On Dec. 13, Dwight Howard returned to the starting lineup for the Houston Rockets after missing 11 games. Tarik Black, one of this season’s most unlikely stories, capably filled in while Howard was away.
The 6.2 points and 7.0 rebounds Black averaged as a starter, per Basketball-Reference.com, aren’t anything magical. However, he did receive a degree of notoriety. For instance, in Scott Howard-Cooper's Rookie Ladder at NBA.com, he’s climbed to the fifth rung from the top.
Howard-Cooper explains why:
He had to have topped out last week, right? Black does one thing well, but that's still only doing one thing, right? And then: 11 rebounds in 23 minutes on Wednesday against Memphis' inside game; a poor showing with four boards Friday against Minnesota; and the quick recovery of 10 rebounds in 17 minutes Saturday against Phoenix. He's done this all as a starter for a team challenging for the best record in the league.
Cooper is entirely correct in his assessment of Black doing one thing well. In this year’s rookie class, only Jabari Parker and Nerlens Noel have more rebounds. But Parker has 135 boards in 724 minutes, Noel has 128 in 609 and Black has 117 in only 356.
And with 1.0 win shares, Black is this year’s third-best freshman. That’s not too bad in a draft class that was as lauded as any since LeBron James’ class of 2003. It’s even more amazing when you consider that Black wasn’t even drafted.
ESPN.com's Chad Ford (subscription required) had him ranked 75th, and his one write up of Black just said, “Black was a huge disappointment in Maui. He's strong and physical, but doesn't know how to use his length, athleticism and strength on either end of the floor.”
In fact, his NBA prospects were so bleak that some felt he might even have a better chance at a career in the NFL. Darren Heitner wrote for Forbes:
Black, a transfer from Memphis, averaged only 13.5 minutes per game, along with 5.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in his final college basketball season with Kansas. He is strong and physical, weighs roughly 230 lbs and stands at 6’8. Tarik Black failed to live up to his high school hype on the basketball court, but maintains size that may allow him to find a chance in the NBA. That same size could make him better positioned for a future in the NFL.
That prospect even had Aaron Rodgers intrigued, who attended a practice at Kansas University and told Black he’d love for him to “catch some passes,” per Heitner.
That Black even played in college was an oddity. Jesse Newell of The Topeka Capital-Journal wrote about Black when he was at Kansas:
Though he stood 6-4 as a ninth-grader, his first season of organized basketball wasn’t going as he’d expected, and even before tryouts concluded that year, he was ready to give the sport up.
For one thing, his experience lagged behind those around him. Though his older brothers had both played church league and AAU growing up, Tarik’s only experience had come when [his oldest brother] Bilal dragged him to the backyard to work on his own game.
And despite his size, coaches didn’t exactly see the next Dwight Howard when Tarik took the court. At Snowden Middle School in Memphis, he was cut in sixth grade, seventh grade, then again in eighth grade.
Newell wrote that Black was actually so bad, he was mocked until “one day, he had enough. Tears streaming, Tarik returned home and made up his mind: He was done with basketball. Instead, he would focus on playing the trumpet in the band, something he’d done since third grade.”
His brother convinced him to give it one more try, though, and Black gradually improved. According to Newell, by his senior year, he was averaging 16 points and 13 boards, leading his team to the Tennessee state championship.
That got him a scholarship to play with the Memphis Tigers. After graduating in just three years, he transferred to Kansas so he could work on his Master’s Degree. In an age of one-and-dones, that’s another statistical oddity to add to his resume.
That focus in education may be, in part, because his basketball future was looking pretty bleak. As Andy Glockner wrote for Sports Illustrated in May of 2013:
At the same time, Black, a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school, never really came close to living up to that reputation at Memphis. He struggled with consistency and intensity, and his similarity scores from this past season (per KenPom.com) relate him to such luminaries as Alex Franklin, Aaron Pogue and Jonathan Kale. Those are mostly nondescript big men from Siena, Cleveland State and Providence, if you were curious. Black's minutes were cut pretty significantly from his sophomore to junior year as almost every stat category dropped off alarmingly. He only started five of Memphis' 32 games last season after being a starter for much of his first two seasons. It's not anywhere close to the projected curve you'd expect from a third-year big man who had ramped up nicely as a sophomore.
At the time, it didn’t seem likely that Black was going to rejuvenate himself playing alongside freshman uber-stud, Joel Embiid. And he didn’t, averaging a meager 5.5 points and 3.9 boards for the Jayhawks.
Unsurprisingly then, Black was passed over in the draft. The Rockets gave him a shot in the summer leagues, though. First, in Orlando, he averaged 10.0 points and 6.0 rebounds. Then, in Las Vegas, he averaged 4.5 points and 5.0 rebounds.
Houston still felt comfortable enough with that to give him a partially guaranteed contract to come and work with them during training camp. However, it was widely regarded as being just a preseason gig, with the intent to send him down to the D-League.
As Dan Feldman wrote for Pro Basketball Talk, “Probably, this is just a way to get Black into their training camp. If they waive him, they can assign him to their own D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.”
Even Black didn't expect to latch on. He told Bleacher Report this summer:“Me…myself….I’m not expecting to be on this roster like them. hope for the best, but I also know that I’m a rookie and I have to earn my stripes. And I know that any day of the week they can call and say go down for a D-League stint. I already expect that. I’ve already accepted that. It’s not a problem."
But Black impressed coach Kevin McHale, who told Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle, “He is a guy who has rebounded well, spaces well. Sets good screens, been active. I have been impressed. If you play hard all the time, you have a leg up on a lot of guys.”
The Rockets decided to go with Black and waive the more experienced combo forward, Jeff Adrian, who had a guaranteed contract. Black even received rotation minutes over veteran Joey Dorsey. And when Howard went out, it was Black starting in the All-Star’s place.
He didn’t shine, but he held the fort down. And the Rockets kept winning, going 8-3 in Howard’s absence. Now he'll be relegated to normal reserve status, but the level of confidence that his teammates, himself and the fans have in him has gone up tremendously because of what he accomplished.
In the fanciful movie version of this Hollywood feel-good story, the climax would have come on Dec. 3, when the Rockets drubbed Black’s hometown Grizzlies in Memphis, 105-96. And Black recorded his first double-double in the process, notching 10 points and 11 boards.
With Howard’s return, that particular movie may be over, but the way this trumpet-playing, Master’s-degree-seeking, late-starting, undrafted kid who was never supposed to be sniffing the NBA has been rising above expectations his whole life, don’t be surprised if there’s a sequel.