Because of Jake Layman’s play, the Trail Blazers face an important question: Who should play at small forward?

Feb 06, 2019 | by Jason Quick, The Athletic

On the night Jake Layman set his career high with 25 points, which continued a solid if not spectacular three-week run of play, he left the arena Tuesday night not knowing if he would be in the Trail Blazers’ rotation come Thursday.

“I think I have done everything I could at this point to earn coach’s trust,” Layman said.

Still, aside from wondering whether Neil Olshey will pull off a big trade before Thursday’s deadline, Layman is at the center of what has become the most pressing question around the Trail Blazers these days: What will coach Terry Stotts do at small forward?

Maurice Harkless has been the team’s starter for much of the past three seasons, and is a favorite of Stotts because of his defense. But he has been limited and largely ineffective this season because of lingering left knee soreness.

Then on Sunday, the Blazers acquired Rodney Hood in a trade with Cleveland, and Stotts—a bit uncharacteristically—said Hood will play, and play immediately.

And there’s also Evan Turner, who engineers the second unit as a point forward, and is invaluable with how many positions he can guard.

So where does that leave Layman, a guy who has averaged 14.2 points the past 10 games?

The day after the Hood trade, on Stotts’ weekly radio call-in show, the coach was asked if Hood playing right away meant Layman returned to the bench?

“You do the math,” Stotts answered.

Then on Tuesday, moments after the Blazers’ flat performance, Stotts was again asked about Layman.

“His energy,” Stotts said, “was noticeable.”

Stotts was then asked whether it will be hard to keep Layman out of the rotation?

“We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Layman, in his aw-shucks manner, shrugged at the developments before him — Harkless starting, the trade for Hood, the rotation already at 10.

“I mean, honestly, whatever happens, happens,” Layman said. “If I’m sitting on the bench, I will be fine with that, because I know I’ve worked as hard as I could to put myself in the best position possible.”

For Layman, this type of uncertainty is nothing new.

It is not lost on Layman how remarkable it is that he is in the midst of a heated competition for a rotation spot on a playoff-bound team.

Seven months ago, he didn’t know if he would be back with the Blazers. His contract was up, and the Blazers didn’t know what was more valuable — roster flexibility or signing Layman for the minimum $1.5 million. He had to prove himself at the Las Vegas Summer League, his third stint there with the Blazers after being a second-round pick out of Maryland in 2016.

“It was definitely a stressful time, probably one of the most stressful times in my life besides draft night,” Layman said.

His Summer League performance (13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds) was good enough to get the contract, and by training camp, players like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were talking about Layman as a potential breakout player.

Now, here he is impacting games for the Western Conference’s fourth-place team. He scored 20 points in the second quarter against New Orleans on Jan 18. He hit three 3-pointers and played the entire fourth quarter in a big win at Utah on Jan. 30. And he hit 11-of-17 shots Tuesday against the Heat.

Stotts credits Layman’s work ethic, and the job of Portland’s assistants, who are cementing a reputation for developing young talent. The Blazers have produced big improvements in third-year players, most notably CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Pat Connaughton.

“I’m definitely big on reflecting where I’ve been to where I am now,” Layman said. “And it’s been a blessing for sure, that I was able to get drafted by the Trail Blazers, because they really invest in their young guys and try to get that third year to be their breakout year.”

What has distinguished Layman’s breakout season has been his athleticism, and sharp cutting, which has led to a bevy of alley-oop dunks. In fact, Stotts credits Layman’s back cuts for playing a role in the team’s improved passing and more fluid offense.

If it’s hard to believe one of the last roster decisions is now leading the team in flashy plays, is shooting 36.1 percent from 3-point range, and is playing both small and power forward for a contending team … you are not alone.

“I mean honestly, the way I’m playing now — I’ve never really been this good at it (cutting to the basket),” he said. “It’s just the way my game has evolved over the last couple of years, watching Mo and Chief (Aminu) and Pat Connaughton out there, learning how to cut. I’ve never been this kind of player before. I mean, I was always getting dunks but never at this rate that I’m going right now.”

His dunks remind him just how far he has come. He still remembers a bloody day as a youth in Wrentham, Mass. that serves as a step on his journey to Tuesday’s NBA career high. Layman knew he had a gift by the time he was in eighth grade growing up outside of Boston.

“I was always the kid trying to dunk all practice long,” Layman said.

His dad Tim helped him reach his goal of dunking by having Jake box-jump to build his leg muscles.

“One day, he was working me hard, and I came down on the box and opened a huge gash on my leg,” Layman said. “Still have the scar.”

By his freshman season at King Philip Regional, he dunked in a game, off a steal and breakaway.

“Weakest dunk ever,” Layman said.

On Saturday, Stotts ordered a “black out” day for the team, meaning the players are supposed to clear their minds from basketball and stay away from the practice facility.

But there was Layman at the practice facility, getting in a workout.

“He’s a professional,” said McCollum, who also went to get in a workout. “He’s always ready. This season he’s played, and he has not played for weeks at a time, and you know he is probably frustrated by it, but he never voices his displeasure or becomes a bad teammate. And that just shows his character.”

Layman says his attitude has been helped by his fiance, Jasmine Garry. He asked her to marry him in the summer of 2018 and they will tie the knot in July this year.

“She has been huge, that backbone to support me when I’m down,” Layman said. “And when I’m doing really well, she is the one to bring me back down to Earth.”

She has had practice this season, as Layman has experienced probably the most dramatic ups and downs of anyone on the Blazers. He started the first 19 games, then didn’t play in five straight games, played for four games, didn’t play for three … played in one … sat in one … played in two … sat one …

“I would play a little bit, then be on the bench a little bit, and sometimes just not really understanding why,” Layman said. “But she was always in my ear to stay positive, stay focused, and reminding me it will all come around.”

It did, and now Layman is at the center of a hot topic in Portland, in part because of an injury, in part because of a trade, but mostly because of his own standout play.

Thursday against the Spurs will be the first glimpse of how Stotts will begin to answer that hot topic, and Layman says he will be at peace no matter what the result.

“I’ve done everything I can to be satisfied with where I’m at,” Layman said. “I’ve put in the work.”

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