What will we be saying about Romeo Langford at the end of the 2020-21 season?
Decked out in his green No. 45 Celtics jersey that he hasn’t gotten to wear nearly as much as he would have liked through the first 18 months of his pro career, the laid-back Langford pondered the question briefly before offering a rare bit of bravado.
“If everything goes well, you’re going to see a completely different Romeo from last year,” said Langford. "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.”
On a Celtics team swimming in recent draftees, Langford can sometimes be a forgotten man, in large part because of all the time he’s missed due to injuries. After missing extended time during his rookie season, Langford will be sidelined at the start of his sophomore campaign after undergoing wrist surgery in September.
But he’s bullish on what’s ahead. And so are the Celtics. As Danny Ainge noted, "We think Romeo has a very bright future.” Which is why he’s maybe our surprise choice to emerge as the biggest surprise of Boston’s 2020-21 season.
Scoff if you must considering his perpetual injury woes -- and even coach Brad Stevens has admitted that the best ability is availability -- but Langford had earned Stevens’ trust by the end of last season and even got a call early in Game 2 of the East Finals against the Miami Heat.
Alas, the injury bug has been relentless. Already trying to tough it out with the torn scapholunate ligament in his right shooting wrist, Langford suffered a groin injury just 81 seconds into his East finals cameo and that effectively ended his season. He returned to Boston and underwent wrist surgery five days later.
Langford is eager to change the narrative around him. While most of the references to him last season came in the form of being selected one spot after Miami rookie standout Tyler Herro, Langford yearns to show he can be an impact player, too.
And with the Celtics thin on wing depth, the team really needs him to stay on the floor and showcase what team brass have seen behind the scenes.
"I think Romeo is going to be an NBA player for a long time. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Stevens. "He’s got a great feel. He’s got a great athleticism. He knows the game, he works at the game, he’s a very good worker. So I think about it more in terms of he’s just missing half of his second season, or whatever it is, and I think that that’s hard when you already went through injuries as a rookie.
“He pulled his [groin] a minute into the stint versus Miami so that’s frustrating. But as far as big-picture, long-term, I would venture to guess that he’s going to have a long career based on who he is, his work ethic, and his ability. Now, that said, the best ability is availability. But at the same time, he’s still a young guy and a lot of these have been freak injuries. So hopefully he’ll use all his bad luck now and have a great, healthy career after this.”
In the aftermath of Boston’s bubble exit, Ainge pointed to Langford’s absence as one of the reasons the Celtics fell short of the Finals. Talk radio hosts in the region were aghast at the suggestion. But Boston brass believes there’s a certified rotation-caliber player if Langford can stay healthy.
"Sometimes I feel like I just can’t catch a break. But that comes with playing basketball,” said Langford. "It’s just a matter of how I respond and how do I prepare myself and get myself back to 100 percent, get my body right to where I don’t have to worry about these little knick-knack injuries and stuff like that.”
What is he most eager to showcase this season? He wants to build off the defensive presence he showed he could be last season. And he wants to showcase his offensive potential.
"Just making an impact when I do get out on the court,” said Langford. "Being noticed when you get out on the court, not just running up and down the floor and not making an impact on the game. Really just doing anything that helps the team win. Whatever the team is lacking at that point and space of the game, when I do come in, bring that to the table."
Langford appeared in just 32 games for Boston as a rookie. He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well (35 percent overall, 18.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc) but was solid on the defensive end, earning him some extended midseason run from Stevens. Inside the bubble, he had positioned himself for a playoff role, but then the wrist injury happened.
Langford tried to tough it out and appeared in Boston’s first five playoff games. He faded from the rotation in the Toronto series but Stevens went back to him early in Game 2 against Miami. Then he tweaked the groin.
Langford hasn’t been able to show his full toolbox at the NBA level but he has the potential to help fill some of the voids left by Gordon Hayward’s departure. It was Langford’s offensive potential that made him a lottery pick, especially his ability to attack the basket in the pick and roll. If teams are focused on Tatum and Brown, it’s going to give guys like Langford a chance to be really aggressive against lesser defenders. The Celtics made it an immediate emphasis to work on his shot last season, including strapping a ping-pong paddle to his hand to improve his release.
The team’s timetable puts Langford back on the court as early as late January. He’s going to miss another golden opportunity to showcase his talents here at the start of the season when Boston is shorthanded, but he’s confident he can make up for lost time when he’s back on the floor.
To be sure, Langford is not the only player that could surprise. A look at some of the other candidates we considered and their potential to outkick expectations:
A surprise starter in Boston’s preseason opener, Stevens hinted in the aftermath that Green could be a consistent rotation presence this season. That might speak to the Celtics’ lack of wing depth more than anything but Green clearly has the potential to accentuate the talents of Tatum and Brown.
"Regardless of whether he starts or not, we need his energy,” said Stevens. "He can get you points off cutting, he can get you points off running the floor, get you points off corner-crash rebounds. Then, obviously, he has improved his shot. He can shoot the ball when open. But those first three areas are energy and effort plays that are great any time of the game. We want to see what that looks like at the start of quarters, especially the start of halves. I could see him coming off the bench, I could see him starting. But that’s what we need him to do when he plays.”
It’s hard to get a grasp on how Green might fit with that first unit. As a 26-year-old rookie, he played only 19 total minutes with the Tatum/Brown combo during the 2019-20 regular season. He appeared in only one of Boston’s 17 bubble playoff games and was inactive for 11 of them.
Still, if he embraces his defensive potential and maximizes his athleticism, Green’s spot on this team goes from tenuous — given the nonguaranteed status of his deal -- to potentially integral given Boston’s lack of wings.
Can you really suggest that someone that most of us expect to ascend to All-Star status is going to surprise this season? We’re throwing it out there because we could see Brown having a monster year and really solidifying the notion that Boston has one of the league’s best young 1-2 punches in him and Tatum.
He earned Stevens’ trust enough to be on the floor in crunch-time moments last season. Of all the recent draftees, Williams is the only one with a surefire rotation role entering the season and, if no one else kicks down the door, Stevens might have to lean particularly heavy on him — especially given his defensive versatility.
As primary land owner on Robert Williams Island, we have a vested interest in putting Timelord on this list. We’ll readily admit that there’s still a lot of room for growth but no amount of preseason struggles — especially when Joel Embiid is on the other side -- will deter us from the notion that Rob Williams can thrive as a rotational presence here. He has to be better with his defensive discipline but an opportunity here early to play through those mistakes could help him turn a corner.
The star of Boston’s preseason opener showed he’s NBA ready after a four-year college career. He’s got great feel for the game, including how to probe in the pick-and-roll and then create space for his shot. Defensively, Pritchard has a bit of that Marcus Smart grit and can compete despite his size. Whenever Walker comes back healthy, Pritchard's role is a little murkier.
That stepback 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Ben Simmons in Boston’s preseason opener had Celtics fans feeling woozy. Getting blown by on defense twice in the immediate aftermath brought everyone back to Earth. The good news is that Nesmith has a strong desire to improve his defense and that’s going to be key in earning consistent time in his rookie season. Much like with Langford and Green, the void on the wing is going to give Nesmith every opportunity to earn consistent time.
But we simply think that a healthy Langford, with the brief bits of experience he gained last year and the knowledge absorbed in the downtime, has the chance to contribute far more than most anticipate. The wildcard with all of Boston’s younger players on this list is the possibility that they could be moved if the Celtics desire to utilize the bulky traded player exception generated when Hayward went to Charlotte.
If Langford can get healthy, he could inject himself in the conversation as a potential starter or a top reserve. We can see him emerging as one of the eight or nine players that Stevens leans on in the postseason.
There’s a chance to see a completely different Romeo.