EL SEGUNDO — Back in December, a batch of positive COVID tests decimated the Los Angeles Lakers’ already ill-constructed roster, leaving the team with little choice but to turn to a handful of replacements, mostly drawn from the franchise’s G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.
Along for the ride through one of the more brutal stretches in recent franchise history, undrafted rookie Jay Huff had but one self-imposed rule guiding his experience alongside the celebrated veterans he continues to regard as “legends”:
“Don’t be that guy.”
Although any successful professional basketball player is one who has definitionally ascended to a level of play above the athletic masses, most also have to learn to exist as a small cog within the much larger machine that is any individual franchise, after an entire life of being one of the best and most important players on all of their teams. That tension is the one that gives shape to a player’s career, and navigating it successfully is essential to creating a career out of playing professionally — especially for players like Huff, who have yet to build reputations as reliable professionals.
In order to fit in without fitting out — an intimidating task considering his venerated new peers — Huff opted to mime the behaviors of fellow rookie Austin Reaves as much as possible.
Huff admitted that he often felt as though he lagged behind the veteran-laden group in their player-led film sessions — “Sometimes it felt like they were speaking a different language just because they were three steps ahead of where I was,” Huff says now — but he credited Reaves with helping ease his mind by letting him know that he wasn’t the only one who was lost. Reaves, of course, has already found himself at the center of a heavily-memed moment of basketball-related, rookie confusion.
In order to alleviate the burden of rookie duties bestowed upon Reaves, Huff offered to carry one of the veterans’ bags his fellow rookie had been assigned. Unbeknownst to him at the time, Huff had inadvertently accepted responsibility for the massive portable speaker Dwight Howard typically carries with him when he takes the court for pregame warmups. Unfortunately, Howard was one of the Lakers who’d just tested positive for COVID, and wasn’t with the team on this particular road trip. This left Huff with an unusable speaker tethered to his luggage that he couldn’t forget, lest he betray the trust of his Hall of Fame teammate — one who Huff self-identified as a fan of growing up.
Following the road trip, Huff was waived from his two-way contract by the Lakers before re-joining the franchise as a full-time member of the South Bay squad. But despite that proximity, it would be a while before Huff would cross paths with Howard, leaving him (literally) holding the bag until after the new year.
Eventually, Huff came up with a plan to return the speaker to its rightful owner. When he finally crossed paths with Howard at the Lakers’ facility, he said “Hey Dwight, I’ve got a Christmas present for you.”
Waiting in The Player Formerly Known as Superman’s locker was the speaker, covered in appropriately festive wrapping paper, with a simple note:
“Yes sir Huff that’s great defense.” Dwight Howard cheers Jay Huff on during his pregame match of 1 on 1 with Rondo pic.twitter.com/l7i08lLvAR— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) December 22, 2021
Now 24, Huff’s journey to the precipice of the game’s greatest stage has been a longer one than some of his teenage peers with similar service time. Raised in the hoops haven of Durham, North Carolina as the son of two former college basketball players, it seems as though a basketball life may have been an inevitability for the now 7’1 Huff. While growing up a tall, talented youngster, Huff swears his friends made him play “101” instead of “21” — the free-for-all playground staple — in an attempt to level the playing field between himself and his more vertically challenged peers. Early on in his basketball journey, Huff found himself (literally and figuratively) head and shoulders above his competition.
Mike, Jay’s dad, even helmed his Voyager Academy high school team for his entire high school experience. Sometimes, though, their collective passion for the game could burn a bit too hot. Huff admitted that the coach-player partnership between father and son wasn’t always smooth sailing.
“We definitely butted heads some,” Huff said. “There were times where I had to ride home in the car with my mom.”
But despite the occasional tumult, the younger Huff stressed how meaningful his high school basketball experience was to him as both a basketball player and a person throughout our recent conversation outside the weight room within the UCLA Health Training center, where both the Lakers and their affiliate in South Bay practice (and the latter plays their games). As Lakers senior basketball advisor Kurt Rambis got his early afternoon lift in just a couple dozen feet away from us, Jay referred to his time under the tutelage of his father as “on the whole...great,” and “something that we dreamed of for a long time.”
But Huff’s aforementioned desire to avoid being “that guy” dates all the way back to when he was “that dude” — a status more often than not earned by the biggest fish in their respective basketball ponds, long before they dive into the ocean that is professional athletics. Specifically, it was the “positionless” style that the Voyager Academy team played with that Jay cited as instrumental to his development as a more well-rounded basketball player than is typical of the tallest guy in any given gym at the lower levels of basketball.
Ultimately, Huff’s high school career culminated in a dominant 14-point, 14-rebound, and 10-block performance, earning him the title of the Most Valuable Player in the Division 1A State Championship game, and elevating his status from a star at his school to that of a four-star recruit and one of the area’s top talents.
However, his arrival at the University of Virginia put his ascension on pause, as he redshirted his true freshman year in order to add some muscle to his lithe frame before tearing his labrum at the conclusion of his first season as a rostered member of the team. It wasn’t until his fourth and fifth years at UVA when Huff began to earn regular minutes and make a name for himself on the national stage.
Huff eventually thrived as the centerpiece of Head Coach Tony Bennett’s paint-packing defensive system at UVA. By his senior year, he’d grown into one of the country’s premier amateur shot-blockers, finishing his 2020-21 season with the eighth-best block percentage and the sixth-best box plus/minus in Division I men’s basketball.
Although his outstanding rim protection certainly still receives top-billing on any marquee of Huff’s athletic attributes, Jay felt that he was only able to display a fraction of the offensive talent nurtured during his days at home in Durham.
“Growing up, I would run, I would bring the ball up the floor, I would do a lot of things that people haven’t seen [me do],” Huff said.
Following the 2021 NBA Draft, Huff joined the Washington Wizards for Summer League before eventually landing a two-way deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, who freed one up by cutting fellow undrafted rookie Joel Ayayi, who coincidentally took Huff’s place in Washington. Now a full-time member of the South Bay squad after being cut from his own two-way contract in January, Huff has thrived as one of the best shot-blockers in the G League, solidifying an everyday spot in the starting five, currently ranking third among all qualified G Leaguers in blocks per game at 2.5. Still, Huff seems to feel that a fixation on him as a traditional 5-man undersells the totality of who he is as a ballplayer.
Although he typically operates within the limitations placed on a rim-running big and occasional floor-spacer as a member of the South Bay Lakers, Huff flashed some of his sneakily diverse offensive arsenal during the latter contest of a pair against the Dallas Mavericks’ G League affiliate, the Texas Legends.
For one first-half finish, Huff received the ball above the top of the key before pump-faking, driving right, and then planting with his left foot only to spin back across his body for the awkwardly smooth righty flip shot.
Nifty little flip from the 7'1" Jay Huff on his way to a game-high 14 points (6/7 FG) at the end of the Texas Legends @ South Bay Lakers first half pic.twitter.com/swROR32g4s— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) March 23, 2022
Huff admitted that this unusual rack attack occurred on accident — “That was [me] playing on autopilot — figured what the heck, might as well, and it worked,” he says — but it’s also indicative of the balance and agility he possesses, a rarity amongst similarly sized players.
That coordination has fueled a nightly barrage of arrestingly bouncy and flexible finishes around the basket, leading to the 10th-highest field goal percentage in the G League, despite being the only player in the top 10 with more than six total 3-point attempts this season (Huff has 53). Huff also has the second-most points (440) and made field goals (184) amongst that top 10, trailing the leader in each category by a single point and bucket.
Later in the game against the Legends, one play in particular highlighted the uniqueness of Huff’s skillset.
March 27, 2022
While this post-up ultimately wasn’t particularly effective, it’s what happens after Huff’s attempt to score that is especially unusual. Huff gets the ball poked away, but manages to control it by flowing into a behind-the-back dribble which keeps the rock protected from Justin Jackson’s swipe. Then, he shovels it out to Mac McClung and sets a screen before showing off the direct utility of his most obvious asset — his height — by corralling McClung’s miss with a single outstretched arm.
Though Huff could hypothetically be served by an improved post game, developing one would cut against the grain of the modern NBA, especially for sub-star-level players. If Huff can find a home in the league, it likely won’t be in the post as the hub of an offense, a la Domantas Sabonis. Instead, this kind of comfortability putting the ball on the floor could help him slide more easily into a drive-and-kick style offense, like the one the Lakers have utilized lately, without sacrificing rim protection from the center position. The ease with which Huff can induce a closeout by the threat of his shooting, attack that skidding defender with a dribble, and then force help at the rim as a threat to finish over the top of traffic could all help him supplement the offensive attack of a superior offensive initiator in the NBA.
When I asked him about this very play, Huff again sourced his ball skills back to his high school basketball experience.
“Again, growing up positionless, I have certain guard skills and footwork that a regular big who just posts up on the block might not have,” Huff said.
But while he is clearly confident in his on-court strengths, Huff admitted that the up-and-down nature of his long-range shooting is something he’d like to iron out as his career continues. The disparity between his 88.2% free throw and 26.5% 3-point shooting is suggestive of a player who possesses the necessary touch to become a sniper, but might lack the conditioning to readily repeat the best version of his stroke during the heat of a game at this point in his development.
Huff, however, did stress that continuing to build “functional strength” is important to him, as it’s something that “everyone keeps saying,” dating back to his days as a redshirt freshman. He also cited “ball-screen defense” as a potential area for improvement, though he expressed faith in his ability to use his length to catch up to quicker players and either block or alter an otherwise clean look at the rim.
In order to decompress from his intensely hectic rookie year shuttling between the G League and the NBA, Huff tries to spend as much time as he can outdoors and exploring the South Bay’s food scene. In particular, he gushed about a roving Salvadoran pop-up eatery he frequents, often stationed in El Segundo. And for the league’s version of a winter break, All-Star Weekend, Huff drove up to Joshua Tree for a low-key, scenic getaway with his wife, Lindsay, whom he met while they were both students at UVA.
Lindsay — a trained multimedia artist with a studio in the area — has found work through Jay’s basketball network, layering her designs over his teammates’ blank sneakers. Her growing list of clients has included Jay’s fellow South Bayer Mason Jones and Thomas Bryant of the Washington Wizards (who also happens to be a former Laker, himself).
But as he aims to establish himself in the league, Huff has settled on a two-pronged assessment of his own game, saying that hopes to be at the very beginning of his development as a basketball player, but that he could also thrive in the league today.
“Honestly, I do feel young and my body, especially as a freshman [at UVA], was a little bit behind compared to some of my peers,” Huff said. “So being able to still develop and still get bigger and stronger and everything like that I think is still a possibility, still likely to happen.”
“I honestly think that my game would translate well to the NBA, so I’m excited to hopefully get an opportunity someday,” Huff continued. “Shot-blocking is definitely something that teams like and typically translates well.”
However, while Huff is aware that his length is probably his biggest selling point as a player, he joked that he knows he doesn’t need any more of it.
“I hope I don’t get any taller, because then I won’t be able to find pants that fit. That would be really frustrating,” Huff said.
But while Huff can display a self-effacing sense of humor, he also clearly believes in himself, and that his unique skills and measurables are just the starting points of a much more well-rounded package — despite the fact that his teams haven’t always wanted him to explore those areas. He even admitted that the spin move he often flows into after getting a closing-out defender off his feet with a pump fake is something that South Bay Lakers Head Coach Miles Simon has “given me a hard time about.”
In the same way that it would be uncouth to fudge one’s rookie duties by losing a veteran player’s special speakers, it would be equally so to eschew a head coach’s wishes to refrain from deploying a particular dribble move, or fire up a contested shot instead of swinging it to an open teammate. To transcend his current station, Huff will have to continue navigating that tension between both excelling within, and extending beyond his role. By way of that mindset and his “positionless” style of play, health willing, Jay Huff has positioned himself for success now and later by never being “that guy.”
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.