Romeo Langford pondered this question for more than one minute: Could he talk more?
He’s been thinking of himself as the young guy on the Boston Celtics, which has always meant letting the veterans do the talking.
Then, in Vegas, it hit him.
He’s 21 now, and while that didn’t even approach the oldest age on this summer league roster, he’s the one who most consistently earned Brad Stevens’ trust when healthy. Langford started NBA Playoff games months ago, and is the most comfortable in Boston’s defense among the team’s younger bench players. He recalled how easily he picked it up, then admitted he could help others with it.
“I mean, yeah,” Langford said. “With the summer team yeah, that’s one thing I could do. Especially on the defensive end. Just talking. Telling guys where help is at, helping them out...talking never hurts. That is one thing I can improve on.”
Langford found comfort in playing a sound defensive role in 2020 and 2021, once he’d escaped a maddening run of injuries and ailments that negated his first Summer League, training camp, and other development opportunities. He’s played in 50 NBA games since Boston picked him 14th overall in 2019. He still feels the need to fit in.
The cost of injury and absence on the young wing’s career became clear this month. To watch his play style is to sometimes question his urgency. But he’s always thinking, striving to matter in as a young player on a good team without consistent reps and long stints to prove himself. Defense wasn’t Langford’s expertise coming into the league. But he saw the need and made it his business to find minutes on a crowded roster with standout defending.
At Summer League, Langford lead by example on defense, moved the ball on offense, and hit catch-and-shoot jumpers. His summer numbers looked like what they could be through a full regular season: 44% from the field, 38% from three, on a little more than eight attempts.
Ime Udoka briefly introduced himself to Langford in Vegas. The pair did not have an expanded discussion on goals or Langford’s role. That could explain the latter’s summer approach.
Summer League head coach Joe Mazulla and Langford himself refuted any notion his Las Vegas play style stemmed from passiveness.
“I think sometimes people mistake Romeo’s passivity for playing the right way,” Mazzulla said. “The one thing he does a great job with is he’s always physical defensively and he waits for the right play to come to him. I thought he did a good job of being patient, I thought they were a little physical with him on the dribble handoffs and I thought he matched the physicality in the second half.”
For many players in Vegas, Summer League is about showing potential in outsized roles. Players try new things with expanded freedom, as we’ve learned watching Carsen Edwards shoot over 10 shots per game. Payton Pritchard scored and passed like a floor general last week, when he’ll likely be a spot catch-and-shoot player next year. Aaron Nesmith will play a similar off-ball role to the one he did in Vegas, but also drilled off-the-dribble shots from mid range and handled the ball some.
It’s a time for experimenting or learning the feel of a NBA game, whereas Langford took a comparable number of shots per game (8.3) to rookies Jason Preston and Joe Wieskamp. But he also showed a willingness to do the dirty work, like this tap-out rebound to secure another possession.
Langford’s loud moments stuck out: a game-winning three and two crushing dunks facing-up and driving baseline.
Overall, he didn’t try many new things, like manning more pick-and-rolls or shooting around screens. His passing produced more turnovers than assists. He floated on the perimeter at times, his arms swinging in the corner as if a desert breeze blew through the gym. Then he got hurt, again, and missed the final game against Sacramento with a strained right wrist.
That’s not to say Langford didn’t show strides. His 38.5% mark from three proved encouraging. He looked stronger, powering through two Philadelphia 76ers for a layup and earning free throws in last Saturday’s win. His high defensive floor may provide the most translatable path to minutes of any of the young Celtics players.
Don’t mistake Langford’s low-key demeanor for lack of an aggressive attitude. When asked about it after Saturday game, he perked up.
“People question my love for the game and passion which is dumb to me,” he said. “I just feel like people don’t know me, and you can ask anybody, like Joe, whoever works out with me, how much I love the game, how much heart I have.”
It’s unlikely Danny Ainge selected Langford at No. 14 in 2019 to play a Semi Ojeleye role. Langford once flashed major high school recruiting pedigree as a wing scorer. That may not fully translate to the NBA, as he currently struggles to turn past defenders downhill. It should be enough to average more than 2.7 points per game in his career.
He’s scored three points or fewer in 35 of his 50 games and shot 44% from the field in three summer games, at times getting bumped off his path to the rim or missing point-blank looks inside. Mazzulla contended Langford may play passively at times.
“But I know regardless if it’s Summer League or if it’s a regular game, he’s going to be in the right spot,” Mazzulla added. “He’s going to make the right read and he’s going to be a physical defender on and off the ball.”
We began to learn things about Langford last year once he returned from wrist injury. We’re still learning. He told CelticsBlog on Saturday how he sometimes needed to slow trainers from passing him the ball repeatedly in shooting drills last offseason while he recovered from wrist surgery. The nagging ailments wore on him for some time, as did a difficult return from COVID.
There’s seemingly always another ailment around the corner, with each tangible return halted shortly after. This latest injury is reportedly unrelated to the wrist surgery he underwent last summer. Add it to the list of ailments he can easily rattle off in interviews.
Langford underwent surgery on the wrist in late September 2020, not realizing the league would start again by the new year. It cost him 49 games to start the 2020-21 season in tandem with a long absence due to COVID-19. He said then he might’ve gotten surgery sooner if everyone knew how soon opening night would come.
Perhaps his demeanor isn’t indifference. It could be an attempt at levelheadedness through the turbulence that’s hung over the start to his NBA experience. Langford had some say in even going to Summer League as a third-year player, he mentioned in training camp. To him, it wasn’t actually a choice. It’s easy to forget, because it’s been so long, he was still figuring the NBA out, akin to the rookies and second-year players alongside him in Vegas.
That also means he’s fighting for spots in this league too, despite the friendly spirit and players picking each other up off the ground. More players every year vie for meaningful minutes. Each missed game costs him a chance to prove his worth relative to them. He knows that, so he stuck to showing his niche game after game rather than spreading himself thin.
“It was basically a chance to finally go out there and just play freely,” Langford said. “Do a lot more than I’m able to do during the season.”