The Portland Trail Blazers have had little to smile about in recent weeks. What was expected to be a promising start has fizzled with the performance of what was expected to be a promising roster. Now sitting below .500 more than a month into the regular season, the team must address their problems before real progress can be made. But for all the unexpected (or at least eye-opening) shortcomings, the early season has yielded one unexpected success. Rookie Jake Layman is already making a positive impact.
Selected at No. 47 in the 2016 NBA draft, it was anticipated that Layman would make the bench his home for the majority of the year, much like current contributors that came before him, but Layman electrified the Moda Center crowd with an explosive 17-point performance in his 8-minute debut on November 1. When Al-Farouq Aminu was sidelined with a calf injury on November 8, Layman, despite overcrowding in the frontcourt, joined head coach Terry Stotts’ nightly rotation.
“It feels good to be finally getting some minutes out there.” Layman told Blazer’s Edge. “I think the goal for me is still just to learn as much as possible, whether it’s our defensive principles or our plays on offense, but I think whenever I get out there, it’s all about just playing as hard as I can.”
Prior to season’s start, Layman missed most of training camp with a shoulder injury; an inauspicious beginning to an unlikely passage. All the work he had put in over the summer went undisplayed while Portland’s coaches looked to structure the deep bench.
Layman had faced injury in his four years at the University of Maryland (where he picked up the nickname “Sunshine” for his long, blonde hair), but never in such an untimely fashion. Rapid recovery with a sense of urgency was a new and necessary process.
“The summer of my sophomore year, I broke my hand.” Layman said. “I think when I broke my hand, it was definitely different because when I broke my hand it was the off-season; there were no games being played, it wasn’t preseason, so I wasn’t in a rush to come back. But with the shoulder injury, it was right before training camp, so it was really bad timing for me, coming in as a rookie. Training camp is a big time for rookies to kind of showcase themselves and show what they’ve been working on all summer at summer league and the camps that they’ve done. It was tough to go through that.”
That is perhaps what made Layman’s aforementioned debut so stunning. The coaches were well aware of his offensive capability in theory, but it is a bit unorthodox to tangibly see it in-game before you really see it behind the scenes. What’s more, Layman has sustained a reasonable level of contribution, demonstrating that his apparent readiness was no anomaly. Since joining rotation, he has been able to provide a modest scoring punch for the Trail Blazers in 5-10 minute spurts.
Whether or not Layman remains in this role once Aminu returns is uncertain at this point, but it is worth noting that in a forward-laden lineup, Layman has received unprecedented court time, nearly eclipsing the total rookie minutes of teammate Allen Crabbe, who would eventually become an integral part of the team. It is also worth noting that Stotts does not typically dole out developmental minutes when the team is struggling, so while Layman is getting a chance to learn and grow, that chance exists because he is already more of a plus than a detriment in short stints that don’t expose his weaknesses.
All that said, Layman has an abundance of room to improve and he knows it. As with the rest of the team, defense has become his primary focus.
“I think that’s one thing that I still really need to work on.” He admitted. “I hear from the coaches every day that it’s all about defense for me; whether that’s guarding the ball or knowing our different coverages. I’m still learning a lot, but it’s good that I’m able to learn while in games also. I’ve seen a lot of improvement in the past two months. It’s not something that happens overnight. I’m definitely working on it every day.”
If Layman can quickly learn to hold his own on defense, the ceiling on his utility rises that much more. He already has the vote of confidence from Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, who suggested that Layman was a rotation player in conversation with ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz two weeks ago. There is a sense that Layman can round out an already deep lineup, which is great if the Trail Blazers can find a way to make it a successful one.
Ultimately, the fact that Layman has been playable this early on—given his draft position and the Trail Blazers’ standing within the conference—should be a positive to point to as the team figures itself out. Even if the Trail Blazers are underperforming expectations as a conglomerate, one piece has been a pleasant surprise.