The NBA is a beautiful league, full of exciting players.
There are players of different height, weight, speed, all with unique styles of play that make each player special. No one has Giannis Antetokounmpo’s wingspan, LeBron James’ combination of size and speed, Steph Curry’s range, or Russell Westbrook’s explosive athleticism.
But buried in the Pacific Northwest is a special player for the Portland Trail Blazers — Jake Layman.
Layman played four years at the University of Maryland before being drafted with the 47th overall pick by the Orlando Magic, who immediately traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers. The 6-foot-9-inch forward came into the league with a reputation as a shooter, and he’s started to live up to that expectation in his third season in the league. When Mo Harkless went down with an injury, Layman was inserted into the starting lineup as Terry Stotts tried to maximize floor spacing for the other four starters.
With his sweet shooting stroke, ability to shoot off screens and spot up, plus his size, he’s a nice option for Portland with their starting lineup. He hustles when he’s out there, scrapping for loose balls and crashing the offensive glass for putback dunks.
The last word in the previous sentence may be a bit surprising for a player billed as purely a floor spacer, but be assured, there is more to Layman’s game than just stroking jumpers. Portland has taken advantage of the stereotype that he probably isn’t going to be the player defenses are worried about “maximizing his natural ability,” to quote the annual GM survey.
Well, like most NBA defenses, prepare to be surprised.
The Trail Blazers have two plays they like to run with Layman that catch defenders off guard.
One of the plays takes advantage of Jusuf Nurkic’s ability to pass out of the high post. It’s an element of his game that he’s strengthened this year, and he’s averaging a career-best 3.2 assists per game. When Nurkic passes the ball to a teammate, no one on the team has a higher conversion rate than Layman’s 62.5 percent rate, according to NBA Stats.
Nurkic takes the ball above the break, surveying the defense. Meanwhile, one of the other guards will sneak over to set a back screen on Layman’s defender, positioning themselves between the defender and the rim. Unprepared defenders aren’t expecting a screen at that angle — they’re watching for a screen to free him up for a 3-point attempt. Nurkic’s defender is sagged off into the paint, because the Bosnian big man isn’t a 3-point shooting threat, and that allows them to stay inside the arc where they’re more comfortable. Layman takes off once he gets the nod from Nurkic, his defender slams into the screen, and moments later, Layman is flying through the air, both hands outstretched to receive the ball and slam it through the hoop. It’s absurd how easy this looks when they run this play.
The other play involves using one of the guards (usually Lillard) as the person delivering the pass, but it takes advantage of teams putting a smaller defender on him. Watch Layman’s dunk against Utah as an example.
Because Layman is quick enough to defend guards, he’s playing the 2-guard role alongside Lillard, which has him being marked by 6-foot-3-inch Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell won a Slam Dunk competition, but that doesn’t make him a rim protector. Nurkic slides over to plant a screen on Mitchell, and even though it doesn’t connect, Mitchell’s laissez-faire effort to chase Layman means he’s a step behind when Layman cuts hard to the rim into the space vacated by Mo Harkless reversing court. Lillard skips the ball up to Layman, who adjusts and lays the ball in the hoop. An easy, automatic two points as long as the guard is able to get the ball to Layman.
Plays like this have led to Layman being third on the team in dunks, according to Basketball-Reference. That means he’s ahead of Zach Collins, Damian Lillard, Mo Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu — and he’s not too far behind Meyers Leonard. He has made 34 3-point attempts this season, and he has 31 dunks — he’s a true dual-threat.
The goal in every NBA will always remain the same: score more points than your opponent. It’s fun to see Portland find a unique way that they are able to try to do that each night. The next time you watch a Trail Blazers game, keep an eye on Layman running off screens, and you just might be lucky enough to catch him floating through the air for a two-hand power jam that brings the home crowd up onto their feet.
Jake Layman? More like Jake Dunkman.