Only a year ago, Tarik Black felt the sting over going undrafted. Only eight months ago, Black felt the rejection over the Houston Rockets waiving him. Only five months ago, Black felt uncertainty over his future with the Lakers.
But this week, Black stood on the Lakers’ practice court in El Segundo feeling more at ease than when he took the circuitous path last year that often required a GPS navigation system.
“Definitely feel like a bigger piece to this team,” Black said. “I’m definitely a part of this family and a part of this team. I feel comfortable with my role.”
As Black feels more comfortable, his role may take some more unpredictable turns. Black knows he will compete on the Lakers’ summer league team that begins playing on Friday in Las Vegas through July 20. Black knows he will stay on the Lakers’ roster for the 2015-16 season on a non-guaranteed contract worth $850,000. He knows the Lakers became impressed with how he represented one of the team’s few bright spots last season, averaging 7.2 points on 58.9 percent shooting and 5.8 rebounds in 21.1 minutes through 38 games.
Yet, Black sounded unsure to what degree his game will evolve in summer league play. Though the Lakers love Black’s hustle, coach Byron Scott also wants the 6-foot-11, 257-pound forward to establish a mid-range game.
“That’s going to keep me at this level, my rebounding, hustle plays and playing defense,” Black said. “I’m always going to work on that and utilize it. But as far as getting better, we have so much talent. It’s tough to say how much I’ll use it.”
Black stressed he has worked on “everything” this offseason, including mid-range jumpers, post moves and even finessing his defense and rebounding. After all, Scott also has told Black he uses only roughly half of his strength and speed that sparked comparisons to bruising Denver forward Kenneth Faried. Black’s routine has entailed studying film so he knows how to slow his pace down to ensure better decision making. After taking a month off to heal his body, Black frequently played games of five-on-five at both his alma mater at the University of Kansas and the Lakers’ practice facility.
“Guys are telling us to take time off, but we’re young,” the 23-year-old Black said. “Our bodies keep going. But I took the hint and heeded the warning and took some time off. I want longevity in my career. I know what you do now affects you down the road, even if you may not feel it as much.”
Yet, the reason for Black’s uncertainty on how all that work will translate into Summer League and next season seems simple.
The Lakers currently boast three other power forwards with varying roles. After fracturing his right leg in the Lakers’ season-opener last year, Julius Randle will return as both a bruising post player and versatile playmaker. After the Lakers drafted Wyoming senior power forward Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick, he hopes to carve his niche as an energy guy. Despite the Lakers’ future appearing up in the air, forward Ryan Kelly will likely stay as a stretch forward if he stays on the roster.
Though Scott views Black as more of a forward than a center, there lacks clarity at that position. Yes, the Lakers acquired Roy Hibbert from Indiana for a future second-round pick. But what else? The Lakers could trade backup center Robert Sacre to clear salary. Robert Upshaw could land on the Lakers roster should he both utilize his 7-foot-2 frame and stay on good behavior during Summer League play.
“I know I’m getting better and working on it, so when I get a chance to do it and show it, that’s when the opportunity opens up,” Black said. “When you show it, they’ll say, ‘Give Tarik the ball in the post and do something.’ It’s not necessarily I’m going to stay right here until they give me an opportunity to shoot. I’m going to keep playing my game and show I’m getting better every day.”
That mindset already helped Black.
After going undrafted, Black played 25 games for the Houston Rockets and even started for some of them amid injuries to Dwight Howard. Though the Rockets cut Black in December to sign free-agent Josh Smith after Detroit unexpectedly waived him, Houston raved about Black’s potential. The Lakers soon claimed Black and depended on him to spark an injury-depleted roster.
“It’s weird with last year what I was going through,” Black said. “This season, I feel so much more comfortable. Last year, I was running around and not knowing specifically what to do.”
Only one week into summer league, Black said he knows what to do. He said he has become a vocal leader with point guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson and forward Julius Randle. Black maintained he will still provide that presence on the actual roster, which will include Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams and Brandon Bass.
“I don’t think you can create a leader,” Black said. “Some people might disagree with me. But if you have leadership qualities, that’s something you just are.”
But as Black already has a sense of his identity as a person, he still remains curious on how his identity will mold as a player. He will have some answers soon.
“I’m still getting there,” Black said. “I have a long ways to go.”