Late last offseason, I decided to do a little player projecting using some similarity scores and advanced stats. It was guesswork, and I knew I’d be wrong going into it because the entire analysis behind it was as exact as Astrology. One of the interesting cases I ran into was Jake Layman. Because of his size and (just so we dispel any racial notions right away) ethnicity, finding a comparable player was hard stuff to do. How do we find a white guy who can throw down like Layman, shoot triples, but actually possesses more athleticism than, say, Ryan Kelly of Duke?
I decided to scrap the “find a white guy” mentality, not only because it was unfair to Jake, but it unnecessarily lumped him in with one category of players that may not have anything to do with him. Why keep comparing him to Chandler Parsons or Chase Budinger when he’s neither of those guys? I decided, instead, to go with someone who I always felt reminded me of Layman, despite being a couple inches shorter and more than a few shades darker: Reggie Bullock.
I caught some flak for that one: the two aren’t the same player, they don’t play the same game, and Bullock is an NBA player. Those were the main criticisms, but I still felt it was accurate analysis with numbers to back it up. I mean, they’re not the same height, but they’re very similar weight wise, wingspan wise, and while either is an explosive athlete, they still have enough to get the job done. What’s funny is that I was wrong for all the right reasons.
Layman’s actually flat out better than Reggie Bullock was at this stage of the game. He may not be a better shooter right now by a hair, but he’s a much better basketball player overall. His defense is leaps and bounds better than Bullock’s, and he’s doing more at his age than Reggie was doing (or even given a chance to do) almost throughout his entire career in college. We forget that Layman is still only 19 years old, too. His development, in hindsight, may be even better than what (at least I) expected. If we’re going by age and not just college experience, Layman’s got such an upper hand here.
As I’ll go into more below, I think it’s pretty clear that Layman has improved a lot as a player, and that deserves some recognition.
Examining criticisms of Layman
1.) His stats have gone down, and he plays badly against good teams
While I was criticized for that, Layman has been catching heat quite often from the fan base despite being billed as “the best player on the roster” and “the most NBA draft worthy player on the team” before the season began. These expectations were heaped upon Layman, and if he didn’t live up to them it was his fault, not that they were unrealistic in the first place. It’s rare though, that you see a player go from being a fan favorite to start the year to becoming one of the most heavily criticized guys on the roster halfway through the year.
Nowadays, people sometimes call Layman “Cupcake Jake” because of his propensity for not showing up in big games. In that regard, at least statistically, there’s no denying that Layman has struggled. Here are his freshman and sophomore per game averages during conference play:
It’s pretty clear that this season during ACC play, Layman has been decidedly “meh” with his performances. He came into conference play averaging around 15 points per game, and that number has petered off of late. His shooting percentages in particular are pedestrian when compared to how effective he was out of conference. But does that mean Layman doesn’t show up against good competition? For me, it doesn’t. It just means Layman is human.
The same folks that criticized Layman for being worse during conference play are the same ones that probably feel like Peyton Manning isn’t a great playoff quarterback because his stats go down a bit. But conference play, much like the NFL playoffs, is considerably tougher than going up against a softer group of non-conference opponents.
That criticism is warranted, but not entirely. I think at least part of the reason Layman has suffered statistically is because he’s being asked to do so much. Dead legs are a real thing, and when Layman leads the team minutes per game night in and night out, he’s going to get some dead legs. That says nothing about his defensive energy expenditure, which is greatly improved.
We’d like to think these guys are super human, but they aren’t. Whenever Dez Wells or one of our bigs gets into foul trouble, who has to make up for it? Jake, he’s always on the floor. You can’t even flip that scenario around, because Layman’s fouled out twice in his whole career at Maryland. He stays out of foul trouble because he has to stay out of foul trouble, and as a result he plays almost every minute of every game.
2.) Jake Layman is the same player as last year and hasn’t improved.
The other criticism people have with Layman is that he’s just not improved as a player from last season. Layman still takes many of the same shots he took last year, only he’s not making as many of them despite taking more. He looks like the same guy, they say, and he isn’t really stepping up and diversifying his game the way his talent suggests he ought.
If you look at the statistics, you’re definitely going to be convinced that Layman hasn’t upped the ante on himself whatsoever. Still, in this instance, I think the statistics are full of crap (and this is coming from a stats guy). Layman is such a more well rounded player this year in comparison to last, that no matter what the stats say for the rest of the season, I won’t be convinced otherwise that he’s a much better player.
Last year Layman couldn’t guard anyone on the floor. To say he was a liability is an understatement, because Jake made everyone on the floor look good (like most freshmen do). This year, Layman may still not be the team’s best defender, but he’s gotten so much better as a help defender and rim protector from last season.
He’s averaging over a block a game right now (best on the team), one steal per game (second) he’s third in rebounding, and if they had a number for “altered drives without fouling,” Layman would be leading in that by far. Jake didn’t move his feet at all on defense last season, but this year, he’s active night in and night out. I find it hard to criticize him for hustle.
He’s not the best perimeter defender in the world, no, but Layman is playing two-way basketball. Not every player does that, or even develops it willingly. We saw Layman cool off drastically towards the end of the game against Miami, and that’s because he had to fill in for Dez as he sat out with foul trouble. The result? He air balled a three. I’m not sure that had anything to do with confidence from Layman, who already had 15 points that game and was hot from deep. I think it’s more to do with the amount of energy he expended on both ends of the floor.
That’s where we can’t gloss over what Layman has done this year. Yes, his numbers are down a bit, but there’s an adjustment period when players start to actually hustle at both ends of the floor. Look at Layman like you’d look at yourself in the eighth grade: awkward in their own body, full of potential, still putting all the pieces together, dragon t-shirts and long hair are cool, whatever mom.
Layman is going to start to “get it” eventually. He’s had 14 double-figure scoring games this year (to seven single digit outings), which is more than he had all last season. He’s doing so much more on the floor that he shouldn’t be judged for his inability to live up to our absurdly lofty expectations. I compared the guy to Reggie Bullock, and that may not have even been fair (because it looks like he may end up being better).
Layman isn’t the legit NBA prospect we all thought he might be, but he is better, and he’s much more important to the team as a result. Are we wrong to get frustrated with his disappearing acts sometimes on offense? No, but don’t knock him for his hustle. He’s got plenty of that. Once he finds the right balance between hustle on both ends of the floor (kind of like what Dez Wells does now), you can expect to say a more robust Layman.