The encouraging news for the Celtics as the season progresses is coach Brad Stevens is showing more confidence in his rookies. Grant Williams has built a role as a backup big man able to guard multiple positions. And Romeo Langford is seeing more opportunity as a swingman and defender, just a few weeks after it appeared his rookie season would be lost.
Langford dealt with a series of nagging injuries early in the season and was tabbed for a steady role in the G-League. But one game after making his first NBA start for the injury-riddled Celtics, he returned to score a career high 16 points in their 112-107 win over the also-shorthanded Atlanta Hawks.
Yes, it’s just an early February win over a porous team but it’s also a chance for the younger players to develop with the purpose of helping during the playoff stretch. Langford is the youngest of the Celtics’ four draft picks, but he may have the biggest role in April.
There has been a level of uncertainty hovering over Langford since his freshman season at Indiana University. He showed immense talent but hurt his wrist early in the season, hindering his shot mechanics. The Celtics drafted him 16th overall largely on potential, knowing his game would require extensive work.
Yet, since has overcome those injuries, Langford has earned the respect of his teammates and worked his way into the rotation. His lankiness allows him to be a disruptive defender and he has shown the ability to hit the occasional 3-pointer.
With his ability to attack the rim, Langford has turned himself into a trustworthy reserve. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward sat out Friday with injuries, opening up the chance for Langford to play a career-high 28 minutes.
One concern regarding Langford when he decided to declare for the draft was his subdued demeanor. It’s difficult to determine what excites or motivates Langford because he’s so reserved. What isn’t questioned is his desire to improve or make an impact.
“I just felt like the guys trusted me more out there (Friday),” he said. “You can see when Marcus (Smart) passed me the ball those two times (for alley-oops) I just listen to what Gordon said and just let it fly and think afterwards.”
That’s what the Celtics want, for Langford to use his instincts and natural talents, gain experience, and turn himself into a reliable reserve in a few months. Williams has already accomplished that. He took his lumps in the early going with constant foul trouble and missing his first 27 3-point attempts but maintained his confidence and has gained Stevens’s full trust.
Langford is approaching that status. He played key fourth quarter minutes when the pesky Hawks kept rallying and actually sliced the deficit to 3 with under a minute left.
“I thought Romeo played well the last game at the end of the game as well,” Stevens said. “So we’re pretty short on bodies and we knew it was going to be a really tough game. I thought he had defended well the whole night and obviously took advantage of some offensive opportunities.”
Another surprise in Langford’s evening was his matchup with 43-year-old Vince Carter, the potential Hall of Famer who was making his final appearance at TD Garden after 22 NBA seasons. The 20-year-old Langford defended Carter on several occasions, a clash of two NBA generations.
Langford was born Oct. 25, 1999, one week before Carter began his second NBA season with the Toronto Raptors. Inasmuch as Langford plays cool during these “pinch me” NBA moments, even he had to acknowledge the novelty of defending a player more than twice his age in anything other than a rec league game.
“I mean it’s surreal, man, I’m 20,” he said. “I would have never thought I’d be playing against Vince Carter. I played with him on (NBA) 2K against him dunking and stuff. It’s a blessing.
“Normally I try to play cool. I don’t want to show it. But it’s definitely surreal and a blessing to be able to play against guys I grew up watching and playing video games with. I never thought I’d be playing against Vince Carter, especially at my age and his age.”
The Celtics easily could have included Langford in a trade before Thursday’s deadline to add a veteran piece. And not that he’s untouchable, but the organization definitely wants him to be part of the young core that’s growing in Boston.
One-and-dones like Langford generally show all types of potential but work ethic and experience are what turn them into capable players like Brown and Tatum. Langford is several steps behind those two but is advancing.
“You seen the whole package from defense to offense to driving,” Smart said of Langford. “And the lob I threw to him (for a dunk) I can’t believe he caught it, I threw it kind of hard. I wasn’t expecting him to get it. We know he can do (good things). He does it in practice but we’re so deep that it’s just really hard for guys like Romeo and Carsen (Edwards), and Javonte (Green) and Semi (Ojeleye) to really come in and show that.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.