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Anthony Black Connects the Dots
Connectors have become one of the most valuable archetypes in the NBA over recent years. Corey Tulaba breaks down why Arkansas' Anthony Black may be the best the 2023 NBA Draft Class has to offer
When I was a kid, there was nobody cooler than Penny Hardaway. From the commercials with Lil’ Penny, to the shoes, to Blue Chips, to the legendary Magic pinstripe jerseys (sidebar—those jerseys are perhaps the greatest hoops uniforms ever worn on an NBA floor, and each year that goes by in which the set isn’t reintegrated as their main uniforms is an organizational failure), to the nickname itself: Penny was to my generation what Griffey was to baseball. Cool. I mean, he was a 6’7” point guard! Those guys didn’t grow on trees in the 90s. So for someone who was too young to watch Magic in real time, Penny was that dude. He had the sizzle and flair and at that height, it felt like he could play any position on the floor. He’d have been perfect for the way the game is played in 2023, but he was a unicorn of sorts in his prime.
Today, though? Well, the NBA is upsizing at every position as the league continues to evolve into a world made in Masai Ujiri’s image—the intersection of size, feel, and versatility reigns supreme. The positional lens is more blurred than ever, having led to a boon in jumbo initiators and all-purpose wingy connective pieces to complement the game’s biggest stars.
Anthony Black of Arkansas might be a mix of both.
The elevator pitch with Anthony Black is quite simple. The 19-year-old freshman is 6’7” and switchable, pressures the rim like a mug, can make any pass in the book, and ranks high AF on the guy-you’d-love-to-play-with-o-meter.
Black is not without some question marks, and we’ll touch on those later, but the things that he does bring to the table are what modern NBA teams are looking to find.
And it all starts with the playmaking.
Playmaking is an essential duty of any player who operates with the ball in his hands, but not all playmaking is created equal. Some guys have to stick to the script and make premeditated passes based on set plays, while others have a clairvoyant ability to see things ahead of time and make plays based on what is going to happen. Black’s passing DNA is made up of the latter.
So as I’ve been doing all cycle, I want to go backward to go forward by looking at NBA players of the present to help us predict the future.
Anthony Black is not the kind of player that is going to be a heliocentric creator, soaking up super high usage and dictating every single decision on every possession. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
Tyrese Haliburton was like that in college. Haliburton should have been making every decision as the lead guard at Iowa State. Even today as Haliburton cements himself as an elite NBA playmaker and sits second in the league in assists per game, his usage is shockingly low. He doesn’t let the ball stick, though, and that’s the secret sauce that makes Tyrese Halliburton such a joyous basketball watch.
Anthony Black shares a lot of that Haliburton passing DNA. To be clear (because I know you’re thinking woah, man, slow down), there are a lot of differences in their offensive games. Haliburton was and is a deadly shooter from everywhere on the floor, while Black gets it done by pressuring the rim, but I see similarities in the type of passes they make, the quick processing, the touch, the infectious energy, and how both guys can turn good into great.
Turning good into great isn’t just making the extra pass; it also means making use of the entire court, having the feel to make those next-level reads that leverage the ball-handler’s gravity by collapsing the defense and then flawlessly kicking the ball out to the weak side of the floor. Those corner kicks are gold in the NBA, and like Cubs legend Henry Rowengartner throwing the floater, the ball glides in the air ever so softly into Council’s shooting pocket.
Both guys also have the advantage of being tall for their position. This affords them the benefit of being able to see over the defense so when they draw multiple defenders, they can stay calm, survey the floor, and make the correct read. In this case, they set up their roll men for easy buckets at the rim.
Just look at the similarities in the pace at which they got to their spots. They go high to low, change their speed, and play at a cadence that keeps the defender guessing. They’re never sped up, dictating the possession on their terms until they see the openings to sling the ball to their cutters.
Elite playmaking is about the exploitation of the defense. Caitlin Cooper (one of the best basketball minds on the Internet) wrote a fantastic piece on how Tyrese Haliburton exploits defenses with his jump passes. The jump pass is a commonality that I found while watching Ant Black as well. Yes, it could be bad when a passer has to improvise and gets stuck in the air, leaving them with no options and forcing them to make a rash decision with the ball; however, when they consciously use the jump to create better passing options…well, jump passes are in fact good.
Because Anthony Black isn’t nearly the shooter that Haliburton is, he is going to endure more challenges early on. In some ways, Black may have to follow the Lonzo Ball developmental path where it takes a bit longer for everything to fully click until the shot comes around. But Black’s jumper doesn’t need a complete overhaul, and what makes Black different than Lonzo is that he is a relentless attacker of the rim.
Black’s ability to get into the paint ad nauseam this season would be impressive if he were playing in an offense that was chock full of spacing. The fact that he’s been able to get downhill so often in spite of the lack of spacing for Arkansas makes it all the more impressive. Because Ant hasn’t proven to have a consistent jump shot, he needs to get paint touches to make full use of his passing gifts. Paint touches cause rotations, and rotations lead to passing opportunities.
Ant Black is a fairly unique prospect in that many scouts don’t think of him as a great athlete, but his combo of speed and agility at his height allows him to get where he wants on the floor. Black has lived at the free-throw line this year and has shown off the bunnies with an abundance of dunks.
Even without a threatening jump shot, Black has been able to pressure the rim in ways that players who struggle to shoot shouldn’t be able to do. To put in perspective how impressive Black has been at getting into the paint this season, I went to Barttorvik to create a query identifying rim pressure and playmaking. Plugging in freshman prospects that have had an Assist%>20, Dunks>20, and Free Throw Rate>50 resulted in only three players accomplishing this feat since 2008. Those players were John Wall, Ben Simmons, and Anthony Black.
While the current iterations of Wall and Simmons may not excite you, those dudes were killers in their prime. Even without threatening jumpers, they could get wherever they wanted on the court because of the combination of their physical tools and NBA spacing. The spacing differential between the NBA and college game is going to help Black tremendously as he continues to leverage his rim pressure ability to make plays for his teammates.
Ultimately Black’s ceiling comes down to one thing…the shot.
I’m a buyer in Black’s shot long term. I think he’s had some real moments when he’s letting it fly with confidence where the shot looks good. If you dissect each aspect of the jumper individually, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about. The problem is the mechanics of jump shots aren’t separate entities; you need each aspect to move synergistically. When Black is struggling with his jumper, you can notice how each aspect of his shot—from his base to his release—often moves at slightly different rhythms, which has led to some pretty rough misses over the course of the season.
NBA defenses are going to sit on the drive and force him to prove that he can make them pay from the outside.
This is clearly the swing skill that will decide Black’s high-end upside, but he doesn’t have to be the guy that is knocking down a ton of off-the-bounce shots to be an impact player in the NBA. What guys like Lonzo Ball or Derrick White have been able to do with time and work is to become adequate to good spot-up shooters. That ability to shoot it freely without hesitation to keep the defense honest is the bar that Black will have to aspire to reach.
NBA comps are never one-for-one; when you throw a guy like Haliburton in the mix, who is shitting on NBA defenses on a nightly basis, they start to look kooky. But when you start mixing different aspects of an NBA player’s game into a beaker to see what’s working and look to see if there are any similar aspects of a prospect’s game in there, you may get a clearer picture of what the prospect could potentially do at the next level. That’s why I mentioned guys like Lonzo and Derrick White on top of Haliburton. Those guys may not be the headline on the matinee, but they are some of the most impactful kinds of players on great teams. That’s Anthony Black: a dude who is going to impact winning even if he doesn’t reach his high-end outcome. I’m betting on a dude like that to return Top 10 value when I look back on this draft five years from now. Every team needs a player that connects the dots and makes their stars better. Every team needs an Anthony Black.