Betting on Black

Could the Arkansas freshman be the next Raptor?

The upcoming NBA draft will be an important one for the Raptors, and that’s putting it lightly. With the franchise still in the process of finding a head coach, not much is known about the future of the team’s current core. The 2023 draft should hint at what Masai Ujiri and the rest of the front office have planned for the upcoming season.  

The Raptors secured the 13th pick in last night’s lottery. Fellow 13th-overall selections include such names as Kobe Bryant, Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, and Zach Lavine, although the list of 13th-overall picks you may not have heard of appears to be much longer by comparison. You can find a star at 13 if you get lucky and do your homework, but it’s no guarantee.

Some fans may still feel disappointed in the Raptors’ early exit from postseason contention, while others are frustrated that they didn’t lose enough down the stretch to increase their lottery odds. The 13th pick, then, is a fitting consolation prize for a team that couldn’t decide who it was in enough time for it to matter. 

The bottom line, however, is that the Raptors can draft an excellent player come draft day. There are plenty of prospects that could wind up in a Raptors uniform come June 22nd, and today I want to talk about one of the draft’s most intriguing: Arkansas’ Anthony Black. 

It wasn’t the year Razorback fans had hoped for after securing one of the best recruiting classes of last season. Black, ranked 15th overall in his recruiting class, joined Arkansas along with fellow Texas native and 5-star recruit Jordan Walsh and the hometown 5-star Nick Smith Jr. Expectations were high for a young Razorback team that seemed overrun with young talent. After an up-and-down season, Arkansas entered the NCAA tournament as an eighth-seed and lost to the eventual champions in UConn, not before defeating the defending champions Kansas on their way to the Sweet 16.

ESPN recruiting listed Black as a small forward, and given his height at 6-foot-7, it’s hard to blame them. But don’t let that deceive you; Black has legitimate guard skills for his size. He played the point for Arkansas all season offensively and often took bigger assignments defensively, switching with his smaller back-court partner Smith Jr.

Black combines the frame of a wing with the speed and skill set of a guard. His ball handling is incredibly fluid, and he’s comfortable operating as the ball handler in the Pick and Roll. He’s a willing passer with excellent court vision. His speed allows him to thrive in the drive and kick game. Despite his speed, Black shows a lot of patience as a playmaker/ You can see him scanning with the ball in his hands, waiting for the defense to make a decision so he can counter. While he’s prone to the occasional risky pass, they seem to work out for him more often than not. 

One issue that has made Black and fellow Arkansas prospects difficult to evaluate is the fundamental lack of spacing on the Arkansas roster. Musselman opted for long and active players at the expense of shooting (sound familiar?), and it certainly affected the way teams prepared defensively. The paint was often clogged in the half-court as defenders sagged off heavily. This created some difficulty for players like Black and Smith Jr, who should have more success at the NBA level using their speed, given the proper space to operate.

There are concerns about his jump shot (and we’ll get to those later), but Black doesn’t let this affect him. He knows how to create problems for the defence without the ball. His experience playing with a real scorer in the backcourt has added some combo-guard skills to his game. He’s super active when relocating and is comfortable cutting to the rim when defenders sag off of him.

Where Black can really excel offensively is in transition. His size and speed allow him to quickly move the ball up the court. Black is a willing passer; he’s more than happy to make the proper read and find the open man, but he’s capable of finishing plays himself when he has to.

Defensively is where Black truly shines. He is a menace off the ball. His speed and mobility allow him to stick with quicker guards through screens. He’s a solid help defender and is comfortable clogging up passing lanes and creating turnovers when roaming off his assignment.

Black has all the tools to be successful as an on-ball defender as well. He’s incredibly aggressive at the point of attack, sometimes to his own detriment. His screen navigation on the ball needs the most work. Good screeners can catch Black with his feet set, and his frame can cause issues when he needs to fight over a screen quickly. Watch here against Kentucky as the Wildcats put Black into the same high PnR action. Tshiebwe comes off the elbow and catches Black with his feet set, as he’s trying to ice his man toward the sideline. Black struggles to fight over the screen, and Kentucky gets two great looks as a result. 

There’s a common throughline between all the NBA’s greatest defenders. Some rely more on their physicality, strength, and speed; others have more experience, are more skilled, and possess more positional awareness. The common thread between all great defenders, though, is effort; and there’s no question that Black is a willing and eager defender. I have very little doubt that he will improve upon this at the next level. Additionally, Black’s length and speed can mitigate many of his screen navigation issues, at least early on. He’s more than capable of making up distance in a short amount of time. 

Lastly, Black’s jump shot is nothing to run home about. He shot 30 percent from three this year on around two and a half attempts per game and shot 70 percent from the free throw line. I’m no jump-shot expert by any stretch, but there’s nothing about Black’s jumper that stands out as inherently twisted or broken. The Lonzo Ball comparisons for Anthony Black have been rather obvious, and there are certainly similarities regarding playstyle. It didn’t take a shot-doctor to see how broken Ball’s jump shot mechanics were coming out of UCLA. I can’t make any guarantee that Black will become a great shooter down the road; projecting shooting going forward is rarely a guarantee. But it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility by any means, and a consistent jump shot for Black could open up his entire game. You have to take a gamble to find a star at 13, and the gamble on Black is rooted in the long-term health of his jumper.

Raptor fans, I can hear you typing: Don’t we already HAVE a spacing problem? 

Well, yes. And there are certainly some great shooters in this draft that will likely be available at 13, but I’ve honed in on Black as a possibility for two reasons. For starters, while it would certainly help, one player alone will not solve the spacing issues that the Raptors face. As long as Scottie, Pascal, and Poeltl are in the same starting lineup, and teams still feel comfortable helping off them behind the arc, the Raptors might always have a spacing problem. 

I also see Black as someone who could become a key piece in the next iteration of the Raptors, whatever that might mean. If the Raptors keep Fred around, I think Black could comfortably play alongside him. It would allow Black to take some of the tougher matchups defensively while also taking the pressure off of Fred to create rim pressure, allowing him to play off the ball more offensively. If the Raptors decide to move on from some of their veterans this offseason, Black would still remain a great choice for the future as a guard with tremendous two-way upside.

The odds that Black is available at 13 is no sure thing. Outside of the top three or four, it’s hard to say what might happen on draft night. Mock drafts have Black landing anywhere from 6th to 11th, and mock drafts, as we know, are always right. I think it is worth keeping in mind, though, that there is a genuine possibility that the Raptors use the draft night as an opportunity to employ the “intel” gathered over the trade deadline. There are multiple teams interested in multiple Raptors; this is not news. If Masai feels like the deal is right, we could easily end up higher in the order than we are now. 

It may be difficult to argue against taking one of the draft’s many talented shooters, and to a certain extent, I’m inclined to agree. The list of non-shooters worth considering in the lottery for Toronto should be quite short. I do believe that if this list exists, though, Black should be near the top. He very much embodies what the Raptors have prioritized over the years: long, highly skilled, and active defensively. Additionally, Black has proven to be successful while playing within a system that struggled to create the proper spacing. Ideally, Black could become a part of this solution down the road. At a minimum, we have a whole year’s worth of evidence that Black knows how to impact the game on both ends, even if the space isn’t on his side. 

14 thoughts on “Betting on Black”

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