Yesterday we kicked off our end-of-season player reviews with Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot. You can find Akil’s piece on Anthony here, and my look back on Bacot’s freshman year here. Today we continue our week-long series with rising junior Leaky Black.
Black entered the year with much fanfare and high expectations, despite playing limited minutes in just 23 games last year. CBS’ Jon Rothstein named him one of 10 ACC players expected to have a breakout season. The Stepien, a website geared towards NBA scouting reports, even wrote a 1,373 word scouting report complete with charts, graphs, and video.
10 Breakout ACC Players for 19-20 (in no particular order):— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) July 22, 2019
Leaky Black, UNC
Alex O’Connell, Duke
Mamadi Diakite, Virginia
Nate Laszewski, Notre Dame
Jalen Carey, Syracuse
Devin Vassell, FSU
M.J. Walker, FSU
Aamir Simms, Clemson
DJ Funderburk, NC State
Wynston Tabbs, BC
Bottom line? The hype was intense. It was also unrealistic for an injury-plagued player who put up the following stats in 2018-2019.
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
Before the season began, I was a bit more conservative for Black’s ceiling for this year. In his player preview, I opined his ceiling was approximately 15 minutes a game while bouncing around all five positions as he developed a comfort on the court. That analysis was based on these thoughts, also from that preseason preview:
Those stats show a player who does many things well, but doesn’t excel at anything… At a minimum, Black wasn’t a “negative”. Whether or not he deserved more minutes is a valid debate and was a growing sentiment…
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.
So, how did Leaky perform? Depending on your point of view, you either thought he vastly under performed or you’re optimistic at his growth through the year, paving the way for a true breakout campaign as a junior.
2019-2020 averages: 29.7 min, 6.5 pts, 5.0 reb, 2.6 ast, 1.8 TO, 1.3 stl, 35.9 FG%, 25.4 3P%
2019-2020 Per-40 projections: 8.7 pts, 6.8 reb, 3.5 ast, 2.4 TO, 1.7 stl
His minutes almost tripled, thanks to his versatility and lack of depth on this year’s squad. Everything else, except rebounding, took a dip. On the surface, that looks discouraging, but context is important.
Brandon Robinson and Cole Anthony’s injury-plagued seasons forced Black into more time at the point guard position than originally intended. Sterling Manley’s knee issues also opened more minutes as a stretch-four. Black basically played all over the court, effectively learning every position. All this for a guy who only averaged 10.2 minutes in 23 games as a freshman and who lacks NBA-ready athleticism or talent. It’s not surprising his overall efficiency took a dip. The dude was drinking from a fire hose for much of the season.
He often looked hesitant at the point guard position, while also battling his own recurring ankle injuries through the year. That hesitancy of learning how to run a team, specifically in Anthony’s absence, impacted other aspects of his game. His assist rates dropped and he shrank in key moments. Some fans may specifically remember the Clemson debacle as one of those games. The poise and confidence from his freshman year was nowhere to be found.
His shooting and playmaking also trended downward. Despite standing at a reported 6’8, Black rarely showed the aggression, willingness, or ability to create his own shot against smaller players. That resulted in a love affair with the mid-range game and an increasing lack of confidence in his three-point shooting. UNC fans became exasperated watching him pass on wide open looks, reluctant to shoot himself out of a year-long shooting slump.
In many ways, this season was more about finding what Leaky can’t or should not do while discovering what he can do. Even heading into this season, he was unsure of what kind of player he was. He said as much to Inside Carolina during a preseason interview, when asked how he views himself as a player.
Coach still asks me to this day. I don’t know what to tell him. I just don’t know what to tell him. Honestly, I feel like I’m more comfortable playing the wing, being able to get the rebound and push. Playing the ‘one’ here, it’s good, it’s a tough job. It’s just that I don’t feel like I’m able to get the rebound and use my length, getting the rebound and pushing the ball up the floor like I’ve been accustomed to doing my entire life. I feel like I’m more comfortable with the ‘two’ so I can get out and run and stuff like that.
In hindsight, those words were more accurate than anything else written about Leaky this year. Anthony’s return eventually allowed Black to return to primary duties on the wing, with rare spot duty at the point. The move to his preferred position (though it was more the “3” and “4”) was noticeable as the season reached a conclusion.
The final eight games of the season were almost a revelation for the only returning scholarship junior on next year’s squad. In that span, Black averaged 30.9 min, 8.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.9 TO, and 0.8 steals, with shooting percentages of 38.5 FG% and 18.8 3P%. Except for a decrease in steals and three-point shooting, every other statistical category was an improvement over his season averages.
That is all evidence of a player getting more comfortable in his natural role, finally unburdened of the pressures of running a team. Instead, he was able to grab the ball off the glass and initiate UNC’s transition offense as a secondary ball handler. He became noticeably more aggressive on offense as he started exploring some of his natural advantages in attacking the hoop. More time on the wing also freed up Black to use his length on the perimeter on defense, compared to guarding the opponent’s shorter, faster, quicker ball handlers. Here’s a fun stat from noted UNC analytical guru, Adrian Atkinson, to show his defensive effectiveness.
Deflections / 40:— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) March 2, 2020
It’s hard to say just how productive Leaky Black will be next season, and there is time to dissect those angles in the coming months. Maybe he develops into a walking bucket. Or maybe he perfects his Swiss Army knife persona and becomes an indispensable scoring, rebounding, assisting, defending quadruple-threat.
Regardless, if the final weeks of this season were a glimpse of what to expect, then I’d venture to bet those high preseason expectations were just a year too early.