Romeo Langford has been joking that he switched jersey numbers this summer with hopes of slimming down.
"Just felt like 45 was a little big, made me look little chunky," Langford deadpanned during his chat with NBC Sports Boston at Celtics Media Day last month. "Number 9 is a little smaller, so maybe jump a little higher, a little lighter now."
The digit swap, intentional or not, offered a fresh start for a player who needed a bit of a reset button. Injuries have defined Langford’s first two seasons as a pro but the former lottery pick is eager to show there’s more to his game than what we’ve seen thus far.
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Like midway through the second quarter of Saturday night’s exhibition win over the Raptors when Langford spun away from an Al Horford screen, streaked baseline, and lofted a tear-drop floater over a defender.
It’s one thing to see Langford shoot the three with confidence -- he hit a game-winning triple in Boston’s exhibition opener against the Magic -- but he opened up his offensive toolbox on Saturday night.
Right before the floater, he got a rebound, streaked out in transition, and, when the Raptors failed to stop the ball, Langford went straight to the hoop, drew a little contact, and banked home the shot.
Still only 21 years old, Langford yearns to change the narratives around his pro career. Since draft day, all he’s heard are negatives -- his draft position (one spot after Tyler Herro), the injuries (only 50 appearances out of a possible 144 regular-season games), and the ping pong paddle. (Long story short: Boston player development got unique tweaking his shot out of college and it invariably comes up whenever he makes a few threes).
“Really just try not to think about [the past],” said Langford. “I can’t control that stuff. It’s in the past now. I have to just focus on what I can do to get better.
" ... Just moving on, honestly.”
So what exactly can we expect from Romeo Langford, version 2.0?
“Just a healthy, reliable version,” said Langford. “Be able to play the whole year without having any setbacks and just doing whatever my role is. Be the best in my role and do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
It’s somewhat ironic that injuries may have opened a door for a player whose progress has been stalled by his own maladies. With Jaylen Brown sidelined after wrist surgery last year, Langford played in four of Boston's five postseason games against the Brooklyn Nets. He averaged nine points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists over 27.2 minutes per game, while also making two starts.
Langford's play resonated not only with Boston decision-makers but with new head coach Ime Udoka, who was an assistant for the Nets.
“Solid defender, ball-mover, just a guy that knows how to play with that [first] unit and you saw it last year,” said Udoka. "All of those [young] guys are gonna get an opportunity. It’s just a matter of maximizing that and trying to play the right way, and I think they’re all making a concerted effort to do that.”
The Celtics are finally getting some return from a 2019 draft class that has otherwise been a bit of a disappointment. Grant Williams had a solid rookie season and thrived in the 2020 bubble playoffs, then took a step back last year. He slimmed down this summer and looks ready to compete for frontcourt minutes.
The Celtics cut bait with 2019 second-round picks Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters this past summer and loaded up on veteran depth. That may have clogged a path to playing time for guys like Langford and Williams, but they have made the most of preseason minutes.
"Romeo has improved so much,” said Williams. "That man works really hard. He's never really had the opportunity because of his injuries in his past, so it's great to see him perform the way he does. We all have the utmost respect and faith in Romeo.”
Could Langford make a push for the fifth starter job? That might be a bit ambitious, though his improved shooting at least makes him a candidate. His defensive versatility and ability to move the ball aids his pitch.
Last season, the Marcus Smart-Jayson Tatum-Brown-Langford-Robert Williams lineup played only 19 total possessions together. In fact, Romeo and the Jays only played 38 total possessions, per Cleaning the Glass data, so there’s barely a sample to work with.
The better question is whether Langford’s offensive development might help him push a veteran like Josh Richardson for playing time. Langford needs to stay healthy and he needs to stay ready. For a player who carries himself with a quiet calmness, Langford might need to rev that motor a bit, too, whenever his opportunities come.
But back to that new jersey number. There was one other reason he sought it out beyond the slim-down factor. As a kid growing up in southern Indiana, Langford was a big fan of Rajon Rondo, who was from neighboring Louisville, Kentucky. When that number became available this summer, it was just another reason to make the switch.
Now, Langford gets a chance to show off some of his own playmaking skills. He needs to play with the sort of confidence and spunk that helped Rondo break through on those Big Three-era teams.
Langford needs to prove that the past two seasons aren’t indicative of the player he can be. It’s time to see if Langford, Version 2.0 can break through for these new-look Celtics.