Even in those rare years that the New York Knicks have drafted talented players such as Mark Jackson, Trevor Ariza, Channing Frye and Rod Strickland, their best rookies have played like, well, rookies.
I recall Marv Albert describing an extremely fast and athletic Ray Williams careening "out of control" down the lane and losing the ball; Michael Ray Richardson launching ill-conceived outside jumpers with no rebounders stationed near the basket and plenty of time left on the shot clock, and Gerald Wilkins charging into defenders whose feet were planted.
Landry Fields is the rarest of gems. A second round pick playing for an annual salary roughly equivalent to Eddy Curry's per diem rate, he captured the starting shooting guard job during the exhibition season and has proven himself to be one of the Knicks' most valuable players during their unexpected early season success.
He is not the fastest, strongest, or flashiest player. He will not make many highlight reels. Fields simply knows how to play the game. He is the stealth rookie.
You need scoring and he drops 21 points on Denver. You need rebounding and he grabs at least 10 on 10 different occasions. You need sharp passing, and he tallies three assists against Boston. You need a key defensive stop or steal, and he delivers. And all without your really noticing him, because you are watching Stoudemire, Gallinari or Felton.
Where did they find him? Hidden in plain sight with the Stanford Cardinal, scoring 22 points a game, and averaging 8.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals for good measure. He was not on a great team that generated a lot of press last year, and he lacked the name recognition or star power of many of the 38 players drafted before him.
Fields has a unique ability to be as productive as necessary, without being particularly visible. He does not flex and strut after a big play. And worse, in the eyes of NBA scouts, he stayed in college through his senior year, which might mean he had realized much of his potential. Also perhaps weighing on scouts was their concern that he was not ideal size-wise - was he a shooting guard or a small forward?
Just as with Archie Manning tutoring his sons Eli and Peyton to be star NFL quarterbacks, Landry Fields had the father/son dynamic working for him. His father, Steve Fields, did not capitalize on a chance to play in the NBA, when he signed with an ABA team that folded before it ever played a game. A missed chance is often the greatest motivational tool for a father whose son's future is the key to his own unrealized dreams.
And perhaps this accounts for the low-key and mature way that Landry Fields plays the game. There is an efficiency to his movement on the court and a wisdom in the way that he selects his shots and delivers his passes. He outthinks his opponents and is far more likely to deflect a pass or collect a loose ball in a key moment in a game than to make a mistake. He clearly has the ability to complement the skills of those around him on the team and make each more effective.
In my over 40 years of following the Knicks, I cannot recall a rookie who plays the game with greater efficiency on both ends of the court. His over 50 percent shooting percentage, very productive rebounding, including on the offensive end, and high rate of quality assists verify his productivity. Further, on a team built on offensive prowess, his steady defensive presence and unexpectedly tough rebounding are a huge asset. He knows how to play passing angles and his long arms are built for deflecting and picking off passes in his area.
Virtually every NBA team that has experienced success on a sustained basis, including those that had great stars, have had at least one complementary player that filled a critical role and accentuated the talents of the stars. The Magic Johnson-led Lakers had Michael Cooper. During their most dominant years, Bruce Bowen offered shut-down defense against the best offensive threats that faced the Tim Duncan-led Spurs.
Fields is unusual in that he is a multi-dimensional role player who can help the Knicks beat their opponent in many different ways. Vinnie Johnson, the Microwave, offered instant offense for the Pistons but had little to offer in the areas of defense, rebounding or passing. Robert Horry was the master of the clutch shot but was not a force in other areas. Dennis Rodman was a rebounding fiend but often could not buy a bucket.
One of the best role players the Knicks ever had was Anthony Mason, who was an excellent rebounder and tough defender. However, he was not the offensive threat and skillful passer that Fields is.
When interviewed about Fields, Coach Mike D'Antoni most often uses the word "glue" to compliment his complementary player on the key role he plays on the team. Fields' smart play conjures up the well-known Theodore Roosevelt quote, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
Hopefully, General Manager Donnie Walsh will not fall victim to the Knicks' genetic disposition to trade promising young players and high draft picks for established "name" stars like Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Steve Francis and Eddy Curry. The latest, rather loud, whisper in the media is that the Knicks should package Fields as a chip in an effort to land Carmelo Anthony, who sports a high scoring average but on an extremely unsavory number of shots and whose game is relatively mono-dimensional for the big salary that he would command.
If the team makes such an ill-advised move and trades away the gem that they so very wisely scouted and selected in the draft, the Knicks may revisit the hard times that a later Roosevelt navigated during his quest for a New Deal.