For his first two seasons in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers, Jake Layman was a classic benchwarmer crowd-favorite. He would mostly play during blowouts, and people would get excited when he entered because him getting minutes was a semi-rate sight. Considering he was a four-year college player, and had barely gotten any real reps in his first two seasons in the NBA, it would have been understandable to write off Layman’s NBA career as a lost cause. People who did so have had to eat some crow this year, as Layman has had a truly breakout campaign, playing twice as many minutes already in this one season as he did in his first two combined, and emerging as one of Terry Stotts’ trusted players down the stretch of the season.
The remarkable thing about Layman’s season is that he’s improved in almost every single category imaginable. Points per game? Up from a measly 1.0 a season ago (7.7 per 36 minutes) to 8.0 this season (15.5 per 36). Rebounding? Layman went from not a presence at all (career average of 0.6 per game) to solid, pulling down 3.1 rebounds in his 18.5 minutes per game. He shot a horrible 29.5% from the field his first two seasons, and has nearly doubled that this year, putting in 53.7% of his shots on far more attempts. After being a non-threat from deep, Layman has improved there as well, hitting 36.7% of his threes this season on a small (but non-trivial) 2.6 attempts per game. A lot of guys take steps forward in their second or third seasons in the NBA, but improving across the board like Layman has is still pretty incredible.
Advanced stats are just as favorable to Layman’s 2018-2019 as the box score numbers, if not more so. Layman improved slightly in both Win Shares/48 and BPM from his rookie to sophomore seasons, but was still a massive negative in both. This season, he has a WS/48 of 0.135 (the league average is 0.100) and a BPM of 0.8, with both figures presenting him as a slightly above average player in the NBA as a whole. RPM, too, supports Layman, giving him a -0.34 (but RPM is much more unforgiving, with most p layers placing in the negative range), which ranks 26th amongst small forwards. Considering his youth and how ineffective he was his first two seasons, Layman becoming a seemingly strong rotation player in one season is a massive leap. The question is: will it hold?
The future, of course, is impossible to predict. But signs favor Layman’s improvements as being sustainable. Most importantly, he turns 25 in a couple weeks: he’s still at the beginning of his career and is of the age where most steps forward are usually not (entirely) flukes. It’s also the type of leap that happens sometimes in the NBA when a rarely-used player finally gets minutes and is able to produce when given real opportunities. Layman only played 409 minutes in his first two seasons, so it’s no surprise that he didn’t develop that much. Now, with a full season of experience as an NBA rotation player (and sometime starter) under his belt, he should be that much better going forward.
Statistically, there are a couple of areas of concern for Layman, but nothing scary. The most concerning is that while his three-point shooting has been solid this season, he’s still not a prolific outside shooter, and the limited sample size (128 threes thus far) means that it’s unclear if he’s really taken a step forward there. Shooting is notoriously fluky, and Layman regressing as a shooter would be a major detriment to his career. He also doesn’t get to the free throw line much, which isn’t that big a deal for a non-ballhandler, but does put a cap on his efficiency if his shooting around the rim (73.7% this season) decreases. Finally, and again not all that important considering his low usage, Layman isn’t much of a playmaker, dishing out a mere 0.7 assists to 0.6 turnovers this season. There are areas where Layman still struggles, but none scream that a regression is coming.
Jake Layman has been an unexpected bright spot for the Blazers this season. He’s come from seemingly out of nowhere to play a fairly major role on a playoff (and possibly home-court) bound team. A restricted free agent this summer, Layman will be sure to have plenty of suitors on the market, and for good reason. There’s a possibility he takes a step back after this season, but he’s young, he doesn’t have that many minutes under his belt, and there’s a good chance that he keeps improving for another couple years.