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Romeo Langford is earning his time on the defensive end

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After a tough start to his rookie campaign, Langford has impressed in recent games with his play on the defensive side of the ball.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been the easiest of rookie seasons so far for Romeo Langford. After being selected 14th by the Boston Celtics in the 2019 NBA Draft, Langford’s inaugural season in Beantown has been riddled by injuries and inconsistent playing time. It started in the summer league after the draft, where Langford was meant to play with the Celtics squad in Los Angeles. But a long recovery process from surgery on his thumb meant Langford had to watch from the sidelines as his fellow Celtics rookies made their positive first impressions on the coaching staff. By the time the training camp rolled around, Langford was left dealing with a groin injury, and then a knee sprain. The injuries made it tough for Langford to get into any sort of rhythm to try and earn his spot in the rotation. He started the year watching as fellow rooks Carsen Edwards and Grant Williams got their chances.

But finally, with injuries plaguing the Celtics’ roster, Langford has received his chance to shine, playing nearly 57 minutes in the Celtics’ last two wins against Orlando and Atlanta. And while he was largely touted for his offensive game coming out of high school and college, Langford has forced his way into Brad Stevens’ plans with his impressive play on the defensive end. Throughout Stevens’ tenure, the Celtics have prided themselves on their play on that side of the ball. According to Cleaning the Glass, over the past six seasons, the Celtics have had a top 7 defense four times and have never finished outside the top half in that time frame.

Langford, for his part, is well-aware of that too. According to NESN, he said “Coach Stevens, we know like as young players the way we get on the court is by defense and by him trusting us on the defensive end and that’s what I work on, as well as my shooting.”

And on Friday night against the Hawks, Coach Stevens showed that Langford has earned that trust. Langford was not only out there late in crunch time, but even drew the assignment on Kevin Huerter in the final seconds of the game with Boston up 3. With the game on the line, Langford played picture perfect defense, shuffling his feet with one hand firmly up to contest, and forced Huerter into a difficult, fall-away shot. When the Hawks ended up getting the tip back and had another shot to tie, it was Langford who came up with the vital, game-sealing rebound and free throws to finish the deal.

The most impressive part of Langford’s defense thus far has been his on-ball prowess. After allowing just 0.409 points per isolation possession in college (good for the 93rd percentile), Langford has continued to be a pest when his matchup has the ball. Admittedly, this is against a fellow rookie, but take a look at this play here against Hawks wing De’Andre Hunter. First, like an NBA veteran, Langford expertly manages to get around a solid screen set here by John Collins. Then, with Enes Kanter dropping back and slowing down his opponent, Langford recovers, and does an excellent job of sliding his feet to stay with Hunter before rising up and using his long arms to swat the ball away with his left hand.

It’s almost a carbon copy of a play he made against the Magic on Wednesday night where, against a talented scorer in the Magic’s Evan Fournier, Langford again did a great job of staying with his man before making a play on the ball.

At 6-6 with a 6-11 wingspan, Langford already possesses the requisite size and length to be a solid wing defender in this league, and the Indiana product will likely add bulk as he gets older. The offense will come, too. Romeo set a career high on Friday with 16 points on 5-11 shooting, and with the likes of Kemba, Tatum, and Hayward creating, he should get a ton of open looks and opportunities to drive. It might be too soon to see Romeo earn a spot in the playoff rotation this year, but if he can keep up his defensive play and start to take advantage of that offensive potential, Langford gives the Celtics yet another talented, switchy wing who provides both a spark off the bench and valuable cover in case one of the Jayward trio gets hurt.