Romeo Langford has missed so much time during the first 20 months of his professional career that some Boston Celtics fans had started questioning his existence.
But after an extended stay in health and safety protocols -- this after missing the first three months of the 2020-21 season while recovering from the wrist surgery -- Langford could make his 2020-21 season debut as early as Wednesday night against the Dallas Mavericks.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has already suggested that Langford will only play in small bursts during the infancy of his return.
"You may be able to throw him in there in one of these upcoming games at home for a couple minutes at a time, but that's about it," Stevens noted.
So what exactly can Langford do to help this Celtics team find the consistency it has so sorely lacked this season?
The Celtics have spent much of the season thin on wing depth behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, something that could have afforded Langford an opportunity to really shine had he been available. The Celtics added some depth with the recent acquisition of Evan Fournier but there’s still room for Langford to contribute.
The 21-year-old brings a 6-foot-6 body with a 6-foot-10 wingspan. It was his defensive capabilities that endeared him to Stevens a year ago and helped him muscle into the rotation late in the year.
Langford played only 370 regular-season minutes over 32 games last season but did a nice job defending smaller players. According to the NBA’s matchup data, Langford spent 63.1 percent of his time defending guards and, over 330 partial possessions, limited those players to 33.3 percent shooting, including just 24.2 percent shooting beyond the 3-point arc.
Overall, the NBA’s defensive data had Langford holding opponents to 40.4 percent shooting, or 4.2 percent below expectation -- a rather stellar number, especially for a rookie. Langford also had an exceptional block rate, one that ranked him in the 93rd percentile among all wing players in that small sample, according to data from Cleaning the Glass.
Langford logged just 46 minutes during the playoffs but his defensive statistics again were excellent in that tiny sample. Opponents shot just 18.8 percent (3 of 16 overall) against him.
It was telling that Stevens had the confidence to deploy Langford in the Eastern Conference finals before a groin strain forced him back off the court and the team sent him home to Boston to undergo wrist surgery knowing he’d need up to a five-month recovery.
While defense was the key to Langford’s rookie playing time, his offensive potential was the reason he was a lottery pick when Boston landing him at No. 14 in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Langford thrived as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll at Indiana and, even before he cracked the rotation last season, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would often gush about what he saw from Langford operating in the pick-and-roll during practices.
Langford didn’t log enough possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler a year ago to even spot on the league’s tracking data. He struggled as a perimeter shooter, something the team has worked hard to develop while he’s been sidelined. (You might remember the stories about the team strapping a ping pong paddle to his hand during shooting drills during his rookie campaign).
In his lone season at Indiana University, Langford shot 44.8 percent from the field overall but just 27.2 percent from 3-point range. With time and development the Celtics hope he can become a more consistent catch-and-shoot option, especially in the corners. But for now, the team should try to put the ball in his hands at times when running with reserve-heavy groups.
Langford operated with excellent ball security last season and he ranked in the 90th percentile in turnover percentage among wings. That number will spike a bit the more he handles the ball but it’s an encouraging sign that he can be that steady as a 20-year-old rookie. His probing abilities should create better shots for him and his teammates.
Langford seems to know where his best shots come from, too. Last season, 46 percent of his shots came within four feet of the basket, per Cleaning The Glass. Another 21 percent came between four and 14 feet. The majority of his 3-point attempts were corner looks (though he was just 3 of 12 overall on those shots).
Here’s the most important part: Langford positively impacted team play whenever he was on the court last season. The Celtics had a net rating of plus-8.9 in his floor time, including a defensive rating of 102.2 in that span. Considering many of his stints were late-game trash time, that might be an even more remarkable number.
What’s more, it persisted in the postseason. Langford had a plus-8.3 net rating in his 46 minutes, with the team posting a defensive rating of 99 when he was on the court (or 7.3 points lower per 100 possessions than their playoff average).
Boston’s offensive and defensive ratings both ranked in the 90th percentile or better when Langford was on the court last season. Or, to put it another way, Cleaning the Glass’ Expected Wins projection suggests Boston would win 70 out of 82 games if they maintained the numbers the team produced during Langford’s floor time last year.
Again, let’s remember it’s a very small sample size at play here. But we saw enough to be intrigued by how Langford could positively impact the team. It’s why we pegged him as our potential biggest surprise for the 2020-21 season.
“If everything goes well, you’re going to see a completely different Romeo from last year,” Langford told us before the season. "Just a healthy Romeo. I feel like the best Romeo is going to be out there and doing the things that he’s capable of -- what I was doing in college, what I was doing in high school. A completely different Romeo.”
The Celtics don’t need a completely different Romeo. They need one that can add depth to their bench and positively impact winning like he did when he got chances a year ago. Anything else is a bonus with hopes that he can continue to evolve into a more steady two-way contributor moving forward.