Tarik Black’s first two months with the Los Angeles Lakers have presented a curious amalgamation of assignments—six starts, 10 appearances off the bench and 12 did-not-play designations (DNPs).
Yet the 23-year-old big man is demonstrating that he can be a worthy piece of the puzzle for a team in the midst of a major rebuild.
It’s all about doing whatever is asked of him, even as that function shifts daily per Lakers coach Byron Scott's whims as he experiments and evaluates for the future.
After a recent practice, per Lakers.com, Scott spoke about keeping players on their toes as he keeps the lineups fluid: “The last 28 games or so, it could kind of be game-by-game; I can just change it up almost every game. The one thing I want to do is make sure these guys stay hungry.”
The games are played in the here and now, but the hard court has become the Lakers’ test lab, inhabited primarily by players without guaranteed contracts for next season.
Black, who was picked up off waivers from the Houston Rockets, is an undrafted rookie on a two-year, non-guaranteed deal that pays him $507,336 this season and $845,059 if he is picked up for 2015-16.
He has played both the center and power forward positions for the Lakers and was also sent to their development team for one game, resulting in 23 points, 12 rebounds and three assists.
Interestingly, Black’s scoring has slipped since being thrust into the starting lineup, averaging 3.5 points over his six starts in February, compared to 7.1 points off the bench in January.
But this may well have to do with the fluctuating roles of other players—his starts have come alongside fellow rookie Jordan Clarkson and shooting guard Wayne Ellington. Both players have increased their numbers dramatically as starters.
Simply put, Black hasn’t had a lot of touches in his most recent appearances.
It’s all part of making the most of his opportunities—a familiar story for someone whose sports journey has taken a circuitous path.
Black played jazz trumpet growing up in Memphis and didn’t make the cut on an organized basketball team until his first year of high school. By his senior year, Black was averaging 16 points and 13 rebounds per game.
His college years continued to be eclectic—graduating from the University of Memphis in three years before transferring to the University of Kansas for a master’s program in African-American Studies.
But while his collegiate stats were respectable at 8.4 points and 4.7 boards over four seasons, they weren’t the kind of numbers that attract a lot of draft-board attention.
That said, Black’s bruising style of play did catch the eye of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who tried to recruit Black as a possible tight end. Based on Black's tweet, the support and appreciation is mutual:
But by this point, Black was all in with hoops, saying per Eric Adelson of Yahoo Sports: “Basketball is my love. I'm definitely going to put effort into making basketball my life.”
Although the love didn’t pan out on draft night, Black played for the Rockets during summer league and made it onto the regular-season roster, starting 12 of 25 games as an undersized sub for an injured Dwight Howard.
Black ran out of road in Houston when he was cut to make roster space for incoming wavier pickup Josh Smith.
And now, his work clothes are purple and gold.
After a win against the Orlando Magic in which he scored 14 points and nine rebounds, Black said, per Lakers Nation video: “It’s amazing I’m even wearing a Lakers jersey. I grew up watching them win championship after championship after championship.”
“I just went out there and worked hard,” added Black about the game. “And it ended up working out for me. That’s just my thing. I play with a lot of energy, and as far as rebounds go, I just seek the ball. When the ball goes up, I see it and I go get it.”
That determination effectively encapsulates Black’s unusual rookie year as well.
He’s not the biggest, the fastest or the most athletic player on the floor. But he’s a willing learner, as evidenced by obtaining a degree in organizational leadership in three years at Memphis before moving on to graduate studies.
Black's aptitude is also apparent in his willingness to play any role his coaches have asked.
As for the Lakers, there are a lot of decisions to make between now and free agency this summer.
The team holds a $9 million option on center/forward Jordan Hill for next season, while big man Ed Davis is expected to opt out of his $1.1 million player’s option in order to pursue a larger and longer contract.
In fact, the entire roster could use an upgrade at literally every position.
Tarik Black may never be an NBA star in the most obvious way. But winning teams are also built on the backs of those who work hard, embrace the challenges and make the most of the duties assigned them.
Bringing Black back next season will be one of the easiest choices the Lakers have to make.