Tarik Black’s journey to becoming the Lakers’ full time starting center has been a bumpy one. First acquired by the team as a waiver pick up in his rookie season, Black saw good minutes on an injury decimated team in Byron Scott’s 1st season. Black posted a 16.3 PER with the team that season and looked like a player who could contribute the following season.
Only that didn’t happen. Not at all, actually. In their second year together, Byron Scott promptly jerked Black around by limiting his role and (as he did nearly every other young player) speaking poorly of him in the press. This, from a January 2016 column on Scott and Black:
“Go ask Tarik what I told him this summer,” Scott said before the Lakers hosted the Houston Rockets on Sunday at Staples Center. “Just ask him what I told him he needs to do to stay in this league for 10-15 years. When he gives you the answer, come back and tell me and I’ll tell you if that’s exactly what I told him.”
Naturally, a handful of reporters approached Black for his recollection.
“He told me to be a beast, get every rebound and play aggressively,” Black said, reflecting on his exit interview with Scott and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. “They told me to work on my skillset. I’m better in my mid range with my size and height in the NBA.”
Okay, that seems rather tame (and probably incorrect since Black is not “better in the mid-range”) but there’s more:
But Scott reported he told Black he wants him to model his game after an NBA All-Rookie first team member (Denver forward Kenneth Faried), a Hall of Famer (Dennis Rodman) and a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year (Ben Wallace).
“He hasn’t done that yet,” Scott said. “They played balls out, full of energy and aggressive. They didn’t care about the offensive end. … That’s what he has to do to be an integral part of any team.”
“He has been OK. What he gives me off the bench, I don’t know,” Scott said. “He hasn’t done anything spectacular. But he hasn’t done anything devastating where you say, lets send him down to the D-League. But when you’re bringing guys off the bench. You want them to have an impact. He doesn’t have that.”
I don’t rehash all of this to trash the former coach. He had his opinions and they impacted how much Black played — which was not much at all. Black ended up playing in only 39 games for a total of 496 minutes last season. But in a season where Scott leaned heavily on Roy Hibbert (who was terrible) and behind him Brandon Bass (who was good) at C, it seemed odd that Black couldn’t get more minutes (especially at Hibbert’s expense). Even odder was the excuse that Black somehow wasn’t playing hard in his minutes.
In any event, Black was brought back this year and given a raise to return. At the time, it was reported that the Lakers’ front office didn’t understand why Black didn’t play more and wanted him to get a chance this year. After Black signed his contract, he noted he only wanted a “fair shot” to “compete” for a role in the rotation. He came into camp playing his normal game, beat out Yi Jianlian as the backup C, and has carried that role forward through the season until Luke Walton made him the starter at C three games ago.
It might be easy to look at Black’s promotion through the prism of Timofey Mozgov being bad, necessitating the latter to be benched and every other C moving up a slot in the rotation. That, though, would be a mistake. For the season, Black is the only Laker where, when he is on the floor, the team has a positive efficiency differential. In his 720 minutes on the court, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 106.3 and a defensive rating of 104.1. That defensive rating is especially meaningful since the team posts a 112.3 rating when Black is on the bench. That +8.2 improvement when Black is on the floor is the best on the team.
These numbers are dwarfed by how the team has performed when Black has been on the floor in the team’s last 10 games, though. In that stretch — when Black has started 7 games, including 4 at PF when Julius Randle missed time with pneumonia — the Lakers have a net rating of +11.3 when Black is on the floor while posting a net rating of -18.6 when Black is on the bench. For those scoring at home, that’s a 29.9 efficiency swing between units with and without Black.
Most of this difference is on the defensive end where the team has posted a defensive rating of 97.2 in Black’s 198 minutes over that stretch. Compare that to the 116.3 rating when Black is on the bench. Now, it’s not fair to credit that massive swing in defensive effectiveness entirely to Black. But, consider the following:
- Mozgov is the only other player who can claim to be on the floor for any significant minutes for the team while the have a sub-100 defensive rating over that stretch and he hasn’t gotten off the bench in the last 3 games.
- The next closest player to Black in team on/off defensive rating is Randle. The Lakers have posted a defensive rating of 104.6 when he’s in the game over that stretch and he too missed 3 games over that stretch.
- After Randle, the next closest is Nick Young. When he’s been on the floor, the Lakers have posted a defensive rating of 104.8 over that stretch. Young has played in all 10 games (like Black).
I think these samples tell us Black is making a real difference even when accounting for the noise in the numbers.
But Black’s defensive acumen has been his calling card since he came into the league. So, in some respects, him being a difference maker on that end isn’t a huge surprise. What is somewhat surprising, though, are the strides he’s made as an offensive player.
Earlier during the year I lamented that Black simply wasn’t making good reads as a passer out of the P&R and it was stifling the Lakers’ offense. In some instances, teams were purposefully blitzing the P&R to funnel the ball into Black’s hands so he would be forced to be a decision maker on the move. In other instances, Black was simply missing cutters or wasn’t quite understanding where his teammates were going to be within the construct of the offense.
In recent weeks, however, that has changed.
Here’s a play where Black makes a catch out of the short roll. After making the catch, he does a nice job of freezing the help defender and then taking an attack dribble deeper into the paint when that man rotates back to the perimeter. Then when back line help steps up, Black makes a nice pass to Zubac who relocated along the baseline to open up a passing angle.
Here Black does a good job of diving to the post after setting a wing screen for Russell in the team’s “loop” action. Russell, seeing that both his man and Black’s man rotated to him, hits Black near the paint. Black then shows good awareness here, knowing the back line big is rotating to him, by not forcing a shot but instead looking for Randle relocating to the soft spot in the defense for an open 10 footer.
This play may be my favorite, though. After setting a pin-down screen for Young, Black again rolls to the rim and Young does a great job of hitting him. Black again knows the defense is rotating to him, however, and instead of trying to force a shot over the defender he knows that Russell is spotting up in the corner and he hits him for a wide open 3.
We all know that Black can do damage as a finisher when he dives hard to the rim out of the P&R. We also know he can work little jump hooks and score off straight line drives out of post ups. Add this to his work as an offensive rebounder where he gets buckets on tip-ins and put-backs, and that’s a nice enough repertoire for a rotation big man in the Lakers’ system. But when you start to see him make the types of passing reads he does in the clips above, Black has the ability to be a positive influence on the team’s overall offense and expand his game beyond just finishing.
Put this together with his defense and you can see why Black is now the team’s starting center. He’s earned this role by working on his game and showing the type of improvement in-season you’d hope to from a “young” player.