Jaylen Britton, pictured during a Moody Park League game last summer, has improved his game this season. (File photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Jaylen Britton may not have liked it at the time, but moving to junior varsity last year helped to set him up for a breakout year this season on varsity.

The Ewing High School junior has blossomed into a major contributor for the Blue Devils boys basketball team.

“I think he learned his lesson from last year to this year,” said Ewing head coach Shelly Dearden. “I think that helped him become a better player and the player he is now.”

In the MCT, Ewing defeated Steinert, 48-46, on Feb. 14. The team went on to lose to Hopewell Valey, 71-53, on Feb 16.

The team was set to take on Ocean Townhip in a home game in the first round of the NJSIAA Central, Group 3 Tournament on Feb. 26.

Britton had scored in double digits in eight straight games going into the Mercer County Tournament opener, and he scored 5 points against Steinert and 20 against Hopewell.

Four times this season he has reached or exceeded his career-high of 19 points, and he’s provided versatility as someone who can play both guard and forward positions for Ewing.

“Last year was kind of a good thing to bring me to down to JV,” Britton said. “I feel like I got more experience and I was able to come up this year and be able to be more calm. I was a little out of control.

“I wanted to play,” he said of last year. “I understood where she was coming from. At that time, I wasn’t ready for varsity.”

Britton has shown an ability to contribute at both ends. He uses a quick first step to get by defenders and he’s a good finisher at the basket. He’s defended guards and forwards. He has found a way to use his top tools.

“I’m sticking to what I’m good at,” Britton said. “We’re a good defensive team, so I try to play good defense. I’m not a great shooter, so I try to attack the rack. I try to bring up my teammates and make sure we’re on the same page.”

Getting on the same page has taken time with several new starters and contributors who needed experience working together. Britton spent the offseason trying to put himself in position to contribute at a higher level.

“I didn’t know where I was going to be,” he said. “I had to work my way up. I didn’t have any real varsity time last year. I had to put in time to get a varsity spot.”

‘He has really grown into a much better player all-around.’

Britton, whose twin sister Jayda plays on the EHS girls basketball team, has shown his maturity in handling either starting or providing a spark off the bench, whatever Dearden thinks that the team needs. The Blue Devils are looking contributions from all for a big run in the postseason.

“I think for us, we have to play together as a team, not as individuals,” Dearden said. “And play good defense. When we do those two things, we’re a pretty good team.”

Ewing is the No. 5 seed iCentral Jersey Group III state tournament. “I feel like we’re in a good position,” Britton said. “We could have gained a better position.”

Ewing has been through some swings this season, and Britton’s individual numbers mirror the roller coaster that the Blue Devils rode. He scored in double figures in four of the first five Ewing games, then only hit that mark once in the next seven games. Ewing lost four of its first five games, then won five of its next six. After dropping two out of three, it went on a six-game winning streak before dropping two games leading into the MCT.

“We didn’t have a lot of varsity experience in the beginning,” Britton said. “It took some time to bond and believe and have team chemistry. Once we had that, we went on a little win streak.”

Another win streak at this point would put the Blue Devils in position to add some more history. Ewing has won three of the last five sectional crowns. This year’s CJ III sectional is considered wide open with any number of teams capable of capturing the title.

“It just comes back to team chemistry,” Britton said. “We have to all work together as a team. We have to not play as individuals, but as a team so we can win and go far.”

Britton can help by providing steady offense and being a part of a solid defense. He’s become a reliable varsity member.

“He has really grown into a much better player all-around,” Dearden said. “He works at his game quite often. He stays after practice, comes early. Last year, he wouldn’t get to practice early. He wouldn’t stay too late. He sees the good in that. He’s getting better because he’s putting in the extra time.”

The Blue Devils appreciate that Britton can do a little of everything for them. He’s only 6-feet-1, but that’s big enough on this team to do more than others.

Britton knew he had to improve after last year to be able to bring more to the table. He focused on developing his game so he could be a bigger contributor this year.

“Mostly my stamina, patience and strength,” Britton said. “Varsity and JV are two different skill levels. I had to gain strength and confidence because it wasn’t as high as it is now. And I had to work on defense.”

Defense has been critical in Ewing’s success. The Blue Devils have won when they’ve kept teams in the 50s or fewer. They’ve won only once when allowing more than 60 points.

Ewing feels it is well prepared for the challenges of the postseason. The Blue Devils have tested their new contributors throughout the season.

“Our schedule is a very difficult schedule,” Dearden said. “We do that on purpose to get ready for the tournament. Everything changes. Players change, attitudes change, teams change. We have a tough schedule so kids can gain that experience and at the end of the year they’re ready to go.”

Britton was dressed for last year’s state games to take in the atmosphere. This year, he will be on the court contributing, and he’s looking forward to his chances to help Ewing in states.

“It’s a bigger stage,” Britton said. “You have to get used to it. There will be more people than regular home or away games, different refs, everything’s different.”