But nearly a year after Landry Fields had surgery to ease symptoms caused by nerve damage in his elbow, he's learning to adapt his game to his healing right arm, and looking more and more like the player the Toronto Raptors had hoped for when they acquired the small forward in the summer of 2012.
"I'm proud of him," teammate Kyle Lowry said. "Last year, he had surgery, he's had a lot of things going on with him, I'm just happy he's back out there, playing the way everyone knows he can play."
The 25-year-old has averaged 6.4 points and 5.6 points a night anchoring the second unit.
"Landry's been solid," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "He's probably our most consistent guy on both ends of the floor. He's a utility guy, he's very valuable to what we do because he can guard multiple positions, he can play point guard, offensively he's one of our best attack-distribute guys, even at the four position. Really glad to see him healthy from where he was last year."
Fields, a starter for much of his two seasons with the New York Knicks, got off to horrible start in Toronto, shooting just 20.8 per cent from the field and averaging just 2.3 points in his first five games after signing a three-year, US$19 million contract in the off-season.
It turns out he was having problems with his hand. He underwent ulnar nerve transposition surgery in November and sat out the next six weeks. The surgery was to alleviate nerve compression in his right elbow that had been causing his right hand to involuntarily curl up like a claw — a horrible problem to have when shooting a basketball is your livelihood.
The recovery, however, wasn't as quick and easy as he'd expected. Nerves heal at their own pace, and sometimes don't heal entirely at all.
"The nerve regeneration takes a very long time and that was the biggest shock to me, I thought I'd have surgery, and boom, I'm back," Fields said. "They're like 'No, your nerve has to continue to regenerate over time.' Nerve damage takes a very long time to heal."
He struggled with his shooting mechanics when he returned to the lineup, and his confidence took a big blow. The Stanford product who had a standout rookie season with the Knicks, attempting 219 three-point shots and making 39 per cent of them, made just two of his 14 attempts from behind the arc last season. He even briefly experimented with changing shooting hands early last summer.
"I had to rely on other aspects of my game to stay on the floor. It was definitely tough, I didn't know really what was going on, because they'd never seen this kind of injury in this sport before," said Fields of the injury that is more commonly seen in baseball pitchers. "With my arm, thank God, it's been progressing well. I'd say I'm pretty close (to 100 per cent). Still some things I'm trying to work out, but it's getting close."
He's had a couple highlight reel plays this season, including his deceptive spin move past Paul Millsap for arguably the dunk of the night in Toronto's loss in Atlanta last week. Against the New York Knicks in the pre-season, he drove to the basket past Tim Hardaway Jr., his crafty change of direction leaving a stunned Hardaway flat on his backside on the floor.
But it's the aspects of his game that aren't as obvious — his rebounding ability, movement off the ball, and basketball I.Q. that is among the highest on the team — that Fields brings to a Raptors bench that is considered one of its weaknesses.
Fields had five rebounds and four points in 16 minutes in Toronto's 92-90 loss at Charlotte on Wednesday.
Fields and the Raptors (2-3) have their work cut out for them Friday, when they travel to Indiana to battle the 5-0 Pacers — the NBA's only remaining undefeated team.
The Pacers are 5-0 for the first time since 1971-72.