In his first season as a professional basketball player, Landry Fields was a victim of his own success. The consistent play he exerted night in and night out for one of the most scrutinized franchises in professional sports had New Yorkers quietly hoping he was cut from the same stoic cloth as Derek Jeter, ready to inherit the city’s longstanding role as the billboard worthy tall, dark, and handsome athlete women love and men strive to be.
He has his go-to jump stop through the lane just as Jeter had his free range, back-handed jump throw from deep in the hole. Both looking flashy but existing purely as safe and efficient means to a play’s necessary end. Holding all the right traits, the Stanford phenom doesn’t look so much like a winner as he does a winner from New York: The calm demeanor; an ability to withstand pressure at a young age, playing the game the correct way, beneath a never ending microscope; a harmless, almost diplomatic, smile that exudes an intriguing intelligence completely unrelated to the game in which he makes his living. Thanks to both Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, Fields has none of the Jeterian pressures that come with being the face and future of a franchise. But if he did, something tells me there wouldn’t be a problem.
For the first four months of his career he didn’t flinch, taking shots when he was open, cutting to open space as if he were being directed by a GPS device nobody else could see or hear. Fields was playing the spark plug off the bench role (as a starter)…in his rookie season! As the big star turning heads with 30 point games and thunderous, MSG shaking dunks almost every night, Amar’e received headlining attention as savior of the old Knicks’ sinking ship. Landry Fields, in some ways, was his Smee. And Smee never knew great expectations by way of anyone but his captain.
Jonas Jerebko, Sonny Weems, Stanko Barac, David Noel, Von Wafer, and Albert Miralles. Before Landry Fields, these are, in reverse chronological order, the six players selected 39th overall in the NBA draft. Three are now out of the NBA with two never playing a minute. Two others are destined to tour the league as freelancing stop gaps, and one had a promising future before tearing his Achilles tendon seven months ago. None of them were full-time starters, and it’s likely none ever will be. Fields, a 22-year-old from Long Beach, California who’s so self-assured to the point of not only attending a speed dating event but videotaping it for the world to see, is.
Standing tall and comfortable in his 6’7” body—firm-fitted like a tailored suit to play the shooting guard position—Fields has a loose, free flowing approach to the game. What he went through midway through this season would’ve been difficult for anybody, forget about a rookie. Four players he had grown accustomed to playing beside were replaced by two guys with All-Time Great resumes. The adjustment made to constantly defer was tough but expected. The baskets he had been self-manufacturing based on his own motor weren’t available anymore. (There’s only so many times a player can backdoor cut to the bucket when Carmelo has the ball before realizing it’s useless; to Anthony, you’re invisible.)
Despite the fitted deerstalker hat upon his head and crystal clear monocle over his left eye, Fields was incapable of recovering any rhythm that he’d lost. The offensive system had been simplified to accommodate Carmelo’s needs and Fields was an innocent bystander. All of a sudden he was attacking his man one on one outside of the game’s natural flow. He was forcing the issue off the dribble, digging himself a deeper and deeper hole, trying to plunge his way into an offense that all of a sudden didn’t seem to have a place for him. The frustration could’ve spilled off the court, but to our knowledge it didn’t. Instead he finished the season shooting nearly 50% from the field, 39% from deep, and 77% from the free-throw line. He was selected to the All-Rookie First Team and named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month twice. Mighty impressive.
The future of his game is unpredictable in a hopeful way. (In college, his scoring jumped from 12.6 points per game his junior year to 22 as a senior.) With those long arms and quick feet, Fields could become the game’s premier lockdown defender. Or two to three years down the road he could slide onto the bench, embrace a new role, and become Sixth Man of the Year. He could be the best rebounding guard of his generation—the average NBA guard pulls down about two defensive rebounds a night. In his rookie year Fields grabbed five, leading the entire league. He also finished fourth among all guards in offensive rebounds (1.3 per game), slithering his way into the paint for what seemed like one applaud inducing put back layup a night—or draw a blueprint for the 21st century’s prototypical glue guy.
In the weeks leading up to the Knicks deal for Anthony, Fields was the one piece Donnie Walsh wouldn’t part with. Not only was he cheap, young, and talented, but as a general manager combing through the second round’s scraps searching for a golden nugget, Walsh views that 39th overall pick as a representation of his own intelligence. Or, more modestly put, a lucky charm. Fields symbolizes the organization’s shift from humbling humiliation to puffed up pride as much as Carmelo and Amar’e, and in a way he’s equally important. He’s already proven capable of competing in the NBA and, barring significant injury, should have a long, productive career. However, unlike Anthony and Stoudemire, he’s able to play his entire career as a child of the Knicks, growing up under the city’s eye, making mistakes, finding success. Should the Knicks reach the mountain top anytime in the next five years, he’ll be the only one to say he was there from the start and be telling the truth.
But just as there’s no limit on his success, who’s to tell how low he can go. What if Fields can’t figure out how to play alongside Carmelo? What if his poor play in the last few months of this season carries over to next year? What if his confidence is rattled more than we think? That’s the old Knick fans way of analyzing Landry’s struggles. One night shortly after being swept by the Boston Celtics, Fields was booed at a Yankees game. Like the nonexistent dandruff that doesn’t sit on his broad shoulder, he brushed the criticism off, smiled at the crowd, and went on enjoying the game.