After Over Two Years Of Preparation, Jake Layman Is Ready For His Moment
Roughly seven months ago, Jake Layman wasn't so sure the Trail Blazers would pick up his third-year option after they used cash and a 2019 second round pick to acquire the second round pick out of Maryland from the Orlando Magic in a 2016 NBA Draft night trade. Between Portland being unceremoniously swept out of the first round of the 2018 Western Conference playoffs, players like Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton being allowed to walk in free agency and Layman playing a grand total of 409 minutes over the course of his first two seasons, his future with the Trail Blazers seemed far from settled.
Flash forward to today, and it's almost unpleasant to imagine where the Trail Blazers would be this season without Layman.
After two-plus seasons of inconsistent play, typified by a habit of turning in an explosive offensive performance one night only to follow it up with long stretches of ineffectiveness, Layman has found his place in Portland's lineup over the last month and seems to be on the brink of becoming a regular contributor for the first time in his professional career. For Layman, it's a testament to the work he's put in on the practice court over the last two seasons and simply having the chance to carve out a spot in Terry Stotts' wing rotation.
"I think it's definitely more opportunity," said Layman. "I think I'm definitely trying to be as aggressive as possible when I'm in there, try to bring a spark whenever I'm in there. Whether that's cutting to the basket, setting screens for other people, getting myself open while setting screens, just playing the right way within our offense."
With Moe Harkless out due to lingering effects of offseason knee surgery, Layman started and played consistent minutes for the first month of the season. But when Harkless returned to the lineup, Layman returned to the bench, posting 11 DNPs over the course of 19 games. While Layman comported himself well enough in Harkless' absence, averaging 5.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 17.8 minutes in the month of November, those averages didn't make an especially compelling case for additional minutes with everyone relatively healthy.
But rather than pout or lament his bad luck, Layman bided his time by going back to work and staying ready. So when Harkless' injury issues continued to linger and the strong early-season play of guys like Zach Collins and Nik Stauskas started to wain, Layman was able to take advantage.
"I think it was something I've been preparing for my last couple of years," said Layman. "I think Coach has done a great job communicating with me. At the beginning of this year, telling me it might be the case that sometimes I'll play and then not play, so I was prepared for those moments to happen. I never hung my head, never brought the team down or anything. I always stayed positive, cheered my teammates on no matter what. That's the only way to go about it."
The results have been borderline remarkable, with Layman averaging 10.1 points on 54 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from three, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 20.0 minutes per game over his last 20 appearances. What's more, he's nearly doubled the number of attempts he's taking per game, going from around four field goal attempts as a starter to nearly eight off the bench. For a team that relies probably a bit too much on their starting backcourt for points, having a player who is ready and willing to get shots as soon as he enters the game adds significant pop to a bench unit that has struggled to score at times throughout the last three seasons.
"It's not about being selfish, it's all about just playing within the offense," said Layman of his willingness to shoot regardless of the situation. "To me, this didn't happen overnight. This is my third year now, it's taken me a couple of years to really understand. I had to be mentally prepared for those moments -- coming off the bench or starting -- and always be aggressive in those moments. So I think it's me maturing over the past couple of years with my game."
While he's always had a predilection for scoring in bunches -- he put up 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 shooting from three in his NBA debut -- Layman has been especially effective utilizing cuts to take advantage of Jusuf Nurkić's adept passing and teams overplaying Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to get easy attempts at the rim.
"Maybe I'm just catching teams sleeping because they're really focused on Dame and CJ when they're out there," said Layman, who has scored in double figures in nine of Portland's last 11 games. "Catching teams sleeping cutting to the basket, setting good screens, on CJ and Dame especially because then two guys will go with them. I've really noticed that. When I got in there, if I hit my first couple, I think the guys know to keep trying to go to me, which is great. I love that. It's really humbling for me to know that my teammates have that confidence in me to trust me to go out there and be aggressive and make the right plays."
It also seems as though Layman is good for at least one alley-oop finish per game as of late. By shooting 38 percent from three in February, teams have to rotate out to Layman on the perimeter, opening up opportunities to counter aggressive closeouts with drives to the basket, where he's prove to be one of Portland's most viable threats.
According to the NBA's statistics, Layman has attempted half of the Trail Blazers' 32 "alley oop dunk shots" this season, six of their 18 "alley oop layup shots" and 21 of their 97 "cutting dunk shots." By shooting a combined 37-of-43 on those attempts, Layman has made himself a valuable asset on a team that has had a difficult time finding easy buckets in recent seasons.
"I've been working on my game a lot, think I have a pretty well-rounded game," said Layman. "If they try to do one thing that's just an opportunity for me to show another part of my game with the way they're guarding me."
Between his shooting, athleticism and ability to play both forward spots, Layman has earned himself more minutes this season -- his 760 minutes are more than one and a half more games than he played throughout his first two seasons combined -- and likely a more lucrative contract this offseason. And after willingly accepting whatever role and playing time he was given, one could understand if he turned his attention to what's best for his own career rather than that of the team, especially with minutes on the wing likely becoming a bit more difficult to secure with the addition of Rodney Hood.
But putting the team first has gotten Layman to the point where he's a regular contributor on a Top 4 team in the Western Conference, so he figures there's no point in changing the mentality that has gotten him to this point.
"I think just always being positive with your teammates is really important," said Layman. "I don't really think about myself too much in that way. I think for me, when the team is successful then I'll be successful. So I'm out there doing everything the right way for us to win games and everything else will come."