By R.L. Bynum
Leaky Black showed during his first two seasons at North Carolina that he has versatile skills as a lock-down defender, a terrific passer, a good rebounder and a good shooter.
Because of injury issues, including persistent problems with his left ankle, Tar Heels fans really have never seen what a completely healthy Black can do.
Get ready to see a different Leaky for his junior season.
“I’ve never been this confident in my life,” Black, who averaged 6.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2.6 assists last season, said during UNC’s media day Wednesday. “Right now, I feel great. I feel like it’s the best I’ve felt in a long time. The most I’ve worked on my body and my game since probably high school or middle school days.”
How determined is the 6-foot-8, 195-pound wing player to show off what he can do when he’s 100%? He shows up for rehab, stretching out his hips and knees, every morning at 7 a.m. After getting in the cold tub, he’s off to the weight room to get stronger before working on his shot.
“So, it’s two or three times a day, I’m doing stuff like that. I just feel better. I feel stronger just walking around,” said Black, who said he was probably about 70% overall last season. “I’ve been working really hard on just getting my body in shape to get stronger. Just getting my legs stronger so that my ankle doesn’t have to work so much.”
Last season, he knew in his mind what he wanted to do on the court, but his body didn’t always cooperate.
“I feel like I only know one speed and that’s just everything I have,” Black said. “And 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 just being confident in my offense and making a cut or whatever the case may be.”
Black says he doesn’t feel any pressure entering the season to show what he can do when feeling 100% healthy.
“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,” Black said. “If I’m a little bit healthier, maybe I could feel good enough to dive on the floor or something like that. Every little bit counts. I want to make myself available for my teammates.”
Senior forward Garrison Brooks says that he’s seen Black’s full “Swiss army knife” capabilities so far through six practices.
“Leaky’s always been pretty good on defense,” Brooks said. “He’s been going up and down the floor really well. Of course, he’s always getting people involved. He’s always been a very good passer. I think the surprising part is he’s healed up really well from his injuries and I think that he’s become a big athletic guard and he’s gonna be really good this year.”
Coach Roy Williams says that the coaching staff is being careful with Black in practice.
“A healthy Leaky Black makes us a heck of a lot better basketball team,” Williams said. “He hasn’t really been healthy for long stretches since he got here. We need him to be healthy. When he is healthy, he is a big-time player and that’s what we really need him to be.”
Assistant Coach Hubert Davis has told Black that he could be one of the best shooters in the country, and they’ve worked together for up to 90 minutes each day to improve his overall game. Black doesn’t leave the gym until he’s made 300 jumpers.
“I feel like I’ll be more of an offensive weapon,” Black said. “Just working on my game, just trying to work on my skills — just dribbling, my shot. So, I feel like I’m setting myself up to have a pretty successful season.”
Black says the pain from his physical issues may go away but the pain from last season’s 14–19 season is going to linger for a while.
“One thing we can take [from it] is just motivation,” Black said. “There’s the pain. We all still feel everything we felt last year — every loss, buzzer-beater, whatever the case may be — we still feel it to this day. Even if we have a great practice we still feel the pain. So, I feel like we’re just going to take that fire into every game to make sure we don’t have a season like that.”
He can’t wait to start putting both the mental and physical pain behind him when the season gets started next month.