Hidden behind the allure of Nassir Little and Coby White, Leaky Black’s arrival at UNC was somewhat unheralded. Now a junior, he has to battle to come back stronger after two injury-plagued seasons and assume a larger role on a program looking to bounce back from its first losing campaign in nearly two decades.
But what does a healthy Black look like? The world is about to find out.
“Right now, I feel great,” Black said during an Oct. 21 press conference. “I feel like this is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
The 6-foot-8 swingman from Concord said he was never fully healthy last season, despite playing 32 games. His ankle gave him problems all year, preventing him from ever feeling more than 70 percent of his normal self.
“I only know one speed, and it’s everything I have,” he said. “I feel like with the ankle holding me back, I feel like it didn’t allow me to guard everyone full court like I’m accustomed to doing or being confident in my offense and making a cut.”
That discomfort contributed to inconsistent offensive production. He only shot 35.2 percent from the field, more than 10 percentage points lower than his first-year campaign.
But he's been working to become more of a weapon on the offensive end. Black starts his days with a 7 a.m. treatment before hitting the court to perfect his shot. He said he doesn't leave the gym until he makes at least 300 shots.
He’s satisfied with how his game is progressing, but in the end, everything boils down to his physical condition. If he remains healthy, there is optimism he can have a huge year in Carolina blue.
The Tar Heels know what he’s capable of. In the Oct. 21 press conference, senior forward Garrison Brooks defined the kind of a player an injury-free Black can be.
“A healthy Leaky Black looks like a Swiss Army Knife,” Brooks said. “He can do anything.”
Black has always excelled as a defensive anchor. His long, athletic frame gives him the ability to guard anyone on the court — a huge advantage for any collegiate team. And with a young UNC roster in place, his experience will be needed.
“A healthy Leaky Black makes us a heck of a lot better as a basketball team,” head coach Roy Williams said.
Black recognizes he’s not the new kid among a bunch of upperclassmen anymore. He’s among the older players in the program and intends to use his platform to develop into a leader.
These added responsibilities mean the junior wing will be expected to take another step forward. But that’s no big deal for him.
“I don’t feel any pressure," he said. “I just know I want to be available every game and be my best self just so I can give us a better chance of winning or just playing better. “
It’s not the first time he’s been expected to carry on a bigger role. He came into last season penciled in as a new starter and was expected to make up a lot of the lost scoring from departing players like White, Little, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye.
He only averaged 6.5 points per game, but he did it on an injured ankle and on a team that struggled to find its rhythm as an offensive unit. But his inefficient shooting took attention away from the improvements in his game.
Black more than doubled his rebounding, assist and steal numbers, all assets he can bring to a North Carolina team with sparse wing depth. He has all the ball-handling skills to drive into the lane (he played point guard in high school) and the size to start as the team’s small forward.
Combining a newfound confidence with a healed body could be just what he needs to take his game to the next level.
“He’s always been a very good passer,” Brooks said. “I think that surprising part is he healed up really well from his injuries, and I think that he has become the way he was in high school: a big, athletic guard.”
It’s hard to predict how the Tar Heels will respond to their historically bad season last year. The only thing certain is that a healthy Leaky Black could make the uphill climb back to the top of college basketball a lot easier.
“He’s gonna be really good this year,” Brooks said. “You’ll see.”
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