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Assessing Romeo Langford’s value ahead of the trade deadline

The Celtics’ 2019 first round pick has “lottery ticket” upside, but also holds “lottery ticket” uncertainty.

Langford blocks Evan Fournier in his first NBA start on Feb. 5, 2020.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

When Danny Ainge selected Romeo Langford with the 14th pick of the 2019 NBA Draft, he was widely viewed as a project. Langford was raw and young and would have the chance to sit behind two (now) All-Star caliber wings in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

What wasn’t expected from analysts and fans was Langford breaking his wrist in the Orlando bubble and needing even more time to develop.

Now — as Langford is set to return from his injury after the All-Star break — his team is in limbo, and his GM is the subject of every national writer’s trade deadline speculation. Langford could be a solid piece for Boston in any deadline deal acquiring a bonafide starter or a solid piece to keep around to build a roster. Danny Ainge needs to figure out which path he wants to take.

The most unknown aspect of Langford’s game is his ceiling. Born October 25th, 1999 — barely 21 years old — Langford still has a lot of room to grow. He’s no spring chicken like Jayson Tatum, but not many people can stay 19 forever. His age combined with extremely low usage means his growing pains so far are expected, but most GMs would still regard him as a solid prospect.

The Good

Langford’s strengths are things you can’t teach, which is why his potential is so high. Being 6’4” and having a seven-foot wingspan are coveted physical attributes in today’s positionless NBA. His intensity on the court was evident in his first career start against the Magic, where he made multiple stand out plays on defense.

At 36 seconds in this video, Evan Fournier gets a few steps on Langford when he initiates the give-and-go with Aaron Gordon. Langford is trailing Fournier and any lapse in effort or speed means Fournier is getting an easy two from point blank range. But because Langford has great athleticism and intensity, he easily catches up to Fournier, cutting off the passing lane and forcing a tough mid-range jumper from Gordon. Gordon has to shoot with seconds remaining on the shot clock, and misses the rim altogether as the ball falls into Langford’s hands.

It’s a single play, but it gives a glimpse into Langford’s gifts and potential.

At 44 seconds, Langford again is matched up against the talented vet, Fournier. Fournier gets a step on Langford again after a Nikola Vucevic screen and a crossover, then dives to the lane to get a layup.

Langford, in his first start, takes Fournier on 1-on-1 as Jaylen Brown keeps an eye on Gordon in the corner. Not only does Langford force the miss by playing smart, controlled defense, but his athletic ability puts him in a position to make a nasty block.

These highlights reveal Langford’s instinctive feel for the game, something Brad Stevens noticed right away.

Stevens noticed even back in Summer League and practices that Langford has good instincts, which is always good to hear. You can’t teach instinct.

The highlights from Game 2 against Philadelphia in the bubble speak volumes. Langford is all over the place on defense and forces tough shots from players with serious height and experience advantages over him.

These glimpses into what Langford has already done provides some context to what he could be. It is an incredibly small sample size to determine a player’s trade value, but for NBA GMs, it provides some idea of what a player could be.

The Bad

Coming out of Indiana, Langford was compared to former Celtics fan-favorite Evan Turner on, and the comparison is fair. Evan Turner always struggled with a consistent jump shot, and if Langford doesn’t pan out, it will undoubtedly be the jumper that keeps him from reaching his potential.

In a limited sample size, Langford shot just 35% from the field and 18.5% on 3-point attempts, not NBA-level shooting from a combo guard. In college, Langford shot just 27% from three.

The process of retooling a jumper can be a difficult one, as seen by Lonzo Ball and Brandon Clarke. Clarke is shooting a decent 33% from 3-point range, but the process has seen his jumper looking... interesting.

Another weakness of Langford’s game is playmaking. In--say it with me--a limited sample size, Langford averaged 0.4 assists per game. Beyond a stat in limited minutes, Langford stuck to the safe passes and needs to get more comfortable making tougher passes.

The best way for Langford to improve his game is working on the drive-and-kick game with the litany of shooters around him. If he can’t improve his shooting, working on the drive-and-kick can supplement for his lack of outside scoring.

In 2019-2020, Langford passed to his teammates 199 times. Of those 199 passes, Langford racked up 13 assists, for an assist rate of just 4.5%. Of the 54 shots attempted following his passes, Langford’s teammates made 25, putting their percentage at 46.2% following a Romeo pass. Nineteen of those shots were 3-pointers, and 10 went in, good for 52.6%. This bodes well for the Langford’s future in the drive-and-kick game. The passes to made baskets ratio overall isn’t great, but looking at just 3-pointers – there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Again, he’s RAW. He’s green banana raw. The Langford that comes back from the injury might be a better passer just as he matures, but as of right now, there’s room to grow as a facilitator.

In the highlights below of his three-block game against Atlanta, Langford took the ball inside against multiple defenders and converted a very tough layup, starting at the 1:10 mark. It was a good finish against the 6’11” Damian Jones, but a look to the top of the key reveals a wide-open Brad Wanamaker.

Wanamaker shot 36% from three that year, so a wide-open three easily could have gone in. It’s nitpicky because he made the shot, but the smart play is to hit the open guard beyond the arc instead of going directly at a wall of defenders. In addition, Vincent Poirier was up against Kevin Huerter, so a well-placed bounce pass could have resulted in a Poirier and-one.

A small thing Langford will also want to improve also is his strength. He showed great strength and toughness in spurts, but at 6’4” he’ll want to add more muscle to survive consistently defending for 25-30 minutes per game. This too could come somewhat naturally as he matures and finishes filling out.

The Unpredictable

For a current comp, Langford has Donte DiVincenzo potential if his shooting comes along. DiVincenzo started off his career needing jumper work, finishing with a 26.5% 3-point percentage in 15.2 minutes per game. Langford had a similar rookie season, but saw less minutes and had lower percentages on a team that didn’t need him as much.

DiVincenzo has improved his game at a rapid pace, which is why he’s the ideal comparison for Langford. In each year he’s been in the NBA, DiVincenzo has been taking and making more threes.

The similarities extend beyond their initial weaknesses. Langford is 6’4”, 216 pounds and DiVincenzo is 6’4”, 204 pounds. Langford has an edge over DiVincenzo in length, with a wingspan of 6’10.5”, compared to DiVincenzo’s 6’6” wingspan. Both Langford (14th pick) and DiVincenzo (17th) were drafted near the end of the lottery as well.

This season, the third year Villanova guard is shooting 38.4% from behind the arc and has started every game for Milwaukee. If Langford can improve at a similar rate as DiVincenzo, he could find himself as a reliable starter who fills a valuable role down the road.

DiVincenzo hasn’t just improved offensively. His help defense and defensive I.Q. are noticeably better than his first season. This too is something Langford could improve upon, anticipation and instinct, because he already has the athleticism and hustle to become a good NBA-level defender.

Toronto Raptors Vs. Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Langford’s arc is similar to Avery Bradley in his early Boston days. Bradley was drafted and immediately had surgery on his left ankle. Just like Bradley, Langford was drafted to the Celtics with a preexisting injury to his right thumb.

Bradley also dealt with injuries in his second season. In the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Bradley dislocated his shoulder and needed offseason surgery, much like Langford with his wrist in the bubble.

Bradley, like Langford, had work to do on the offensive end. Initially, he made his impact through defense and hustle. By the end of his time with Boston he was a consistent, reliable, fan-favorite starter on competitive teams.

In his last full season with Boston, Bradley shot five threes per game and was hitting them at a 39% clip, a frequency and accuracy he didn’t even sniff in his first three seasons. Langford reaching five threes per game and consistently shooting around 40% would unlock his game and elevate him to a reliable, consistent starter status.

These comparisons serve as a hopeful outlook of what could be, but Langford has to make the jump. The good thing for him is that he gets to work with the coach who worked with Bradley during his ascension from a bad to good shooter.

However, as much as anyone might claim to know about Langford’s potential, the jury is still out. Anyone can sit and look at these highlights and craft a narrative of what could be, but the best part of a lottery ticket isn’t what you know, it’s what you don’t know.

However, most of the time, a lottery ticket is either decent or nothing, and only once in a while do you find yourself feeling thankful you held onto a lottery ticket. The other thing about lottery tickets is they keep you coming back for more. Just look at the Knicks. They’ve been praying for positive luck since Zion was in diapers – and look how that has turned out.

A study published by Wired magazine in 2011 examined the psychology of lottery tickets, and found that “the games naturally appeal to poor people, which causes them to spend disproportionate amounts of their income on lotteries, which helps keep them poor, which keeps them buying tickets.”

Depressing social commentary aside, this logic applies to NBA prospects as well. Ainge has been burned time and time again by holding onto assets. He just can’t let go. I bet Danny has at least 300 shares of AMC, GameStop and a bucket full of Dogecoin just depreciating in value in his Robinhood account.

A move involving Langford could boost the team to where fans want it to be. Acquiring a two-time All-Star center in Nikola Vucevic or a talented and productive wing like Harrison Barnes could happen, but it might take a lottery ticket like Langford to move the needle for a selling team.

Moves require someone else willing to value Langford as an asset, but if there’s someone willing to give a quality player right now, it could pay off.

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