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Hiding In Plain Sight

Anthony Black doesn’t have to do much to stand out. His hair operates as an entity of its own, a beacon before he touches a basketball. His full head of hair has a variety of colors to it gifting him an extra few inches of height atop his 6-foot-7 frame. Curly and of great volume the routine to tend to his hair elapses nearly 90 minutes. That routine however isn't the only one Black takes pride in. Throughout his rookie season he was consistently the first player in the gym and the last to leave. Staying hours on end, after victories, losses, whether he started or logged another back-breaking DNP.

There’s a smoothness to his game that turned heads after the team used one of their lottery picks to add to their already loaded guard room. Going into the offseason with neither guards Markelle Fultz or Gary Harris under contract, conversations have shifted to a number of countless playmakers the team should look to acquire. None of those have been to hand the keys to a player selected with one of the teams lottery picks a year ago. For as easy as it is to notice Black on the court, there's been a blindfold cast on the eyes of many when it comes to the potential he could unlock to catapult Orlando's future to brighter horizons.

Black's averages of 4.6 points and 1.3 assists per game don’t look like numbers befitting a playmaking franchise savior, but a deeper look reveals a surprise: He was actually a productive rookie despite the team not playing to his strengths.

The biggest worry for Black coming into Orlando was his shot. A shot featuring funky mechanics, paired with his slow release, was a recipe for disaster. This didn't stop Jamahl Mosley, who forced his rookie into the corners to optimize spacing around ascending superstar Paolo Banchero. Teams would often blitz daring kick and spray-outs to the corner, a strategy Black faced frequently this year and routinely made teams pay for.

The rookie from Arkansas shot 43.2% on 37 attempts from downtown off a kick-out from the paint. Of his 16 makes, Paolo Banchero delivered a team-high four of them. Black was the only player on the Magic roster to shoot over 40% on them with at least 35 attempts. Fifty percent of his long-range bombs came from the corners where shot just over 40 percent.

With a majority of his offense this season stemming from his positioning in the corners, it didn't discourage the sixth-overall pick from playing out of space. Within Orlando's 5-Out scheme, Black's vision and creativity were commonly found as he sought out highlight plays, cutting to the basket as an off-ball mover. That style allowed Black to be a presence even when the ball wasn't in his hands since he’s capable of morphing into a traditional 2-guard, in an age where position-less basketball has become invaluable.

Black wasn’t perfect, but no rookie is. His limited on-ball usage paired with his inconsistent minutes left few self-creation and playmaking opportunities on the table in the limited playing time with the duo of Franz and Paolo. Black operates like a motorcycle. His top speed is unlimited, he accelerates smoothly, changes directions quickly, and no matter his pace, he has a sense of space and precision. Despite having these tools he struggled in self-creation. He only attempted 31 shots following an on-ball pick, converting just nine (29%).

Many of the league’s top point guards embody the qualities Black displays in the clips above, navigating by shifting gears and using silky smooth hesitations. So why did he struggle? The rookie was limited to near non-existent usage from within the playbook. Meaning Jamahl Mosley did less than the bare minimum in helping create pathways to encapsulate larger offensive success. Most of Black's scoring came from him having to fend for himself versus having his number called within set plays. Adapting to the speed of the pro game can also be a major struggle at first. Add seeing limited playing time, primarily being utilized to defend the opposing team's best guard and not be rewarded with set plays within the flow of an already barren offensive playbook, it's rough.

In the darkest moments though, Black still found light asserting himself as an asset offensively. If the coming sophomore wants to be handed the reigns to the offense he needs to help provide mismatches for the star-studded duo to thrive in. In his rookie season, Anthony Black was the most ideal guard on-ball screening partner for both Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero.

He not only seems to embrace the violence that comes with setting a solid screen, but he’s proved himself a versatile receiving threat, operating as a hellacious rim runner and someone who can be a secondary playmaker on a short roll to the elbows. Due to his mobility, he’s been perfect on drag screens in transition and early set plays.

Black is at the center of everything; despite not having the ball in his hands for most of the game. That’s all a natural part of getting handed the keys as a 20-year-old, though.

His teammate Paolo Banchero -- who dominates the possession of the ball -- recently commented that he wants "a guy who can set the table and be reliable". The first-time All-Star added "We have a lot of talented guys who can make shots and make plays: me, Franz [Wagner] and Jalen Suggs. I would rather be more of an offensive hub than the point guard, if that makes sense.” His comments suffice that he wants a playmaker to create for him, easing the offensive burden off his shoulders.

The idea of having a sure-fire point guard around to set the table fell woefully has become the default. But making plays is not the same thing as running a team. Let's remove the blindfold for a second. You have to have your head on a swivel if you are playing Anthony Black with the ball in his hands. Remember last season's Summer League and Arkansas when he dominated the usage. Or even the sporadic moments when he was the starter in Orlando. He manipulates the defense like a seasoned pro, reading help-side defenders and moving at an electric speed to find players a step late or a step too slow before making these high level feeds.

Orlando's offense needs the root skills of a point guard, but it also needs the fuzzier, intangible qualities that have long been native to the position. The 20-year-old whom the Magic invested a sixth overall pick provides malleability all over the floor. He doesn't need the ball in his hands to maximize his game. It certainly doesn't hurt when they are in his hands though. When he isn't scoring he's still positively affecting the offense as a cutter and screener -- not to mention his stout defense.

It’s more important that the new-coming point guard doesn't just pressure the defense as a scorer, but in turn creates opportunities for everyone else on the floor with his malleability off-ball. There is a kind of emotional labor in playing the point that goes hand in hand with the leadership inherent to it. For a front office that has reaped the rewards of patience and "internal growth", why not allow the point guard you invested a high draft capital in to grow alongside the star-studded duo in the same timeline?

There’s so much to learn and process, especially when you’re expected to be the one keeping everyone else organized, fed, and happy. Those who hit the ground running are the outliers. What young point guards need most is time and patience, the water and sunlight of chances to fail, the structure and opportunity to grow. Stripping Black of that for a "stop-gap" point guard wouldn't be the end of the world, it would just be unfortunate for him, and a devious shift from upper management beliefs.

The Magic’s core is young and malleable, with skill sets that can at least be molded to resemble a team atop the East. The next decade will be defined by teams that can match positional versatility and shooting ability. The Magic are building a club emphasizing those qualities, with Black serving as the catalyst.. hopefully.

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Great write up! I see the vision of AB eventually being our lead guard. He and Suggs form a formidable defensive backcourt.

Just need him to continue hitting 3s and get more minutes as the starting PG.

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