LOS ANGELES — Second-year center Tarik Black is not the L.A. Lakers' most notable player, but nobody on the team is in a more confusing situation.
Toggling between trips to the D-League and game-long stints on the Lakers bench, Black has only played 142 minutes this entire season. He's been inactive 19 times.
It's strange, considering that Black's size (6’9”), strength (260-plus pounds) and athleticism make him an appealing Band-Aid for one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. But despite his being the closest thing to a modern-day NBA center on their roster, the Lakers have yet to really give Black a shot.
It’s time they do.
One of the most frustrating themes from the first half of this Los Angeles Lakers season has been their consistently inconsistent rotation. Head coach Byron Scott is regularly asked by reporters if meaningful/necessary/logical changes are on the horizon, but regardless of the specific player combination in question, his response rarely strays too far from, “I’ve thought about it.”
Some minor decisions seem random and desperate, and more notorious moves are detrimental to the long-term future.
The Lakers have roadblocked key opportunities to develop the likes of D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle and are oh-so-obviously more concerned with cradling the past than embracing their present and future.
L.A. isn’t making the postseason. It has nothing to lose, and its current starting center, Roy Hibbert, is an unrestricted free agent this summer, unlikely to return. Playing the younger Black beside other building blocks who figure to be around next year makes sense, if for no other reason than to scrape for some semblance of on-court chemistry.
But Scott doesn’t see it that way. Before Sunday’s loss against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers' head coach was asked about Black’s contribution thus far and didn’t mince words.
“My impression is that he’s been OK. And what he gives me off the bench right now? I don’t know,” Scott said. “He’s just been OK, to be honest with you. He hasn’t done anything spectacular, but he hasn’t done anything that was so devastating that you look at him and say, ‘Let’s send him down back to the D-League.’ But when you’re bringing in guys off the bench, you want to have an impact, and he hasn’t had that yet.”
Heading into Sunday, Black played relatively major minutes in L.A.’s previous two games, going for 16 against the Golden State Warriors (his most since Nov. 10) followed by a season-high 21 against the Utah Jazz. Injuries to Brandon Bass and Larry Nance Jr. briefly carved an opening in the rotation, but the 24-year-old didn’t see the floor against Houston until garbage time of another loss.
After the final horn, Scott told reporters that over the summer he advised Black on how he can have a “10-, 15-year career.” According to the Lakers coach, his third-string center has yet to hear the advice.
“He hasn’t [focused on defense],” Scott said. “My message was you should play like Kenneth Faried, Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, guys like that. And basically that is that they play balls-out, full of energy, aggressive. They didn’t care about the offensive end. And I think to me, in the year-and-a-half or two that I’ve had him, that’s what he has to do to be an integral part of any team.”
Standing at his locker a few minutes later, Black was asked about Scott’s comments and didn’t necessarily agree with his coach’s judgment.
“That’s his assessment,” he shrugged. “I think I can definitely perform that way…with opportunity, I think I perform pretty well.”
Black’s deficiencies are from anything but physical laziness. He keeps his arms wide, shoves cutters offline, boxes out and communicates as best he can. There’s little disinterest, but there are mistakes.
Here he is getting faked out of position trying to help on a Rodney Hood-Rudy Gobert pick-and-roll. Black has good intentions but ultimately forces Anthony Brown to come off Joe Ingles in the corner. That's a killer.
But Black deserves patience and a sustained increase in playing time.
Hibbert’s limitations have turned him into a permanent liability on both ends of the floor. He doesn’t rebound, defend pick-and-rolls or dive to the rim off high screens (the very skill that would do wonders for L.A.’s young guards and spot-up shooters).
The Lakers are never better rebounding the ball, on both ends of the court, than when Black is in the game, according to NBA.com. Their offensive rebound rate falls from 28.7 percent with him to 22.7 percent without, and their overall rebound rate shoots from 47 percent with Black on the sideline to 54.3 percent when he’s mixing it up in the paint (no other Laker lifts them above 50 percent).
Furthermore, the Lakers’ defensive rating goes from 100.3 points per 100 possessions with Black to 108.3 when he’s on the bench. That’s a noisy stat, but the range between those numbers is the same difference between the NBA’s 30th and ninth-ranked defensive units.
On the other end, Black’s averaging 1.00 point per possession as a roll man and shooting 58.3 percent. According to Synergy, he’s more efficient in this situation than Serge Ibaka, Draymond Green, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.
That’s largely due to an extremely limited sample size and the fact that those guys pop out and launch jump shots, but Black’s rolling ability still adds a dimension to L.A.’s offense that it otherwise lacks.
In the above clip, Black's hard roll leads to a wide-open three for Nick Young.
In the clip below, Black winds up with two easy points by rushing into the paint—something no other big on this roster does on a regular basis. Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside moves up to take Lou Williams' shot away, but Black's backside roll will make most defenders hesitate, creating opportunities for teammates as well as himself.
Black can become a restricted free agent this summer if the Lakers extend his $1.18 million qualifying offer. It’s not a bad price for a player with his skill set and body type, especially for a rebuilding team.
Black has qualities that validate his presence on an NBA court, and he made an impression on Rockets head coach J.B. Bickerstaff while a rookie in Houston last season.
“We loved him. We wanted to keep him around,” Bickerstaff said. “He plays with great energy. Defensively, he communicates. He’s good in the pick-and-roll. He’ll rebound the ball, doesn’t back down from anybody, accepts all the challenges, all comers. So we love him.”
If the Lakers felt the same way, they too could unearth some useful production that's currently sitting under their noses.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.