The postseason stay of the 2020-21 Boston Celtics, brief and underwhelming as it might have been, was not without silver linings. Jayson Tatum had a pair of monster nights, including 50-point efforts in a play-in victory over the Wizards and a tantalizing Game 3 triumph over the talent-filled Brooklyn Nets.
But the other long-term benefit for the Celtics after navigating the postseason without Jaylen Brown was young players like Romeo Langford, Aaron Nesmith, and Payton Pritchard getting quality playoff minutes that ought to set them up for greater success next season.
The development of Langford and Nesmith, in particular, could be vital to the Celtics' success moving forward. As Boston attempts to navigate a path to adding a third star, the Celtics’ young wings must emerge as either consistent contributors or intriguing trade options.
The bloat at the top of Boston’s cap sheet, which would inflate even more with the addition of a third star, puts stress on the Celtics front office to find young, cost-controlled talent. Boston had to give up its 2021 first-round pick to move Kemba Walker, adding even more stress on nurturing recent draftees.
Fortunately for the Celtics, there were encouraging moments with their youngest players in a season otherwise defined by frustrations. And yet there still are great strides that each player must make to truly emerge as a consistent presence.
But it’s fair to suggest that Nesmith, Langford, and Pritchard could be three key bench pieces for the 2021-22 season, even if the back end of the roster gets a greater overhaul.
Nesmith didn’t let the disappointment of fading from the rotation in the middle of the season deter his rookie-year growth, as he made hustle and grit as much of a trademark as his 3-point shot. He logged 75 playoff minutes against the Nets, including 19 minutes in Game 4 where he chipped in 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting and made a trio of trifectas.
His shot otherwise defied him in that series but that’s not uncommon for rookies. Having to defend James Harden and getting called for a bunch of ticky-tack fouls will go a long way towards teaching Nesmith the level he needs to get to on that end of the floor to be a two-way presence.
There’s a lot to like about his potential as a spot-up shooter who can make defenses pay for over-helping on Tatum and Brown. Over the final 14 games of the regular season, Nesmith shot 46.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc and 52.4 percent from the floor, while averaging 8.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in 18.7 minutes per game. Dial it back to the final three months of the regular season and Nesmith shot 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 2.2 attempts per game in 30 appearances.
Langford endured another maddening season in which his absence from the floor was a bigger story than what he did on it. A quick turnaround from the previous season didn’t help Langford’s cause after offseason wrist surgery but even as he prepped to debut after the All-Star break, he caught COVID and missed even more time.
Maybe even more frustrating, after reestablishing himself as an impact defender, Langford endured some offensive woes and, combined with a bit of seemingly low energy, faded from the rotation for a stretch spanning into early May.
Boston’s shorthanded nature and a need for wing defenders gave him another opportunity in the playoffs and Langford answered the call. He played 109 minutes against Brooklyn and started the final two games of the series with Walker out.
Langford’s offense has to catch up to his defense. The Celtics ought to lock him in the Auerbach Center this summer and let him launch 1,000 3-pointers per day. His high school and college career suggest a player more than capable of consistently impacting on the offensive end, particularly in pick-and-roll play, but he’s got to develop into a spot-up shooter to fully complement the Jays.
Langford and Nesmith are only 21 (Nesmith, in fact, is 9 days older). There’s a ton of opportunity to grow and develop. They have the size and talent to aid this core.
Pritchard shooting 41.1 percent beyond the arc in his rookie campaign bodes well for the team, too. The Celtics probably need another point guard option with him and Marcus Smart but his steadiness is important for this team.
The Celtics need to overhaul the end of their bench and there’s a whole bunch of questions about the 2019 NBA Draft class beyond Langford. But the Nesmith-Pritchard-Langford trio could be crucial to whatever this team accomplishes — or at least how it looks — deep into the future.
Editor's Note: We'll spotlight different Celtics players every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Next up: new addition Al Horford.