Anthony Black making big mark for Orlando Magic on defense

Anthony Black's role is still a small one and he is likely headed to the bench once the Orlando Magic are healthy again. But Black has found a niche and impressed many despite his meager statistics.

Anthony Black has had his ups and downs as a rookie for the Orlando Magic early in the season.
Anthony Black has had his ups and downs as a rookie for the Orlando Magic early in the season. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
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Anthony Black will not stand out on a box score. He is a rookie being asked to do a lot, thrown into the fire thanks to an injury to Markelle Fultz.

Still, he did something to earn that much trust. There is something the Magic see in Black.

You can see it when he gets engaged on the defensive end. It can be a small moment when a guard sees the rookie and tries to attack him and Black absorbs the contact through his chest, giving no ground and no way for that player to attack the basket.

It is the hardest thing to define what a good defender is. Especially as a rookie, Black has built up trust as a defender but still finds himself playing limited minutes.

But every game feels like a roller coaster -- proving the ups and downs that every rookie faces. Black has shown a lot of good and a lot he will clearly need to improve on through the first quarter of the season. This is still a 19-year-old rookie proving himself in the league.

For now then, Black's goal is a simple one: Defend whoever he is guarding for however long he is out there. And that focus has helped him find some success.

"That's a big part of my role is defense," Black said after shootaround Monday. "A lot of nights I am going to be guarding the number one or two option at least so far this season. I definitely take pride in trying to affect them as much as possible. They are the best players in the world so there is only so much you can do. I definitely take pride in my matchups."

That should give some idea of the monumental task Black seems to face every game. He got the matchup with Darius Garland for large chunks of Monday's 104-94 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Then again, Garland only made one of his three shots and scored only six points with Black as his primary defender in Monday's game. Garland finished with 36 points on 11-for-23 shooting.

In Monday's game, Black's primary assignment made only one of eight shots. Black tallied three steals and a block (and three fouls to add to the physicality).

That is a pretty productive game for someone who did not score.

"AB is special when it comes to defense," coach Jamahl Mosley said after the Orlando Magic's game against the Detroit Pistons. "He is a kid who wants to take on every challenge. He is not afraid of the moment. He has a great and high basketball IQ so he understands his spacing, where he needs to be positionally. But he does things that I haven't seen certain guys do in a while with his length and his size being able to do that. But he also knows he has four guys behind him ready to protect him."

This is a feeling that is echoed throughout the roster. Veteran players on the team like Gary Harris and Franz Wagner are impressed with his defense and his energy every night. Teammates recognize that Black is asked to do a lot for a player so young and that he has taken on those challenges with eagerness and energy.

Statistically, opponents shoot 46.0 percent against Anthony, a number that trails only Goga Bitadze (42.8 percent), Joe Ingles (44.0 percent), Jalen Suggs (44.1 percent), Gary Harris (44.6 percent) and Jonathan Isaac (44.9 percent). Opponents shoot 1.3 percentage points worse than expected with Black as the closest defender.

The Magic have an overall net rating of +3.0 points per 100 possessions with Black on the floor, including a 107.5 defensive rating.

Essentially, Black as a rookie and playing in the starting lineup defends at a level at least similar to the Magic's elite defenders.

There are still some catch-all numbers that Black needs to catch up on -- he has accumulated 0.5 defensive win shares this season and a +0.8 defensive box plus-minus, which put him in the middle of the pack within the team. But he is still among the best rookies in both categories.

That is still the thing to highlight. Black is still just a rookie.

"Really just trying to find my spots to be aggressive," Black said after shootaround on Dec. 1. "Continuing to defend and rebound and have a voice out there. Just figuring it out. It's going to take some time. Teammates and coaches trust me. I'm really just out there figuring it out."

That is the part that is abundantly clear. Black still has a lot of pieces to put together.

For as good as he has been defensively, he is still finding his footing on offense. And the Magic are, in a sense, hiding their rookie on the offensive end (usually it is the other way around with rookies).

Black is averaging a meager 4.8 points per game with 2.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. He has shooting splits of 49.4/26.9/64.0 and takes only 3.8 field goal attempts per game. Even as a starter for the last 17 games, he plays in only 19.2 minutes per game. Black has a usage rate of just 11.6 percent -- a ridiculously low number.

Even as one of the team's primary ball handlers and nominal point guard in the starting lineup, Black gets precious few touches. According to data from Second Spectrum, Black averages only 30.0 touches per game (that is fewer than Bitadze).

It can be hard for a player -- and especially a young player -- to make a consistent impact when they are not involved offensively. And it is certainly a sign the Magic have a limited offensive role for their rookie.

But they still trust him defensively and Black has bought into that part of his role.

"I really think what he has done a great job is figuring out when and where to do certain things," Mosley said after shootaround Monday. "I think before recognizing the league, seeing where you are, how you guard certain guys with a level of respect, he's now understanding how he can do it with his qualities. Using his length to his advantage, when he can bump a guy to his advantage, being physical at the right time, he's learning more and more of that as the game goes on and that's a high-level adjustment for him and the coaches working with him."

The rookie season is a journey. That can be hard to remember sometimes. And for a Magic team that is suddenly contending, playing a rookie like Black is no longer throwing him onto the court for experience, but trying to get some immediate value from him.

Black has shown that with his defensive abilities. He is and can be a special defensive player. There is no doubt about that.

Black is still finding his place offensively. Even he would admit he is learning his spots and understanding the little things through the course of a game.

The Magic know how teams will defend him when they get in tighter games. That is an unfortunate realization too for when the Magic reach the Playoffs in April.

Black is still finding his ways and doing plenty of good with plenty to improve.

"Every game it feels like it is slowing down a little more," Black said after shootaround Monday. "Definitely starting to feel more comfortable and starting to figure out my spots and stuff like that."

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Black has a lot to offer a team like Orlando. And the Magic will surely try to find a way to keep him involved in the rotation when Markelle Fultz returns to the lineup. Black has earned that with his defensive impact -- and that is still the most important part of the Magic's culture.

There is still plenty for him to grow.