Rookie Tarik Black could be a solid step forward in the Los Angeles Lakers’ rebuild.
L.A. picked up the 23-year-old frontcourt bruiser Sunday after the Houston Rockets waived him Friday to make room for incoming forward Josh Smith. The Lakers, in turn, created a roster spot by cutting swingman Xavier Henry, who was already out for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon.
Black went undrafted out of the University of Kansas last June, but made good on an invite to the Rockets’ training camp.
He started 12 regular-season games while filling in at the center position for an injured Dwight Howard, and came off the bench in 13 additional appearances.
All told, he averaged 4.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in 15.7 minutes, playing a hard-nosed hustle game and impressing Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who said, per Jonathan Feigen for the Houston Chronicle:
Tarik did a great job. I told him he’ll be picked up in our league. I told him in preseason, I said ‘Tarik, you have to go out and open people’s eyes. You didn’t get drafted.’ But he came in and had (15) rebounds in a (preseason) game. Everybody around the league is saying, ‘Dang, what did we miss on Tarik Black?’… We’re going to miss him. It’s a tough business this league.
As it turned out, landing another job didn’t take long at all. Goodbye Texas, hello Hollywood!
Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters spoke with Black on his first day at the Lakers team headquarters in El Segundo. The interview also includes the story of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' attempted recruitment of Black as a tight end:
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Black’s first love was jazz trumpet, not basketball. In fact, he didn’t make the cut on an organized squad until his freshman year at Ridgeway High.
Jesse Newell of The Topeka Capital-Journal wrote about life lessons in toughness and how Black's older brother, Bilal, pushed him into persevering on the hardcourt. As Bilal explained, if it wasn’t for him, “Tarik would be a 6-foot-9 trumpet player.”
By his senior year, Black averaged 16 points and 13 rebounds, leading his team to a 26-3 record.
A standout scholar and athlete at the University of Memphis, Black played in three NCAA tournaments and graduated in just three years. He transferred to Kansas for his master’s degree in African-American Studies, and he also offered up some spectacular dunks as a member of the Jayhawks.
The graduate student completed his season by averaging 15 points per game alongside a couple freshman teammates named Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. Black also went 9-of-9 shooting on senior night for a season-high 19 points.
Known more for athleticism and offensive glass crashing than a polished offensive repertoire, Black isn’t particularly tall—he measured at 6’8.5” in his shoes and 253 pounds during a predraft workout for the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s got an impressive 7’3” wingspan, however, and a standing 8’11” reach to go along with an NBA-ready wide body.
But strength and rebounding prowess notwithstanding, the Kansas workhorse was passed over in the draft as his teammates Wiggins and Embiid were selected as the No. 1 and No. 3 picks, respectively.
Still, Black performed well during summer league for Houston, survived the training camp cuts and played in 25 games before being jettisoned to make room for Smith.
The Lakers frontcourt is already crowded, although Julius Randle is out for the season as he mends a broken leg. Meanwhile, Ryan Kelly has only appeared in three games so far due to hamstring problems, but he is expected back Friday and is the only Laker big who can truly stretch the floor.
Regardless, the newest Laker brings a willingness to defend and do the dirty work, combined with a refreshing work ethic. Per Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, the rookie took being cut by the Rockets in stride, saying:
I just play the game. I play as hard as I can. Somebody will like me if I play as hard as I can. Somebody will pick me up. Somebody will give me an opportunity and if they don't, then I just probably wasn't good enough to do it, but thus far it hasn't been proven yet.
Black also adds an interesting element of flexibility heading toward the Feb. 19 trade deadline.
Lakers assets include Jordan Hill, who is trade-eligible after Jan. 15 but has Bird rights and the ability to block a trade unless the Lakers trigger his $9 million option for next season. Nick Young’s multiyear contract is undervalued at an average of $5.3 million per year, while Robert Sacre is a low-cost big body with a partially guaranteed contract for $981,348 next season. L.A. also has the expiring contract of Steve Nash, who’s out for the season.
Regardless of his immediate role, Black looks to be a solid, low-cost building block with a two-year, non-guaranteed contract at $507,336 this season and $845,059 for 2015-16. He’s athletic, can clear bodies in the paint, chip in points with putbacks and dunks, and play aggressively on both ends of the floor.
And for a team with a 10-22 record and little in the way of long-term contracts, an intelligent, hardworking low-post banger with a thirst for improvement could be a nice piece of the future puzzle.