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Leron Black is the Big Ten’s Most Underrated Player

The numbers love Leron Black, and so should we.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Leron Black now lives at the top of the scouting report. In fact, the only other name on the scouting report is Trent Frazier. They are the only double-digit scorers on this year’s Illinois team, and they have been the only consistent offensive pieces for the Illini all year. Last year every opponent was concerned about three things when they played Illinois: Malcolm Hill, Malcolm Hill and Malcolm Hill. Trying to stop Leron Black wasn’t at the front of many teams’ minds.

Illinois also lacks outside shooting. This allows defenses to collapse on Black in the paint, over help, or play a zone. All of these things make a post scorer’s life more difficult.

These were all ingredients to create a perfect storm for a letdown season from Leron Black, or even a disappointing plateau. Instead, Black has taken his offensive game to another level. His defensive rebounding numbers have taken a step back, but it’s very possible that the energy he’s had to expend on offense has had a great deal to do with his declined production on the glass.

After his career-high 28 points versus Nebraska on Sunday, it’s time to take a look at how efficient and dominant Black has been this season. All of these numbers will be from conference games as it depicts a more consistent year over year approach against the best competition.

Scoring

This Season: 15.6 PPG

Last Season: 6.5 PPG

Black has seen an 9-point jump in points per game in conference play this year, which is a jump worthy of Most Improved Player (does the B1G have this?) consideration. I was surprised to see how little Black scored last year because he has been so phenomenal in that department this season. Black deserves a ton of credit for stepping up and filling the void left by Hill.

Coming into this season there was no guarantee he would be able to carry that load, but as the season has wore on, there is no doubt he is more than capable of being the go-to-guy.

Field Goal Percentage:

This Season: 59% (58% from three)

Last Season: 42% (36% from three)

We will dive into some more advanced numbers later, but it’s clear just from a look at good old fashioned field goal percentages that Black has improved greatly. An 18% leap in FG% and 22% leap in 3FG% is simply unheard of, especially for a player already shooting at least 40%. The only time that kind of leap may be seen is for a freshmen who shot 28% from the field and 13% from three. (Psst... Mark, Da’Monte, such leaps would be great to see!!!)

It’s important to note that Black has taken less threes this season, and it would be irresponsible to walk around calling him a 60% three point shooter on such few attempts, but it’s an impressive, efficient and valuable statistic nonetheless. It brings another dimension to his game and to the Illini offense that opposing coaches must respect and account for.

True Shooting Percentage:

True shooting tries to provide a wholistic view of how good of a shooter a player is from all levels of the floor. Twos, threes and free throws are all taken into account and appropriately weighted. This stat works to correct the fact that a big man center who only dunks the ball and can’t shoot free throws has a wildly higher FG% than a dead eye three point and free throw shooter. Here’s the formula if you are unfamiliar with TS%:

TS% = Points / [2*(Field Goal Attempts + .44*Free Throw Attempts)]

This Season: 67%

Last Season: 47%

Leron has actually been more efficient in conference play than he was in nonconference play. That 67% would be good for fifth in the Big Ten over the entire season. His consistent and improved midrange shot and post moves from 5-8 feet out are what provides the lift to all of his numbers. But Black is also shooting 9% better from the free throw line this year on 2.6 attempts per game, compared to less than one attempt per game a year ago. Getting to the free throw line is a staple of Underwood teams, and Black has answered the bell and been much better at drawing fouls and getting points at the stripe.

Effective Field Goal Percentage:

eFG% is just a combined FG% adjusted for the fact that a three is worth more than a two. Quick Formula if you are unfamiliar:

eFG% = (Total FGM + 0.5*Three Point FGM)/Total FGA

This Season: 63%

Last Season: 45%

Black ranks 6th in the Big Ten in this statistic over the coarse of the entire season (58%). His conference mark of 63% would be good for third over the coarse of the season. Leron’s improved three-point shooting selection is to thank for this jump. Even though he doesn’t have many attempts (28), shooting 58% from three has a huge impact on this statistic.

His efficiency from the outside gives Illinois another dimension defensively and gives opposing coaches another problem to game plan for.

Usage Rate

Black has increased his scoring, shooting and efficiency without becoming a black hole. Usage percentage is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. It’s a slightly more involved calculation that you can find a description for here: https://www.basketball-reference.com/about/glossary.html

(Shoutout to basketball reference, that’s where all the numbers come from. They are the second-best site on the internet after TCR.)

This Season: 25.4%

Last Season 22.4%

Leron has hardly seen much of an increase in his usage rate, which is another demonstration of his efficiency. He does not force anything. He is not a player who takes a ton of shots, and the ones he takes are good ones. So this is another extremely impressive metric. However, with the current structure of the roster, it would benefit the Illini if they could get Black more involved.

Underwood would probably like to see Black near the top of the Big Ten in usage rate at 30%. Currently Black is third on the Illini in usage rate and outside of the top ten in the conference. Frazier is ninth at 27%.

So, let’s say it together...

Leron Black came to Champaign as a tenacious, undersized rebounding power forward with a bit of a temper. He immediately earned the nickname “Savage”. I don’t know about you, but when I think of someone with the nickname “Savage”, I don’t think of a smooth low-post operator who also knocks down 50% of his three-point attempts.

Black has come to college and developed into a potential All-Big Ten player. He has changed his game and his image into that of one of the most polished offensive players in the Big Ten and college basketball.

While Illinois has struggled this season, it’s important Leron gets his credit. He’s a true collegiate athletics success story. Hopefully he will be a deadly weapon for next year’s improved and experienced roster.

We watched one Illini great go his entire career without making the NCAA Tournament, I don’t want to see that happen again.