Jake Layman was locked into an inescapable position on the Maryland bench, his neck pinched somewhere between Charles Mitchell’s massive right bicep and even more massive shoulder. As the video board declared Layman Saturday’s player of the game, Mitchell snatched his blond-haired classmate, cradling Layman’s head like a football, the entire moment captured for the Comcast Center’s sellout crowd to laugh along with them.
Little other than pure euphoria surfaced for Layman in his ACC debut Saturday against Virginia Tech. The swingman scored a career-high 20 points, became a local trending topic on Twitter and had Virginia Tech wondering how the 10th man on Coach Mark Turgeon’s bench not only started, but absolutely torched the Hokies as well.
“For a freshman, that’s a good way for him to step up,” Hokies guard Erick Green said. “He caught me off guard, and I didn’t think he was going to score that much.”
Who would? Layman entered with just 18 total points in his past five games, struggling to acclimate to Maryland’s fervent pace ever since arriving in College Park. But everything came together from the opening tip, in front of a convoy of family members.
The teenager fondly nicknamed “Sunshine,” after the Californian quarterback Ronnie Bass from “Remember the Titans,” was brilliant, scoring 18 points in the first half, sparking the Terrapins to a 94-71 win behind an array of three-pointers and athletic put-back dunks. Though Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson said he knew Layman could shoot, it was clear the Hokies entered with different priorities. They consistently double-teamed Alex Len, essentially leaving Layman open in the corner. Even when Pe’Shon Howard misfired on his deep shots early, Virginia Tech was so compacted and focused on boxing out Len that it neglected Layman, left free to soar from the baseline to the rim at will.
Had Layman broken out earlier this season, it might have come as less of a surprise. He played on the U.S. under-18 national team this summer, entering his freshman season at Maryland with certain expectations. Fans drooled over his athleticism and jump shot, but it rarely materialized in actual games. Academic troubles got in the way, as did waning confidence.
But a Christmas break trip home did wonders for Layman, who returned with rejuvenated confidence, insistent that he wouldn’t become a new player, just the same player with a new mindset. Turgeon has been calmer on Layman in practices lately, taking him aside for personal critiques rather than unleashing torrents of screams after a mistake.
“I think Jake was struggling because he had such high expectations, and because he made that under-18 U.S. team, it put even more expectations on him,” Turgeon said. “Was I concerned? Yes, but I wasn’t concerned, because he kept practicing hard every day. He practiced hard, went home for Christmas, regrouped. We believe in him. I started coaching Jake a little different. He doesn’t need to be screamed and yelled at. He just needs to be coached. Today was a great day for him.”
Layman lit up the Hokies, making 6 of 7 field goals and 4 of 5 three-pointers by halftime. He grew cold in the second half, enduring the final 20 minutes without a field goal, but still played a career-high 30 minutes, displaying solid perimeter defense and even locking Green down for one possession on a switch.
“I knew I had it in me. I just had to buckle down, focus on what I was doing wrong and correct it. I had to knock my shots down, obviously, but it was awesome to start. The best feeling ever.”
So if hearing the fans cheer for him during pregame introductions was the greatest feeling ever, then how was the experience of knocking down that first three-pointer, only 11 seconds into the game?
“It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Well, perhaps Layman’s entitled to some hyperbole after that performance. Turgeon only told Layman during pregame warmups he would start, after confirming the decision with assistant coach Scott Spinelli. With Nick Faust sidelined by back spasms, it was between Logan Aronhalt and Layman for Faust’s starting spot. They chose Layman, thinking his length would help defensively along the wing. Little did they know, Layman would become the latest breakout star for the Terps.
“He brought a lot of energy. Jake Layman’s a really good player,” Dez Wells said. “I think he can get lost in the mix of all the guys on the team, but he’s one of the elite athletes and players in this conference from the freshmen class.
“Jake, he has a little bit of knowledge of how great he can be. This game, I feel like his confidence will be up a lot more. He’ll come into games ready to shoot, get to the basket, just do something. I was really impressed by Jake. We’ve been telling him all year, he can be so good. But it’s up to him how good he can be. He’s confident, he just tends to second-guess himself. He misses a shot, the next shot he’ll second-guess whether he wants to take it or not. He needs a one-track mind.
“I told Jake he played like a man today. That’s how he needs to play every game.”