If you search “Tarik Black” on USA Today’s sports photo archive, there is only a single, solitary photo of the Los Angeles Lakers’ new starting center from the night of his debut (the one used above).
This is somehow a fitting ode to Black, who was probably the fourth name to come to mind when most think about the storylines surrounding the new lineup change. “Brandon Ingram is starting,” or “Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov are benched” were probably the first angles most thought of regarding head coach Luke Walton’s rotation switch, but in a career in which he’s continually been undervalued and flown under the radar it was Black who made the biggest impact in the Lakers’ 121-107 road win over the New York Knicks.
"I thought T-Black was great," Walton told the media following the game, an understatement in terms of how valuable Black actually was. The third-year center had nine points on eight shots to go with ten rebounds — including six offensive rebounds — both Lakers highs.
Where the numbers get truly silly is in terms of on-offs. The Lakers outscored the Knicks by 34 points while Black was on the floor in a 14-point win, and he posted an absolutely absurd net rating (points the Lakers would have outscored the Knicks per 100 possessions during Black’s minutes) of 78. It’s a one game sample size, but still...
SEVENTY. EIGHT. POINTS.
That’s just a little better than his mark in that stat for the season (1.6), however, both are team-bests and Black is the only Laker with a positive net rating this season. Some of this is due to Mozgov not acquitting himself well during his minutes (-9.6 net rating), but the Lakers are also simply better when Black is on the floor.
Black entered the league with a reputation as a defensive specialist (albeit an undersized one) and he’s continued to make his bones on that end this year. He did so again against the Knicks, posting a team-best defensive rating of 71, which basically means New York scored at a rate that would seem low for even a lineup of non-Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers playing drunk while wearing ankle weights while Black was on the floor.
Black’s season defensive rating (104.3) is also the best on the team, meaning the Lakers have gone from the worst defense in the league to one that would rank seventh during his minutes.
This is not to tout Black as some defensive player of the year. He has flaws (mainly fouling too much), but he makes so many good decisions while flying around the court powered by seemingly endless reserves of energy and effort that he makes more positive plays than negative ones in his limited role.
Black’s role is even more limited on the other end of the court, although he still found ways to contribute against the Knicks, as he has all season. A major factor in the Lakers’ win was their dominance on the glass in the form of a 55-40 rebound advantage. Most of that difference came on the offensive boards, where Black led the Lakers with six offensive rebounds as they beat the Knicks 20-6 in that category.
It’s an area he’s shown utility in all season. Black’s has nabbed 15 percent of available offensive rebounds this season, second-best on the team behind Thomas Robinson. In the win over the Knicks he grabbed or tipped a team-high 28.6 percent.
Sometimes Black shows value simply by just keeping possessions alive so other players can score:
Or occasionally Black will mitigate his lack of height by using his superior bulk to push players out of position so he can tip the ball back out to a teammate:
Seemingly once per game Black gets a dunk or tip-in by sheer virtue of his excellent timing on his cuts and jumps to the rim for tip-ins.
Occasionally, he can even score by getting an early seal in transition because he never stops running:
All of these qualities are why the Lakers front office re-signed Black this offseason. He’s not a perfect player, but he does a few things really, really well. His energy is infectious for the team, and he rarely goes outside of himself (except for the rare mid-range jumper or Eurostep that actually somehow worked out against the Knicks).
Black isn’t the most valuable player on the Lakers by any means. However, he has exceeded expectations from the second he entered the league despite the doubts of his first organization (the Rockets, who cut him) and his last coach (who reportedly went against the organizations wishes by not playing Black enough).
Through it all, Black has remained ready every single time he’s gotten minutes to the point that he’s seized a starting spot from the team’s second-highest paid player. If he continues to contribute like he did against the Knicks, it’s unlikely he gives up his role anytime soon.
Maybe he’ll eventually even have some action shots taken of his work.