized even by power forward standards, and he wasn’t able to get a team to select him on draft day, yet here he is, still swinging. Walton will give Black every chance to succeed, and I certainly wouldn’t bet against him chiseling out a solid role for himself regardless of what he’s up against.
It’s going to be an important season for Tarik Black, but one way or another, we should finally find out just how good he really is.