I remember flipping on NBA TV one rainy day last August (it was 80 and sunny and I was hungover), just in time to catch a solid hour’s worth of Knick training camp footage. The workout began with a rather amusing “drill”, wherein chief conditioner Greg Brittenham had the guys jog around the perimeter of the gym and toss footballs to one another. After realizing they were playing the wrong sport , the team partnered up for a stationary passing drill, this time using spherical grooved leather objects known as “basket-balls”. One player stood with the ball, roughly twenty feet from the other, who had his back turned. Brittenham would then bark “left” and “right” in random succession, indicating which direction the player without the ball was to turn to receive his partner’s pass.
The camera pointed down the matrix of zipping chest passes, where at the end stood a pair of rookies: Landry Fields and Andy Rautins. As the drill proceeded, most players — with the exception of an English-challenged Timofey Mozgov — turned the right direction with each verbal cue. But Fields was doing it more quickly than anyone else. With the only laudatory tip from any of the coaching staff, Brittenham noted as much.
“Nice job, Stanford,” he said.
If there could be a singular epitaph for the 22-year-old rookie’s inaugural campaign, that might be it.
Despite a senior season in which he averaged a busty 22.8 points and 8.8 boards – tops in the PAC 10 in both – few had Fields projected as a first round pick entering the 2010 Draft. Such was the stigma of playing on a forgettable Cardinal squad (7-11 in the PAC 10, 14-18 overall) in a conference that boasted precisely one postseason Top 25 team (Washington at #21). Still, the gaudy numbers, combined with an impressive late spring workout, convinced the Knicks to take a flier on the Long Beach native with the 39th pick, acquired two years previous (along with Taurean Green [starting shooting guard on the Names That Sound Like Chemical Cleaning Products All-Star Team] and Bobby Jones [honorable mention]) after trading current Knick and P&T Sunshine Academy
Graduate 7th year Senior Renaldo Balkman to the Nuggets.
By the time the regular season rolled around, a stellar Vegas Summer League and training camp had vaulted Fields into the starting lineup. He won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month Awards in November and December. In February, he started for the East in the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge. He blogged. He made hilarious commercials. He filmed hilarious video shorts. He tweeted hilarious things. Spike Lee wore his jersey. I bought his shirt. (Photo not available — shirt in laundry. And yes, the Landry shirt is its own load of laundry. I call it “doing the Landry.” Which is a lot more fun than “doing the laundry.”) And then came the trade.
After the late February acquisition of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, Fields wasn’t quite the same. Though he never relinquished his starting job, Landry’s numbers tapered off noticeably in the final three months, steadily sliding from a December peak (10.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.9 apg, 66% TS%) to a final month (18 games) in which he averaged just 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds with a TS% of 49%. By the end of the Celtics series, a season that had started with such a clandestine bang had faded in a statistical whimper. Fields’ stat line for the 4-game sweep? You sure you want to know? Positive? 1.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 19.8% TS%, an ORtg of 49, and a WS/48 of -0.164.
Step off that ledge – it’s going to be OK. I promise. While the decline was as noticeable as it was disconcerting, there remain plenty of explanations for why The Landriest of Them All fell back to Earth. Some thought it the logical result of having to adjust to a new team dynamic. Others chalked it up to his simply hitting the rookie wall. My fiance said it was karmic retribution for buying his shirt and giving it its own load of laundry. Probably it was all of these things. Not that he didn’t put up some good games: during one post-trade stretch from March 2nd to the 10th, Fields averaged nearly 14 and 5 boards per. So it wasn’t so much that he fell off a statistical cliff; it was more of a steady roll — further evidence to the notion playing close to 32 minutes a game in all 82 contests had simply taken its grinding toll. Luckily, last time I checked, being tired isn’t a terminal illness. So fret we should not.
The guy will figure it out. He’s been figuring it out every year since entering Stanford looking like this – hitting the weight room, honing his craft, adding new weapons to his arsenal, putting his nose to the grindstone, partaking in other improvement-related cliches. When the brothers Lopez bailed early, it became Landry’s team to lead. Granted, it wasn’t a very good team. Still, being options one through fifteen on a crappy team arguably did more than anything to bolster both his game and his leadership. And it may have been the reason he was even drafted at all.
Given a full training camp to mesh properly with his new comrades (as well as improve both his defense and jump shot – as in being able to actually jump when shooting), Fields should once again find his groove. Whether that’s as a starter, or as a potent 6th man option, remains to be seen. Either way, the guy always seems to figure out a way to not only survive, but thrive. And after witnessing how quickly he figured out Mike D’Antoni’s system last year, there’s no reason to believe that, with a few adjustments, he can’t forge an equally effective and efficient niche going forward.
Just as Bill Bradley (that’s right, I went there) was in many ways the cerebral linchpin of the ’70 and ’73 title teams, Landry’s development will be crucial to the ultimate gelling of our star-laden squad. A college phenom who spent two years bookin’ and ballin’ abroad before arriving in New York amidst unprecedented fanfare and Olympian expectations, Bradley endured his own rookie struggles, eventually being relegated to the bench. But it didn’t take long for the man they call Dollar Bill to morph into an indispensable facilitator — the quintessential “glue guy” (and starter) on two title teams that boasted no less than six Hall of Fame players between them.
But Bradley was a full two years older than Fields when the former made his Knick debut in the middle of the 1967-68 season, and arguably didn’t hit his prime until a few years after that. That bodes well for our precocious neophyte, who turns 23 on June 27th — four days after the Knicks attempt to once again catch lightning in a bottle when they pick 17th in Thursday’s Draft. And if that pick ends up being even close to as productive as Fields, Donnie Walsh’s rebuilding plan might end up yielding a true contender sooner than expected.
Report Card (5 point scale):
Final Grade: A-