Jake Layman has found himself playing inconsistent minutes this season. A starter for the first 19 games for the Portland Trail Blazers, Layman then recorded five straight games where he didn't see the floor. Coach Terry Stotts vacillated Layman's playing time with the availability of forward Maurice Harkless, a more dynamic playmaker and defender when not injured. But Harkless and his knee pain continues to be a storyline for the Blazers, and thus so do Layman’s minutes.
Stotts has stuck with Layman as the starter, but gave Evan Turner a look in a matchup against Houston earlier in January. Layman is a more malleable quantity than Turner, and his remaining in the starting lineup helps the Blazers keep the more creative point forward as the leader of the second unit.
At face value, it appears to most Blazers fans that Layman has more than held his own as the glue guy of the starting lineup. His shooting, rebounding, and willingness to cut has outweighed whatever defensive inequities Layman might bring to the table. But it still feels as though the third-year forward could be jettisoned from the rotation once — or if — Harkless returns to playing at full strength.
The question on the minds of many Portlanders is this: why?
Looking at Layman’s numbers, it’s clear that he’s made the third-season leap you hope for from developmental players. His free throw attempts per 100 possessions have doubled, and his rebounds by the same metric have gone up by three, per Basketball-Reference.
Even more impressive is how some of his statistical improvements are underlined by a maturity about who he is and what he needed to improve upon. The NBA is now analytics-crazy, and as such it’s not that difficult to figure out how to be better on offense — shoot more 3-pointers and get to the free-throw line more often.
While Layman hasn’t gone full James Harden on everyone, he has made a shocking leap. A career 23 percent 3-point shooter heading into 2018-19, Layman has risen to around the league average at 35 percent from deep. That’s no small feat, and it wasn’t just a weakness in Layman’s game, but a weakness in the Blazers rotation that he’s filled in the absence of Pat Connaughton. That’s allowed Layman’s true shooting percentage to jump by 27 points, which makes sense looking at some of his shot charts.
Layman has also reduced his personal foul rate by about 15 percent per 100 possessions, a maturation that allows for Stotts and his staff to keep him on the floor longer and worry less about having to alter their in-game tactics due to foul trouble.
There’s more juicy stats to love about Layman’s improvements. He’s boosted himself to the 82nd percentile when it comes to the amount of shots he takes at the rim, an obvious mirror to an fan watching him play and seeming miles more aggressive compared to seasons past. His rebounding numbers make him a top performer at his position as well, with Layman settling in the 80th percentile or better in both offensive and defensive rebounding, per Cleaning the Glass.
The thing to avoid at this juncture is wondering whether Layman is ready to take over the starting position full-time from Harkless. There’s too many factors at play to make that kind of decision, including but not limited to Harkless’ health, attitude, and potential.
But Layman is the kind of player that Portland has needed around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on a consistent basis the past few seasons. This Blazers roster is top-heavy, and Stotts has done all he can to try and balance it out by making Turner the leader of the bench squad. Layman stepping up and being a useful wing player — <em>the</em> single most important thing Portland’s lacked since Lillard took over the team — has been a breath of fresh air.
Layman is still young, and he’s liable to have some variance in his performance that no doubt irks the veteran-friendly Stotts. How the young forward has played during trying circumstances, both for the team and for himself, has been admirable. Blazers fans like to latch on to a player or two each season, puff them up larger than their true value, then get their hearts broken when things fall apart. Layman’s statistics support the idea he’s moving in the right direction, and his contribution for Portland this year is as positive as you might hope for from a second round pick.
Who knows if Harkless will come back? Who knows if Stotts might go with Turner as a starter come playoff time? The fact is that Layman deserves his spot in the starting lineup within the context of the Blazers team, and if he continues to keep his head down and know his role he will be an important factor in the second half of the season.