On a Lakers roster crowded with young, high draft picks in need of development, it was easy to lose Tarik Black.
He was the one more worried about defense than anything else. The one who endured losing his spot in the lineup after spraining his ankle. The one who once believed the hype, and by doing so learned not to do that.
Now, Black is the one starting at center for the Lakers. While others overlooked Black amid the bigger names, Coach Luke Walton didn’t.
“This opportunity means a lot to me,” Black said. “It’s a testament to Coach Luke and his trust in me and his belief in me. It means a lot, especially for my confidence. … I’ve been here two and a half years. I’ve put in a lot of work in this purple and gold uniform. Now it’s blood, sweat and tears in it. It meant a lot for me to go to the NBA, but this organization is personal now.”
On Monday against the New York Knicks, the Lakers turned their attention fully toward development. They weren’t winning anyway with the veteran-laden lineup they started, so Walton felt the time had come. He replaced small forward Luol Deng with rookie Brandon Ingram and center Timofey Mozgov with Black.
“He wasn’t playing bad,” Walton said of Mozgov. “It’s just we weren’t winning. We had 20-something games left. He was doing what we were asking him to do. We had to try and do something to either start winning games or at least make the roles bigger of these young guys and let them have that pressure and responsibility this late in the season.”
The staff considered rookie Ivica Zubac to start at center, also, but liked his chemistry playing on the second unit with guards Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams.
Walton had also noticed a few weeks before that Black was turning into their best defensive player.
“It’s honestly what’s gotten me this far,” Black said. “I’ve been a solid defender since high school. Scoring will come, but this team really needs to lock up and play defense… We’ve got scorers. Our points will come in the game but really and truly we need defenders.”
Black’s relationship with Walton started at the University of Memphis. Walton was an assistant there during the NBA lockout in 2011, trying to figure out what he wanted to do when his playing career ended. Black was finishing his undergraduate career and playing for the Tigers.
Before Black re-signed with the Lakers this summer, he and Walton had a long conversation about their past and his future.
“From watching film on him I wanted him here,” Walton said. “Obviously where we were coming in … the other players were more of a top priority, but I definitely wanted him on the team because I knew the type of guy he was and how he worked.”
Developing the young Lakers is Walton’s most important job right now.
The Lakers used lottery picks on third-year forward Julius Randle, second-year point guard D’Angelo Russell and rookie forward Brandon Ingram. Then there’s guard Clarkson, who is 24 and a third-year player, and forward Larry Nance Jr., a late first-round pick in 2015.
Consequently, Black was often squeezed out of conversation about the Lakers’ young corps, at least externally.
He was an undrafted rookie who signed with the Houston Rockets in 2014 after getting his master’s degree and playing one season at Kansas. Black played 25 games for the Rockets before being released. The Lakers claimed him off waivers in December 2014.
For the next two seasons under former Lakers coach Byron Scott, Black was given several Development League assignments. Under Walton he stayed with the Lakers, but didn’t always play.
He sprained his ankle Dec. 5 against the Utah Jazz, and missed several weeks. When his ankle healed, forward Thomas Robinson had replaced him in the Lakers’ rotation.
“He never complains,” Walton said. “Even when he signed back, we had signed [Mozgov]. We had Larry and Julius, we wanted to play Luol at the four a little bit. So there were a lot of people at his position.”
Black,stayed with it, focused on improving his defense, and injuries elsewhere offered an opportunity for Black to showcase where he improved.
“He’s been our best defensive player,” Walton said. “Guarding the pick and rolls, talking, covering up people’s mistakes. Things that Larry does really well for us. When Larry was out with his injury, Tarik really stepped up and cemented himself as our best defensive player. It’s tough to take him out when he’s doing that.”
When: 4:30 PST.
Where: The Palace of Auburn Hills.
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Records: Lakers 18-36, Pistons 24-28.
Record vs. Pistons: 0-1.
Update: Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson has apparently developed a new halftime routine, Coach Stan Van Gundy told reporters in Detroit. Jackson said it was “a secret,” but it helped the Pistons get off to a good start in the second half Monday in their victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. If that holds. it could be problematic for the Lakers, who have also struggled with third-quarter starts at times this season.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli