Jake Layman has become a bit of a legend in his short time in Minneapolis.
And I don’t mean “legend,” in a Kevin Garnett sort of way, or in the way that people introduce the dumbest person they went to high school with, I mean legend in the sense that his effect on the 2019-20 Minnesota Timberwolves season has been repeated so many times that people might have lost track of his actual contributions.
If you’ve been hanging out in any of the Wolves’ popular online spaces, or remember how often Jim Petersen would remind viewers of this factoid, you’re probably aware that the Timberwolves started the 2019-20 season 8-6 before Jake Layman goes down for 41 straight games with a lingering toe injury, and when he returned the team is 16-39.
Yeah, a role player misses time, and a team that was above .500 with him playing 26 minutes a night then drops 33 of their next 41 without him. While events before the pandemic feel like ancient history, that actually was last season.
So, what gives? Was the spacing that Layman provided that important to the Wolves’ success?
In the most simple terms: No. The shooting that Layman provided wasn’t that valuable, because while self-important pundits love throwing out all sorts of mental gymnastics to explain away variance of the past as exactly the way that things are bound to continue going, Layman really isn’t a shooter.
Don’t believe me? Go to Layman’s Basketball-Reference page: 26%, 20%, 33%, and 33%. Those are the year-by-year percentages that he has shot from three in his four NBA seasons. I put far more weight into those two most recent seasons, and while these numbers don’t mean that one day he won’t become a knock-down floor spacer, this is just pointing out that four years and 324 career attempts from three currently say that Jake has not been a great shooter thus far in his NBA career.
In fact, with his career average of 31%, he’s considerably closer to Josh Smith’s career mark (29%) than Ryan Anderson’s (38%). When diving into his Synergy profiles, there is some cause for optimizing, considering that he shot 40% on his unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts last year. However, that was on only 30 attempts, and though this mark is good for the 60th percentile among all NBA players that season, among the 86 players who took at least 100 such attempts, this number would’ve ranked 47th out of 86.
Not to mention, while you can paint this mark through the lens of optimism, hoping that it’s implying the start of a new, positive, upwards trend, the reality is that in each of his other three seasons, Layman wasn’t even able to crack 30% on these possessions. Not to mention, while the efficiency on his possessions is useful, the true benefit of shooting from forwards is that it opens up the floor for their teammates. Considering that 63% of his catch-and-shoot jumpers were tracked as open, it appears that the defenses that game-planned for Layman were not up to date with his 2019-20 hot streak when left alone.
So, going forward here’s my assumption: Jake Layman, not currently a shooter — although he may be able to develop into one.
So, why did the Wolves tank so hard with Layman out of commission for much of the season, if he didn’t provide much shooting? Did they actually play better with Layman on the floor, or was this a situation where correlation had nothing to do with causation?
Well, the answer to the second question is much easier than the first: Yes, the Wolves absolutely played better with Layman on the floor than off of it. For the entire season, the Wolves were 7 points per 100 possessions better with Layman on the court compared to when he sat. And Layman had the highest individual Net Rating on the team: The Wolves outscored their opponents by 2 points for every 100 possessions that Layman was on the floor during his 505 minutes last season. It’s a small sample size and this might not continue into 2020-21, sure, but it wasn’t exactly an accident that Layman helped the team win games.
Because while Jake isn’t a shooter, he is very good in several other areas, and some of them don’t always show up directly in the box score.
For starters, Layman is a natural cutter, one that is rare to see out of a player who spent 91% of his minutes playing power forward last season according to Basketball-Reference’s Positional Estimator. While the majority of the possessions that Synergy categorizes as cuts are actually just dump-downs where the player’s defender is drawn into a helping situation that leads the player wide open under the rim (think Chris Andersen in the dunk spot), Layman’s cutting possessions are the exact opposite.
All 21 of his cutting possessions last season would be described as traditional cuts. Every single one of them involved a conscious decision to move towards the rim from the perimeter, and several of them involved breaking off set actions to break to the open space. Whether this is more Layman’s intuition or Ryan Saunders’ offense paying off doesn’t really matter, Layman is exactly the player that your high school coach wishes he had been coaching instead of you.
Secondarily, Layman just doesn’t really take bad shots. In the NBA, there are three types of shot categories that are generally less efficient than others: Shots coming from the mid-range, floaters, and post-ups. In 2019-20, only 22% of Layman’s shots came from these locations, leaving 78% of his half-court shots to come either at the rim or from three. He isn’t exactly an all-world finisher or shooter, but he embodies the idea that showing up is half of the battle. Layman decisively wins the battle where he shows up to take his shots at, and his efficiency on the “bad” shots are better than the average NBA player, helping his overall efficiency more.
While these two great offensive skills don’t really sound like much, when you’re adding them into the profile of a player who doesn’t really have any glaring, massive weaknesses, the effect is that the player is a worthwhile contributor. Add in a willingness to share the ball and run the offense as it is intended, and all of the sudden, you have a fantastic role player.
You have Jake Layman.