Romeo Langford hasn't had the easiest of starts to his NBA career, struggling with injuries and being in and out of the rotation. Under new head coach Ime Udoka, he's finally getting consistent minutes, with a defined role within the team's system. As a result, we're starting to see flashes of what Langford is capable of.
Sure, the scoring numbers still look anemic, but that's primarily due to playing a supporting role. Langford's defense is at a premium and his scoring ability at a minimum. But that doesn't mean that the third-year wing isn't capable of helping the Celtics on offense. He's just not being featured within the scheme to show his full array of scoring prowess.
However, the Indiana native is making his bones on the defensive end and has quickly become an integral part of Udoka's switching system. It's already clear that Langford is arguably one of the top-3 perimeter defenders within the Celtics roster, outside of Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.
Langford, who is often tasked with guarding opposing ball-handlers, has rapidly improved as both a point-of-attack defender and an off-ball helper.
The first thing to note in the above play is Langford's positioning, where he is the weakside low-man, and Smart is directly above him guarding the wing. This positioning is known as the "Weakside I." Langford has two roles here: guard the corner shooter, and provide help should somebody get towards the rim. If Langford does get caught helping, it's Smart's job to sink in and "split the difference" between the two weakside offensive players.
Langford is cheating off his man in the corner, positioning himself to help on any drive while not being too far away to allow an uncontested shot should the ball find his man. When Darius Garland drives and kicks to initiate a second side action, Langford repositions himself back into the corner, reads the drive, and garners the steal before getting out on the break.
Here is an example of Langford's developing defensive IQ within Udoka's system. Grant Williams and Langford switch the dribble hand-off, meaning Langford is now guarding Jalen Smith on the low block. The Hoosiers alum does a great job sealing Smith outside of the paint before helping on the drive and getting a clean block around the rim.
Langford has been one of the more reliable defensive pieces on the roster so far this season, which is why he's averaging a career-high in minutes per game (18.4). But putting his minutes aside, is Langford being given a large enough role to reward his consistency on defense? He’s starting to show signs of aggressiveness when driving to the hoop, especially out of the corners, and is no longer avoiding contact.
Yo look at Romeo Langford move on this offensive possession. Great play pic.twitter.com/y04nqRBlJX— Efrain Ramos (@BLKRZN) December 11, 2021
According to Basketball-Reference, Langford spends 60% of his time at the small forward position, 37% at shooting guard, and 3% at power forward. Cleaning The Glass has tracked the third-year wing as having 755 non-garbage time possessions so far this year, with 405 of them sharing the floor with Jayson Tatum. None of those possessions have featured the "double big" lineup, and the majority of them have Langford operating at the three, with the rotation looking something like Point Guard - Smart - Langford - Tatum - Big.
If you add Jaylen Brown into the equation, the sample size shrinks to just 40 possessions (which could be due to Brown's injury troubles), but the rotation then sees Langford move to the shooting guard spot with Brown at the three, and Tatum at the four: Point Guard - Langford - Brown - Tatum - Big.
This positional data tells us that Udoka prefers to have his young wing paired with either Tatum or Brown and taking on one of the more difficult defensive assignments. By having three multi-faceted wings on the floor, who are all above average perimeter defenders, the Celtics would have a versatile defense, capable of operating in Udoka’s switch scheme without giving up mismatches for opposing teams to hunt and punish.
Due to the Brown's injuries, it's hard to know if the Celtics head coach likes all three wings operating on the floor simultaneously. But, considering Langford is a low usage wing who can handle the rock a little bit, attack off the dribble, spot-up, and defend at a high level, it makes little sense to envision Udoka having an affliction to the trio sharing minutes.
“I felt like when I first got drafted, I was still rehabbing from my surgery I had after my college season. So I really can’t do too much. And I wasn’t in the best shape coming in, but I feel like now, especially this past summer working with the strength guys and training guys, they helped get my body back to normal and more comfortable and more just be able to move freely out there,” Langford explained during a recent press conference when asked about how his body feels different compared to previous seasons.
Maybe increasing Langford's minutes isn't the best idea right now; he's playing well and building confidence in himself as a result, but an increased role wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Should Udoka decide his starting five needs more versatility, adding Langford into the starting five wouldn't be a terrible idea.
The Celtics wouldn't lose much defensively, if anything at all, and the added space he would have to operate in due to the attention of Tatum and Brown could free up his driving game or allow him extra looks from deep.
If Langford can use his burst like this from above the three-point line when three non-shooters are spacing the floor, imagine what his impact could be like when surrounded by some of the best scorers in the NBA.
It's not just his ability off the dribble either; the 22-year-old wing is also shooting 39% from three on 2 attempts per game, which means his presence in the corner or on the wing should be enough to give defenses pause when Tatum or Brown get to work off the drive.
Over his first 22 games this season, it's become apparent that we're only scratching the surface of what Langford is capable of and what he can provide the Celtics moving forward. Now, it's up to Udoka and his coaching staff to increase his role within the offensive system so that the Celtics have another viable option on offensive possessions and take another step towards realizing some of the untapped potential within the current roster. Udoka and his coaching staff have worked hard to give Langford a role to succeed in, and now they need to provide him with a bigger platform to shine.