As one of Silver Screen & Roll's writers as well as a fervent follower of the University of Kansas Jayhawks basketball program, Tom Fehr has seen far more of Tarik Black than the average Lakers fan. That in mind, both Tom and The Great Mambino analyzed just who the new LA big man is, where he's come from and what could be in store for him down the road.
The Great Mambino: With Julius Randle out for the season and Kobe Bryant on a Dwyane Wade-esque "2 games on, 3 games off" type of schedule, there really hasn't been much of a reason to watch the Lakers this year outside of sheer masochistic tendencies. Enter: Tarik Black.
It seems that Josh Smith is the gift that keeps on giving. Black, a former University of Kansas Jayhawk, was released by the Houston Rockets last week to make space for J-Smoove, and was quickly snapped up by the Lakers. Left undrafted after last June, the forward/center made the Rockets' early season roster and eventually some starts in lieu of an injured Dwight Howard, but was ultimately shunted to the end of the bench and then straight off of it. However, he flashed several skills that could make him into a potentially productive NBA player, all anchored by a tireless motor and league-ready body. It looks like Black has a lot more in him than his draft pedigree would suggest.
Tom, as a Jayhawk devotee, you're the best person to ask about our newest Laker. When he was at KU, what type of player was Black? What stood out to you about his game?
Tom Fehr: For lack of better descriptors, he was a banger and a bruiser inside. He was tough on defense and on the glass, and had a surprisingly decent post game due to strength and a decent touch inside. However, he wasn't featured very much on offense. In terms of numbers, per 40 minutes, he put up 16.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks, with a 68.0 TS% (69.2 FG%) on a 17.3 usage rate.
So, he was very, very solid when he was in there. His problems last year actually came in the area of foul trouble. In addition to the numbers above, he also had 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes. This wasn't much of an issue later in the season, but early in the year it stopped him from getting in a groove, and led to increased playing time for, and the eventual emergence of, Joel Embiid.
Embiid emerged as a great player and a top prospect for Kansas (though I still feel his freshman season wasn't quite what many deemed it), but for much of the year KU was actually a better team with Black in the game instead of Embiid. The defense in particular saw quite a significant bump when Black was in the game. Having both would have been nice in the NCAA tournament, though.
Mambino: We're looking at a small, small sample size here, but in 29 games as a pro, he's logging some fairly similar numbers per 40 minutes: 10.8 ppg, 11.9 rpg, with a 13.6 usage rate, though with just a 57.1 TS% (which I'd attribute largely to chucking in just 25 of 45 free throws). Let's just throw out his per 36 numbers as a Laker--after all, he's only played 71 minutes. However, his overall body of work correlates with what you saw from him as a senior at KU (Black spent his freshman through junior seasons at Memphis). He's certainly a banger and a bruiser, the sort of player that can establish position down low, and from what I've seen, has the strength and athleticism to be able to play very solid one-on-one defense. Offensively, he isn't a shot creator or even a mid-range threat, but his athleticism allows him to finish shots and dominate on put-backs.
Moving forward, how do you see his skills translating or growing with the Lakers? Are these numbers sustainable? What's his role with this team?
Tom: You know, coming out of college I really didn't think about his pro prospects. There were more murmurings in Lawrence about whether he could play football than play in the NBA (there's also a funny story about Aaron Rodgers and him; Google it). But now that I've seen him play, you can realistically picture a role for him in the league.
Sometimes you need a garbage man that will give you maximum effort on defense and on the glass. It helps that he can run the floor well too and can jump well for a big man. So, I would imagine his role in the NBA is as a fourth big that does the things I just mentioned. I expect, for him to be productive at least, he should average 10 points & 10 rebounds per 36 minutes (currently at 10.8 and 11.9 for his 29-game career), which is a useful big man to have on the bench. Is he going to amount to much more than that? Probably not. I don't imagine him shooting many jumpers ever and he won't be a go-to post guy. But as an athletic guy with energy that plays good defense, he might be in the NBA way longer than most thought, though really, he's already crossed that point.
Mambino: Do you have a comparison in mind for his ceiling? Without a shooting touch, it's certainly difficult to say what he'd be in the modern NBA. Are we talking about a shorter, less long Jason Collins with more athleticism?
I agree with your projection for him, based on the limited viewings I have on him (five games and counting!). His ability to sprint down the floor, but at the same time carry the weight and brawn to bang with guys bigger with him is a really underrated skill set these days. He's going to have a tough learning curve with the aforementioned penchant for fouling, but this season is really a perfect platform for him to start to understand smart defense that will utilize his skillset. A fourth big is a fair place for him to end up, though if paired with a point guard that could run a pick and roll more effectively than any of the ball handlers the Lakers have on the roster, perhaps he could even move up to first big off the bench.
Moving onto the latter half of this season and into next, Black's role could really expand as LA's rebuilding project evolves. His potential could make Jordan Hill's place (and salary cap ballast contract) obsolete, that is if he isn't traded in the next month. All present situations staying the same, I see Black's presence scooting Robert Sacre off the roster entirely. Tarik, in his rookie season, is already a better rebounder than Sacre and can do all of the things that we've patiently waited to see more of from the former 60th pick in the draft. I know this is putting a lot of stock into a player we've seen for less than a handful of games, but it's not like we're talking about a McHale-Parish-Walton front court here. Tom, how do you see Black's potential affecting the current and future construction of the roster?
Tom: I think it's probably reasonable to expect that his presence somewhat puts Sacre on the outside of the rotation, and perhaps even the roster, going forward. One thing that this means is that the Lakers now have additional incentive to move Jordan Hill, or maybe Ed Davis. Trading Hill seems like a no-brainer at this point - he has an extremely movable contract ($9M with a $9M option for next year), and isn't likely to be part of the Lakers' long-term plans. Quite frankly, if they don't trade him, giving him that contract seems pretty strange in the first place.
The extra incentive would be more playing time for Black, as well as Ryan Kelly, and even Sacre would get a longer look the rest of the season. Also more Boozer, but let's not focus on that. A lot of fans don't want to hear this, but the Lakers need to be in full-on rebuilding mode, and that means using the remaining meaningless games to get better, longer looks at the young pieces on the roster to properly assess them and plan for the future. Black joining the roster is just an extra reason to encourage this, to find out if he can be a valuable piece long-term. Black has an $845K unguaranteed salary for next season, so it is somewhat of a no-brainer that he should be back at least at the start of next year, unless something drastic happens in the next few months.
As a fan of both the Jayhawks and the Lakers, obviously I hope that Tarik Black succeeds and is a Laker for a long time. One thing I will add is that he was exceptionally well regarded on a personal level during his year at Kansas, and by all accounts is impressing everyone in Los Angeles with his attitude, humility, and locker room presence. It's pretty cool that he ends his media sessions by thanking reporters for the opportunity to speak with them. We should all be rooting for Tarik Black to thrive for the Lakers.