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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Leaky Black

The rising sophomore has quickly become a fan favorite. Does his production warrant a bigger role?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The past few weeks we’ve provided a summer preview of next season’s basketball roster. With all five non-transfer upperclassmen complete, it’s time to move on to the underclassmen. You can catch up on those previews at the links below.

June 23rd: Brandon Robinson preview
June 30th: Brandon Huffman preview
July 8th: Sterling Manley preview
July 15th: Andrew Platek preview
July 21st: Garrison “Mr. Pickle” Brooks preview

Continuing the trend of moving through the roster in descending order, today’s focus is the only sophomore on the team, Rechon “Leaky” Black. There probably isn’t a returning player who elicits a positive fan reaction like Black. A 6’7, 185-pound* Swiss Army knife of an athlete, he ignited a passion with his versatility and poise that’s rare for a freshman. The only remaining member of the 2018 recruiting class after Nassir Little and Coby White entered the NBA draft, Black also projects to be a three or four-year player. There’s a ton of upside and potential for the North Carolina native.

That support wasn’t displayed just by fans with quick Twitter fingers or the experts that flood message boards with their free advice. The Carolina Insider podcast with Jones Angell and Adam Jones regularly stated their support as the “Leaky Train” and urged people to climb aboard before it left the station. That was followed up just two weeks ago with CBS reporter John Rothstein’s list of ACC break-out candidates.

All this hype, however, comes with a great deal of unknowns. Much of the attention is based on potential and not substantial results. A severely sprained ankle limited Black to 23 games, where he put up modest numbers.

2018-19 averages: 10.2 min, 2.5 pts, 2.1 reb, 1.2 ast, 0.7 TOs, 0.6 stl, 46.9 FG%, 41.7 3P%,
2018-19 Per-40 projections: 9.8 pts, 8.7 reb, 4.5 ast, 2.7 TOs, 2.5 stls

Those stats show a player who does many things well, but doesn’t excel at anything. Nothing wrong with that, especially as a freshman on a team that was loaded at all four of Black’s positions. At a minimum, Black wasn’t a “negative”. Whether or not he deserved more minutes is a valid debate and was a growing sentiment. Fans always love the “what if” game and often assume “unknown” or “underrated” means “future star”. (See: Isaiah Hicks vs Kennedy Meeks in 2016-17).

Statistically, though, there wasn’t much production on the court to justify rising expectations. In the first three ACC games he played 16, 10, and 14 minutes against Pittsburgh, N.C. State, and Louisville. Two of those contests were essentially decided by halftime, thus facilitating a longer bench. In the three games before the injury against Georgia Tech, he played a total of 16 minutes. Whatever rumors may have existed that he would/should replace Seventh Woods as the back-up PG (really, the only weakness where Black might have been an improvement), there was zero indication a change was imminent judging from his playing time or production. If that move were to be made, it was more likely due to Woods’ inconsistency than Black being an overwhelmingly better option.

So, what does any of this mean for this season?

First, Leaky must stay healthy. Last season’s ankle injury wasn’t his only malady. Prior to last year, he nursed a nagging groin injury. He’s also suffered from tendonitis in his knee and has reportedly been limited this offseason. That’s a lot of key development time spent rehabbing instead of developing. The ankle was an unfortunate accident, but mixed in with the other problems a larger picture emerges. Is he injury prone, a victim of bad luck, or just adjusting to a body that was still growing the summer before college started? Black’s health will be the key factor as to whether his sophomore campaign is a success.

Second, Black’s biggest weapon is his versatility. A jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. Much like last season, there’s a logjam of talent on the perimeter, and Garrison Brooks is expected to spend more time at the power forward position. Black’s path to extended playing time depends on Justin Pierce’s transition and Brandon Robinson’s ability to defend the small forward position. If Black cannot prove to be a better option than either of those two, then he’s looking at another season of backing up multiple positions. Despite those obstacles, there are some areas that Leaky could excel.

His per-40 projection of 4.7 assists per game are tied for second on the team among returning players. That may not seem impressive considering the Heels lost six players to graduation, the NBA, or transferring, but his ability to find the open man is a known quantity on a team full of questions. Combined with a respectable 1.7 A:T ratio in limited playing time, its most likely Black begins the season as the team’s back-up point guard - perhaps the teams most glaring known weakness. Roy Williams has repeatedly said Leaky was recruited as a PG and that’s where he played in high school.

Black also shot 41.7% from deep, trailing only Robinson among returning players. Only 25% of his field goal attempts were from behind the arc, so an increase in volume would not be a surprise. While Christian Keeling or Pierce may prove to be threats from long range, Black is again a known element. That percentage may decrease with more minutes, but Black also won’t suddenly drop to Tre Jones and Jack White levels of three-point futility. A 6-8 shooter is more than a luxury. In today’s game they’re required.

Finally, one part of Black’s game that won’t consistently show up in the box score is his length on defense. His 2.4 steals per-40 minutes is the highest of all returning players, but his length matched with a deceptive quickness makes Black the ideal defensive mismatch. Black’s DRtg of 93.8 last season was the best among all players who averaged 10+ minutes a game. After an entire year of learning UNC’s system, that success will continue.

The love and hype for Black is understandable. He arguably out-performed expectations last year as the least heralded of the three freshmen. The poise and basketball IQ on display were above “normal” abilities of freshmen who aren’t candidates to immediately jump to the NBA. With the season approximately 90 days away, there are plenty of positives to focus on. Black may legitimately make the famed sophomore leap and break out.

However, a more plausible scenario is that he is still one-year away from being a bona fide nightly threat. With so much talent coming in, it should not be surprising if Black’s ceiling is 15 minutes while bouncing around all five positions. That would allow him to figure out where his strengths at the college level truly lie, and prepare him to lead the Heels as a junior—almost like a Danny Green-lite.

No matter Black’s role, there is one undeniable fact. His presence, awareness, and talents will be needed every single night.

We just don’t know what that really looks like.

* I originally wrote Black was 6’8, 200 lbs. He’s officially listed at 6’7, 185 lbs. I was obviously projecting my hopes for new measurements when the 2019-20 roster is officially released. I also can’t read