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Should Tarik Black Replace Jordan Hill on the L.A. Lakers Roster Next Season?

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IMay 9, 2015

Los Angeles Lakers forward Tarik Black (28) grabs a rebound in front of Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams duringthe second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, March 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

In what is surely a year of rebuilding and rebirth, the Los Angeles Lakers are faced with the possibility that their experiment with Jordan Hill as starting center may have run its course.

The Lakers, who finished a franchise-worst 21-61, may also consider the financial implications that come with waiving Hill’s $9 million team option (per Spotrac.com) and rely more on a younger, athletic player such as Tarik Black, a tenacious rebounder who is set to earn $845,000 next season.

The Lakers hope to draft wisely next month and make good use of free agency this summer. Keeping the inconsistent Hill as their starting center at such a high price tag while mining for additional help on the front line just doesn't make a lot of sense.

While Hill has built a reputation for short bursts of high energy on the boards and an improving mid-range shot, he has not improved enough to warrant the team picking up and paying his inflated option at $9 million.

Although Hill averaged career highs last season in minutes (26.8), points (13.9) and rebounds (10), there was much inconsistency along the way. He took a few steps backward and seemed to run out of gas on numerous occasions.

Hill's numbers dipped in January to 10.7 points and only six boards. He relied much more on a mid-range jump shot, which brought his shooting percentage down to just 46 percent for the season, a big drop from his mark of 55 percent in 2013-14.

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 22:  Jordan Hill #27 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts as he is called for a foul during the game against the Boston Celtics at Staples Center on February 22, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Harry How/Getty Images

According to NBA.com, Hill's propensity for shooting away from the basket grew dramatically in 2014-15. He took about 20 percent of his shots from mid-range in the 2013-14 season. That number jumped to 47 percent this past season, and he converted on just 38 percent of the attempts.

So, while Hill's scoring and rebounding numbers increased with his minutes, his overall play digressed a little, creating an opening for the likes of Black and Ed Davis.

Hill was the subject of trade rumors, especially around the time of the trade deadline in February. Many thought he would end up with a contending playoff team as basically a rental for a few months.

That never materialized, and at the time, at least one outlet suggested the Lakers would ultimately hold onto Hill and exercise the team option for next season. Sean Deveney of the Sporting News wrote, "Hill could become a free agent next summer if the Lakers choose not to pick up his option, worth $9 million, but most executives around the league think that, assuming Hill is not part of a blockbuster in the next 24 hours, the team will pick up his option for next season."

That was in February. Much has changed since then. Hill himself admitted his season didn’t turn out quite as he hoped.

Per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, Hill said:

The first month, I was showing the energy. But it was the first time having all these minutes on my hands. I started feeling myself going down and feeling fatigued. It wasn’t something I was used to. I just decided to pace myself a little bit more. That’s where the energy started to slide off a little bit.

Hill went on, referring to what Lakers head coach Byron Scott told him during his exit interview: "He (Scott) was disappointed he didn’t see that energy. That’s something else I need to work on."

Black, a hardworking 6'9", 260-pound forward who went undrafted last summer out of Kansas, has shown energy on both ends of the court whenever he's had the minutes.

The former University of Kansas center was a nice acquisition for L.A on waivers in late December from the Houston Rockets. The Lakers beat out the Charlotte Hornets for Black’s services because they had a worse record at the time.

Black was a favorite of Houston coach Kevin McHale and was pressed into service early there, filling in for the injured Dwight Howard and averaging a solid 4.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in 12 games of limited action.

Black played a total of 25 games for the Rockets before being waived to make room for the signing of forward Josh Smith, who had been let go by the Detroit Pistons and was an unrestricted free agent. Black was sad to leave the Rockets, who had believed in him from the beginning.

Both Howard and Rockets head coach Kevin McHale highly praised the former Jayhawk. McHale told Jonathan Feigen of 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?’

Black immediately saw more action in a Lakers uniform as both Hill and the team struggled. The big center’s minutes increased every month, and by April he was playing 25 per night. He also averaged a season-high 11 points and eight rebounds that month.

Black’s two best games came back-to-back in April against the Minnesota Timberwolves (18 points, 10 rebounds in 28 minutes) and Dallas Mavericks (10 and 19 in 33 minutes). He shot 70 percent from the field as well.

Much like Hill in his first couple of seasons with the Lakers, Black was a force to be reckoned with on the inside and was always around for loose balls and putbacks. He was also vocal with teammates, a remarkable trait for a 23-year-old undrafted rookie.

Black's 19th-ranked shooting percentage of 58 percent was attributable mostly to shots made within a few feet of the basket—typical for most power forwards and centers. He continued to work on his mid-range game, and it did show improvement toward the end of the season.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach Byron Scott like what they saw from Black. Still, they know he has a long way to go. Per InsideSocal.com, Scott said he expects Black to return to the fold next season: "We get another year to look at him and see what he’s got and go from there."

But Scott cautioned that Black needs to be more consistent: "It’s playing every play like it’s your last play. Every shot that goes up, you have to play like it’s a miss. Every time we rebound, if he doesn’t rebound, he has to run the floor like it’s a 100-yard dash. If he does that, it’ll put so much pressure on his bigs to get back."

Black expects to play in the summer league. He feels at home in Los Angeles and welcomes the support his coach and management continue to give him. He told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, "They definitely praised me for the potential that I have. That’s a big thing with them."

As good as Black's potential appears to be, it would be hard to say he is a replacement for Hill. Still, he could be one strong piece among several that determines just what the Lakers do with Hill.

If all goes according to plan and wishes, the Lakers could find themselves with several strong power forwards over the next few months. That mix may come from the likes of Black, a high draft pick and an A-list free agent. Add in the return of Julius Randle and a re-signed Ed Davis, and suddenly that position would look formidable.

Hill can sense his fate is a big question mark. He told Medina, "It’s going to be a big offseason for the Lakers. It’s up in the air right now. They don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to stay positive and hope everything will fall into plan."

Kupchak and the Lakers will need to make a decision on Hill soon. They could pick up his $9 million option, which would then reduce the available cap space to around $19 million, based on the NBA's projected salary cap of $67.1 million (per ESPN.com) for the coming season.

And that could make signing a top-tier free agent like Kevin Love or LaMarcus Aldridge much more difficult.

The Lakers may also allow Hill's team option to expire and then try to sign him to a lower amount as a free agent in July. They would run the risk of losing him altogether and getting nothing in return.

Jordan Hill (27) is just not worth $9 million for what he's giving the Lakers. Tarik Black (23) is four years younger, and his game is better-suited to the team's makeup as it moves forward.

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