For a Boston sports fan on a budget or just questing for a glimpse of the future, venturing to Portland to catch the Maine Red Claws always is a worthwhile take. (Once the secondary ticket market settled down about Tacko Mania, anyway.) You’re not going to find out everything about watching a Celtics draft pick play in the G-League, but you can gather valuable clues.
I gave up on both R.J. Hunter and James Young after watching them not as Celtics but as Claws. Hunter didn’t shoot consistently well from long range in the lesser league, which was supposed to be his strength, and he moped when he missed, which was totally against his easygoing nature. Young wasn’t in shape with his career hanging in the balance. If he didn’t take it seriously, there was no reason to take him seriously.
I went up Sunday with the purpose of getting a look at Romeo Langford, the Celtics’ first pick, 14th overall, in the 2019 NBA Draft. To say Langford has had a rough start to his NBA career is to say Carl Lewis had a tough time with the national anthem. Langford came in with a hand injury that carried over from his season at Indiana, and has suffered knee and ankle injuries since. He’s played one game for the Celtics, and doesn’t even have an official minute of playing time. Every player drafted ahead of him has played at least 307 minutes. Frustrating start. Rough start.
And he got hurt again Sunday, too, rolling his ankle after a nifty drive to the hoop. That was a bummer on a lot of levels, but in the moment, it was frustrating because he was playing so well and it was a joy to watch. His outside shot is still a work in progress — he fades to the right when he shoots — but he got to the hoop pretty much whenever he wanted to against the Long Island Nets defenders, better known as a bunch of guys vying to get yelled at by Kyrie Irving someday.
Langford just turned 20, was shaking off the rust from his assorted injuries, and he made it very clear that he does not belong in that league. Don’t call him a bust, please. He’s a kid who was a top-five recruit in his high school class and has had little go right since, yet the talent leaps off the hardwood at you. I’m a believer. I’m not asking you to be that, yet. But at least give him a chance.
A few thoughts on the Celtics’ other rookies (Note: Haven’t seen enough of Vincent Poirier to judge, though he’s probably better than Vitor Favorani), another of whom was in Portland Sunday:
■ Grant Williams (No. 22): Man, if anyone could ever use one of those Kawhi Leonard friendly bounces, it’s the Celtics rookie forward, who is 0 for 22 from 3-point territory in his NBA career after missing his only attempt Sunday against the Knicks. It’s getting to the point where the anticipation is palpable every time he has a look at the hoop from beyond the arc, and that’s not a good thing for a rookie to have to deal with. He can make them — he hit five in Summer League — but the longer this goes on, the smaller the rim is going to look. He’s been in a rut overall offensively lately, missing all nine of his shots over the previous four games before going 2 for 5 against the Knicks. His playing time also took a hit — he played 21 minutes total in the two Nets games and the matchup with the Kings.
But it’s already clear he is an asset to this basketball team, an All The Little Things player whose game at its best uses a few tricks from Marcus Smart and a couple from Al Horford. He’s smart and has a savviness on the court beyond his years, which I was surprised to learn he just turned 21 years old Saturday. Scoring will sometimes be an issue for him because he’s undersized (6 feet, 6 inches, 236 pounds) for his position, but he makes up for it with his defense, tenacity, and attitude. His style would have been ideal in the early ’90s. It’s going to be more than helpful for years.
■ Carsen Edwards (No. 33, via Philadelphia): Yes, he’s struggled with his shooting (30.7 percent from the field overall, 31.8 percent from 3), which is the thing he’s supposed to do best. Concerned? Not really. Shooter’s shoot, as those prone to accurate clichés like to say, and we do have fairly fresh recollections of extraordinary performances from him (eight 3s in a five-minute stretch versus Cleveland in a preseason game, 42 points vs. Virginia in the Elite Eight; maybe he just plays well against teams called the Cavaliers).
He’s going to be fine, a nice eighth man on a good team for a half-dozen years who provides instant offense off the bench. I’ve been making the Eddie House comparison since his tournament performance in March. House was a wonderful shooter and a wildly fun Celtic when he was on. He also shot under 40 percent from the field in three of his first four NBA seasons, and shot 30 percent from 3-point land in his third year. Even great shooters take time to adjust.
Other than perhaps occasionally resisting firing up heat checks when he’s been in the game for 45 seconds, there’s nothing Edwards should change. They’re going to fall.
■ Tremont Waters (No. 51): Do you have any doubts that the “H2O Kid’’ — hey, that’s what basketball-reference says he’s nicknamed — is a legitimate NBA player? I don’t, which makes him a certified find at No. 51 in the draft. It’s obvious why he went so low — he’s short, listed at 5-10, which seems generous. It’s also obvious that the lack of size isn’t going to be much of hindrance on the offensive end, especially as he sharpens up his long-range shooting.
He has the jukes and hesitation moves of a ’70s playground legend, finds open teammates from all angles, even if they don’t even know they’re open, and makes up for his lack of height with a rocket-powered vertical leap (he blocked 6-11 former first-round pick Henry Ellenson at the rim during Sunday’s game, though he was whistled for a phantom foul).
While his stat line (7 points on 2-of-7 shooting, 3 assists in 20 minutes) wasn’t spectacular in his lone NBA appearance (Nov. 25 against the Kings, when we were still exhaling about Kemba Walker’s healthy status after a scary looking injury a few days earlier), he played the part of NBA playmaker with poise and ended up a team-high plus-20 in the game. I don’t know if his future is with the Celtics with Walker and tough, improving Brad Wanamaker ahead of him. But his future is in the league somewhere, and it won’t be a short stay.
■ Javonte Green (free agent): I suppose players still slip through the cracks from time to time even in this age when it’s much easier to discover and scout unheralded players. But it’s hard to believe a player with his athleticism (I’m pretty sure he can high-five the banners in the Garden rafters) and willingness to play ferocious defense didn’t get a real shot at NBA career until recently. It’s not like he was a scrub at Radford – he had single-game highs of 33 points and 19 rebounds in college. For an older rookie – he’s 26 – he still has a high ceiling. Tony Allen played 14 seasons in the NBA. Bruce Bowen, who had played one NBA game before sticking with the Celtics at age 26 in 1997, played 13. I’m not saying Green will match their careers. But I’m not wagering against him, either.
■ Tacko Fall (free agent): I think this breather while he deals with a bone bruise in his knee for a week or two is a minor blessing. He’s had so much to get acclimated to: Finding his way as an unconventional player in pro basketball against more experienced athletes, all of whom would love to dunk on a 7-foot-5-inch player’s forehead . . . becoming an instant cult figure and the overwhelming attention that comes with that . . . and, geez, what do you think he makes of this weather? He’s had to deal with a lot, and he’s handled it with remarkable grace and good humor. But it is a lot, and he’s someone whose natural inclination is to say yes to everything.
You don’t want that spoiled, where it becomes so overwhelming that it becomes easy for him to say no and his personality changes, but the guy deserves a break from the constant attention of the “Taco! Taco!’’ chants in the fourth quarter of close games. When the Red Claws got word that he would be joining them this season, the team’s full staff was called together in a meeting and told not to treat him like a sideshow, that he was in Portland to become a better basketball player, not some marketing tool to be taken advantage of at the expense of his comfort. He’s played well in the G-League before the injury (15 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.7 blocks), and I bet those numbers grow as the season proceeds. Portland is where he needs to right now.