• Jake Layman, just as the Portland Trail Blazers seemed to expect all along, has turned a corner in 2018-19. The third-year wing was barely a bit player during his first two NBA seasons, appearing in 70 total games for just 409 minutes of court time. He shot 29.8 percent from the field and 20.0 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore, hideous numbers not just troublingly similar to those he posted as a rookie, but ones that normally forecast a deep reserve falling from the fringes of the league to out of it entirely.

    Heads turned in late June when Portland, still-cash strapped from Neil Olshey’s overzealous spending during the summer of 2016, guaranteed Layman’s contract for this season just before the start of free agency. What had the Maryland product shown as a pro for the Blazers to prioritize retaining him over key rotation players Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. Easily ignored in that reductive argument was the fortitude of the team’s financial shackles. Layman’s contract pays him $1.5 million this year before he hits restricted free agency next summer; the Blazers’ departed free agents, by contrast, sought the security that comes with multi-year deals or a single-season sticker price the front office was unwilling to pay.

    Even the hordes of Portland fans who disagreed with Olshey’s approach to retaining his team’s incumbent free agents eventually realized its merit. Keeping Layman around was the most cost-effective short- and long-term option for the Blazers, a team that, in the aftermath of being swept by a first-round underdog, would be forced to undergo wholesale changes next offseason if it disappointed yet again come playoff time. Flexibility is paramount in the NBA, and so is efficient allocation of financial resources on the roster. Layman, at 6-foot-8 with the athletic chops to play both forward spots, addressed both of those realities for Portland. It undoubtedly made Olshey’s decision easier that everyone around the team insisted the former second-round pick was the latest beneficiary of the Blazers’ ballyhooed player development program, too.

    “He’s been terrific,” Olshey told The Oregonian in October of Layman’s preseason performance. “He’s stronger. He’s more confident with the ball. He’s had a great September playing with our guys. He’s a guy that I can tell you everyone in my front office breathes a sigh of relief watching him every day that we didn’t let him go.”

    Five weeks later, Layman has started every game for a team that sits at the top of the Western Conference standings. He’s shooting 52.9 percent overall and 41.7 percent from deep, good for a sterling effective field goal percentage of 63.6 – second on the Blazers behind Meyers Leonard and a top-20 mark in the league. He’s fared capably defending both guards and forwards, too, hardly targeted individually or exploited overall on defense like shooting specialists playing a part-time role for other teams.

    Make no mistake, though: Layman is indeed a specialist. His .086 free-throw rate is fourth-lowest in basketball among starters, according to basketball-reference.com, and the league website categorizes a whopping 42 of his 70 total field goal attempts as jump shots. Despite starting every game this season, Layman has appeared in fewer than half of Portland’s fourth quarters, and hasn’t been on the floor for a single minute of crunch time. The Blazers’ nightly starting lineup boasts a solid +6.2 net rating; with any other player in Layman’s stead next to the team’s core starters, that number spikes all the way up to +20.9.

    Clearly, Terry Stotts perceives a limitation to Layman’s potential impact. Whether the root of that issue relates more to a coach’s preference or a player’s ability, though, is still up for debate. The only objectively negative contribution Layman has made so far this season is his imminent reluctance to shoot. Only seven other regular starters in the league attempt fewer shots than Layman on a possession-by-possession basis, per Basketball Reference, and each of them plays nominal power forward or center. Context matters there, obviously. Layman, playing nearly 90 percent of his minutes next to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, certainly isn’t on the floor for tipoff to hunt points . His complete lack of dynamism and versatility as a jump-shooter and ball handler confine his role in Portland’s offense to one of ball-mover and spot-up shooter.

    That’s not all bad, of course. A win-now team like the Blazers would much rather a supporting piece like Layman play within himself than step outside the narrow boundaries of his skill set. But there’s a thin line between a player knowing his role and steadfastly conforming to it at the expense of the team, and Layman is standing on the wrong side of it. Aminu’s paltry usage rate, for instance, is easily offset by everything he brings to the table defensively and the space he creates on the other end as a power forward with an increasingly-reliable three ball. On the other hand, Layman’s defensive versatility has been more theoretical than practical over the first month of the season, and the opposition merely guards him like any other wing with legitimate three-point range rather than one that requires extra respect and attention. Hopes of his run-jump athleticism juicing the Portland’s transition offense haven’t come to fruition, either.

    To be clear, this season has already been a success for Layman. He’ll almost certainly receive a second contract in either of the next two summers now, from the Blazers or elsewhere, and his combination of height, vertical explosiveness and nascent long-range shooting prowess mean it could be a very lucrative one depending on the market. But it’s also worth acknowledging that circumstance has played a pertinent factor in his rise. Where would Layman be right now if Moe Harkless was fully healthy? Where will he be when Harkless returns at some point in the next couple weeks?

    Layman, nearly a quarter of the way through the season, has rewarded Portland’s patience and belief. Bringing him back was indeed the right decision. He hasn’t done nearly enough to cement his place in the rotation for the Blazers at full strength, though, a consistent lack of aggressiveness being the biggest reason why. And for both Layman and his team to reach their respective ceilings this season, that problem needs changing sooner rather than later.

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