The answer took less than a second, if that. Asked about the Maryland basketball team’s biggest offseason surprise, the question was hardly over when Dez Wells almost jumped from his seat to respond.
“Jake Layman,” Wells said. “He has no idea how good he is. He doesn’t recognize his potential.”
Indeed, there were moments last year when the floppy-haired freshman would catch the basketball along the perimeter, sometimes in transition, other times on the secondary break, and just stop. Layman appeared timid, almost confused, like his muscles knew how to react but his brain held him short.
“I think it’s definitely confidence,” Layman said. “Last year I struggled with it a little bit here and there. This year I’ve kind of found myself. I know what I can do, and I should be doing it.”
In every public performance opportunity this offseason, Layman has excelled. He led the Terrapins in scoring during their three-game foreign tour in the Bahamas. Word zoomed back north of his elevated poise, of Layman’s potential to become not just the versatile swingman Coach Mark Turgeon hoped he could be, but one of Maryland’s strongest offensive weapons this season.
Then, early Saturday morning during an open scrimmage, Layman canned four three-pointers, reached the free-throw line several more times and finished with a game-high 20 points – in one half. He was, by far, the best player on the Comcast Center floor.
“Jake’s really improved,” Turgeon said on media day last week. “The thing about Jake last year on this date to today’s practice, wow. It’s not even close. He did explode down there [in the Bahamas], saw a lot of zone which helped. He’s worked hard on his ball handling, passing decision making, like all players have. He’s gotten a lot better defensively, he’s gotten more physical. In the end he’s gotten more confident. He’s a very confident kid. He’s great to see.”
Or, as assistant coach Scott Spinelli said, Layman has “a little bit more of a swagger to him.” It’s the same tongue-wagging confidence that surfaced at times last season, except now it’s bolstered by tangible improvements. Layman shot just 29.9 percent on three-pointers last season, worst among every Maryland player with at least 60 attempts. His defense and passing needed work, but in his best moments became an undeniable sparkplug capable of reeling off several deep three-pointers in a row.
“For me, it was just being unsure of what I could do on the court last year,” Layman said. “I think I know what I can do and how I have to execute.”
Between Layman and transfer Evan Smotrycz, the Terps can have one shooter on the court at all times. One question remains: How will Turgeon utilize Layman? Between Layman, Smotrycz and Nick Faust, only two can start alongside Seth Allen, Dez Wells and center Shaquille Cleare.
“I don’t care about starting,” Layman said. “It doesn’t make me feel any different on the court.”
Production suggests otherwise. Seven of Layman’s eight double-digit scoring outings last season came in starting roles, though so did his two worst games – 1 for 7 in 28 minutes versus Virginia and 1 for 8 in 26 minutes at Georgia Tech. But from the haircut that chopped off his flowing locks to ridding himself of the streaky shooting that defined his first year in College Park, Layman appears a changed player, one capable of justifying the calls from NBA scouts that ring at Comcast Center these days.
“He doesn’t know when he’s tired,” Wells said. “He has no idea how great he’s going to be. He’s capable of hiding 10 3s in one game. He’s capable of blocking, dunking on people, guarding anyone from 6-2 to 6-10. That doesn’t come around too often. At least not in guard form. He has no idea how great he’ll be, offensively or defensively.”
Last December, Turgeon benched Layman against Monmouth for academic reasons. He gave his players the weekend to finish their studies, and Layman failed to deliver. That Layman saw 13 minutes in the second half, Turgeon said, was “lucky.”
As Layman ditched his soft insecurity around reporters for a firm assuredness on media day, he promised change in year two. The Bahamas tournament proved to Layman that his play could justify the expectations. Unwavering confidence was the hope, Layman said, and he swore this year would be different.