The Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff and front office have repeatedly said that wins and losses are unimportant this season, but that is untrue, and they know it. It is their way of tempering expectations, but losing begets losing, and after three long seasons where the team did little other than lose, it is critical that the new generation of players begins to learn what it feels like to win. It is better to win ugly than lose and take solace because the squad played pretty well.
The Lakers played their first preseason game Tuesday night, and they won. It was a predictably sloppy, uneven performance but a win is a win, and the primary reason the team was able to come back from a 19-point deficit was because of the energy and skill of an unlikely hero, Tarik Black.
This is Black’s third season with the Lakers and in the NBA. One of the biggest mysteries surrounding last year’s team is why Black was the forgotten man after an encouraging rookie season. He spent most of the 2015-16 season on the Los Angeles Defenders or watching the Lakers from behind the bench in his street clothes while the other centers, Roy Hibbert and Robert Sacre, performed poorly all year.
Black waited for playing time that never arrived. He appeared in only 39 of the Lakers’ 82 games last season, and when he did dress, he played an average of only four minutes per contest in contrast to the 21 minutes per game he played the season before. He played about the same number of minutes as Ryan Kelly and far less than Metta World Peace and Anthony Brown, who also played very little.
Coach Byron Scott never explained his rationale, and it remains perhaps the biggest puzzle of last season why Black never got a chance despite the team’s horrible record and poor play from the other centers. Black seems like an articulate, intelligent and charitable man, but there was something about him that Scott did not like.
After last year, it was surprising when the Lakers re-signed Black this offseason, and not only that, they gave him a healthy pay raise to around $6 million per year for two seasons. Recent interviews revealed why Black opted to return and why the team reciprocated that feeling: new head Coach Luke Walton likes Black and wanted him on the team, and he wanted to play for Walton.
Black, who is 24, played college basketball for three seasons at the University of Memphis before transferring to Kansas to finish his collegiate career. During the 2011 NBA lockout, when Walton was still playing but had an eye towards a future coaching career, he took an assistant coaching job with Memphis where he befriended Black and became his mentor. The two became close; Walton loved his time with Memphis, and Black took a liking to Walton.
It was only one preseason game as Black himself reminded reporters afterward, but if you pretend last year never happened, his play Tuesday night seemed like a natural extension of his rookie season. Black made 59 percent of his shots in 2014-15 and 55 percent of his shots last season, so it was no real surprise Tuesday night when he scored 15 points while making all five of his shots.
Tuesday’s rotation had Black playing alongside a second unit which included Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., Brandon Ingram, and Jose Calderon. It was an effective mix that far outplayed the starters. Black is a high energy performer on both ends of the court, a trait he has in common with Clarkson, Nance, and Ingram. Those four are probably the highest energy players on the roster and their combined hustle and defensive intensity, along with Calderon’s calm leadership and outside shooting, were key to the Lakers victory despite trailing by 19 points in the third quarter.
When Black re-signed this summer, he said that Walton had promised him a fair shot at making the rotation. But the team drafted Ivica Zubac who would overnight became a fan favorite, and then they signed Yi Jianlian shortly before training camp started, and suddenly the center position was very crowded.
If Black was perturbed by the Lakers moves this summer he did not show it. He went out and played a great game Tuesday night – he did so well that it makes him, for the moment, the frontrunner for the backup center position when the regular season starts. Not only that, assuming the players who started Tuesday will be the starting lineup when the games count, Black might have a lot more fun and do better on a second unit that is likely to outplay the starters on some (or many) nights.
The knock against Black is that he is listed at 6’9” but is not even that tall, making him undersized for the center position. It is unclear if he has any mid-range shooting ability, but he has blazing speed and a very fast first step to the basket where he can finish with either hand. His dunks are often monstrous, and he has quick hands that can steal passes and block shots.
It was only one game, and a preseason one at that, but it is good to see Black get a chance and take advantage of it after the way he was poorly treated last season by the former coaching staff. If Tuesday night is any indication of what Black can do on a consistent basis entering his third NBA season, the Lakers have discovered something valuable.