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Wednesday December 7th

Entering final season, Leaky Black looks to provide leadership, versatility to deep lineup

UNC senior forward Leaky Black (1) makes a pump fake during a UNC men's basketball game against Duke in the Dean Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Duke won 87-67.
Buy Photos UNC senior forward Leaky Black (1) makes a pump fake during a UNC men's basketball game against Duke in the Dean Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. Duke won 87-67.

When Leaky Black first put on a North Carolina jersey, the Tar Heels' program looked completely different. 

Armando Bacot, Caleb Love and RJ Davis were all still competing at their respective preparatory schools. This year’s incoming recruiting class — headlined by Seth Trimble, Jalen Washington and Tyler Nickel — hadn’t yet stepped foot on a high school basketball court. 

During his career, Black witnessed head coach Roy Williams retire after an 18-year tenure. Black has played on the highest and lowest of stages, taking the court during a losing season, a global pandemic and also in the national championship.

Needless to say, Black, now in his fifth year at UNC, has seen it all and is poised to set the example for a team with national title aspirations.

“I just love this place. It changed my life,” Black said in a summer press conference. “I feel like even if we won (the championship), I still would’ve come back.”

Mixed success from the start

Before arriving in Chapel Hill, Black attended Cox Mill High School in Concord, N.C. In his last two seasons with the Chargers, Black helped lead Cox Mill to consecutive 3A NCHSAA state titles.

In his senior year, Black averaged 13.4 points per contest and led the Chargers in assists, steals and blocks per game. His ability to disrupt on both ends of the floor helped the forward earn four-star status in the 247Sports recruit rankings.

While he flashed some offensive potential, his ability to disrupt opposing scorers was always his trademark.  

“I’ve always taken pride in (defense),” he said. “I remember when my dad was my coach and he’d be on the sideline at my games and be on the bench, and he would tell me when I was playing soft. That’s always playing in the back of my mind.” 

Eventually, Black and former AAU teammate Coby White both joined consensus five-star recruit Nassir Little as first-years at UNC. 

But while White and Little soon became first-round draft selections in the 2019 NBA Draft, Black struggled to find his footing in college. Injury troubles and shooting woes hindered Black, and he wouldn’t start for a full season until his senior year.

Throughout the 2021-22 season, Black often found himself looking for ways to make an impact. As the team continued its up-and-down play, one opportunity finally allowed him to break through.

'Just speaking from the heart'

On Feb. 1, Black sat on a Zoom call in front of reporters following a career night against Louisville.

The then-senior forward scored a season-high 13 points against the Cardinals and was perfect from the field. Black notably knocked down all three of his 3-point attempts, showcasing a new assertiveness on the offensive end.

“I think it’s just a matter of confidence,” Black said following UNC’s 90-83 win. “Once you’ve been at the bottom of the bottom like I have — you know, with media and all that stuff — the only way is up.”

Later in the same presser, Black opened up about his battle with anxiety and how he and his therapist worked to improve his mental health. This past summer, Black said he was "just speaking from the heart" after the Louisville game.

“I’m just so glad I (spoke out) — it not only changed my life, but it reached out to other people,” he said. “I know of people on campus that play other sports who reached out to me."

The defensive anchor soon became a supplemental piece within North Carolina’s offense, knocking down six 3-pointers over the final stretch of ACC play. In the Final Four against Duke, Black scored eight points — including the night’s opening basket, which came from beyond the arc. 

“I feel like I kind of played to the occasion,” Black said over the summer. “Everyone was kind of nervous out there during warmups, a lot of people were air-balling. Me, I was hot during warmups... playing in an atmosphere where people expect you not to be good. I love it.”

‘I’m the old me again’

As Black prepares for his final season with the Tar Heels, he stands as the lone player who has been with the program for five years. 

“Having somebody that has been a part of this program, whether with me or Coach Williams, is a huge benefit,” head coach Hubert Davis said. 

However, Black is looking to bring more to this year’s team than just his knowledge of college basketball. Over the offseason, Black said he was working to become “more effective” in the stat sheet. 

“My shot is the main focus, and ball handling,” he said. “Just getting back to where I was in high school. I feel like I’m the old me again.”

Black’s teammates have started to take notice of his strides over the past year.

“Offensively, he’s improved,” Bacot said. “You saw the jump shot — it’s getting better and better. I think he’s getting more and more confident and just getting his swag.”

Of course, the increased focus on improving his offensive skill set hasn’t deterred Black’s attention to defending. 

Last year, Black created off-nights for some of the nation’s top scorers. His ability to guard multiple positions helped him finish third in ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting.  

This season, Black will be joined by another defensive force in transfer forward Pete Nance. When asked in July about how Nance’s defensive presence compares to his own, Black took a long pause before answering — maybe to think about how far he’s come over the years. 

“(Nance) is a good defender,” he said. “But obviously, I feel like I’m the best defender in the country.”  

@evanr0gers

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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