Entering Wednesday, Romeo Langford had played in just 14 games for the Boston Celtics. Since being chosen 14th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Indiana product has bounced back and forth between Boston and its G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, dealing with a slew of injuries along the way. He had played over 20 minutes just twice for the Celtics ahead of their matchup with the Orlando Magic, but suddenly he found himself thrust into the starting lineup due to the absence of both Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart.
“I guess I was kind of shocked,” Langford said. “Just because I haven’t been playing that much and then now (Brad Stevens) trusts me to start and guard Evan Fournier. But I felt like I’ve been working out pretty hard and been prepared – just waiting for my name to be called, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
Langford played like it wasn’t that big of a deal, scoring six points on 3-of-4 shooting in 28 minutes. That line doesn’t jump off the page at you, and it shouldn’t. He wasn’t expected to have a major role offensively. As Langford told reporters, Stevens tasked him with guarding Fournier, who is averaging 18.7 points on 46.2 percent shooting through 50 games. The rookie was up for the challenge and passed his first real NBA test in Boston’s 116-110 win.
The 20-year-old finished the night with a defensive rating of 100, which was the third-lowest in the game for players with a 20-minute minimum. According to the NBA’s matchup data, Langford guarded Fournier for 15 partial possessions, allowing just two points and one assist. Coming in at second was his matchup with Terrance Ross. Langford guarded the 6-foot-6 wing for six partial possessions, allowing zero points on 0-for-2 shooting.
His best possession of the night came in the first quarter against Fournier.
Langford does a great job here using his length and balance to stick with his 6-foot-7 counterpart. He prevents Fournier from getting deep into the paint, forcing him to go up for a right-handed layup, which Langford blocks for his third career rejection.
He made smart defensive plays throughout the night, even if they likely went unnoticed by the casual fan.
Here, Langford initially hedges a bit to contain a Markelle Fultz drive. When Fultz commits to kicking out, Langford uses his length to disrupt the passing lane as best he can. He rises simultaneously with Ross, but doesn’t draw any contact and avoids a foul. The contested shot hits front-rim, and the Celtics maintain their three-possession lead late in the fourth quarter.
This effort, among others, was notable solely for the fact that Langford was playing crunch-time minutes in his first NBA start. That says something about the trust Boston’s coaching staff has in the rookie wing, especially on the defensive end. Langford said after the game that knowing his primary assignment ahead of time helped his mindset going in.
“It helped a lot,” he said. “Just knowing all I had to do was basically guard (Fournier) the whole time. I felt like I did a good job of that. Once he told me that, I went in and watched some film with coach Joe (Mazzulla) and he helped me get prepared for that.”
Langford can produce offensively when looked upon as well, but that won’t occur with high volume in Boston for the foreseeable future. That’s not a bad thing, though. It appears Langford knows his role and could function pretty effectively within it in a situation like Wednesday night.
It was a quiet offensive night from a scoring perspective, but possessions like this are valuable in the grand scheme of a game. He runs off Enes Kanter’s off-ball screen along the perimeter, creating separation between himself and Ross. Once Ross is on his back, he goes at Nikola Vucevic and finishes with contact.
Although his minutes have been minuscule to this point in his rookie campaign, Langford has taken full advantage of his opportunities when they’ve come. He’s played double-digit minutes in six games, four of which have come in at 15 minutes or higher. In those contests, Langford has never had a defensive rating higher than 100, and never had an offensive rating lower than 114.8. His average net rating in those six games is 30.8.
Langford’s sample size has been small, but he’s shown to be effective when given the chance. His first start was a prime example of that. Barring a move during Thursday’s trade deadline, he’ll be a nice depth piece for the Celtics as they push toward the postseason.