When Celtics wing Romeo Langford underwent surgery last September 23 to repair a torn ligament in his wrist, doctors told him he would likely be sidelined for six months. It was the latest setback in a frustrating and injury-filled rookie season for the 14th overall pick of the 2019 draft, but he knew there was no time to sulk. So he attacked his rehab and was ultimately cleared to return for Boston’s March 11 game against the Nets, a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.
Then he tested positive for COVID-19, almost unbelievable timing for this young player who simply has not been able to stay on the court.
“He’s worked hard, and things haven’t gone his way up to this point,” said Celtics assistant Joe Mazzulla, who is Langford’s position coach. “Hopefully, that can change for him. We’ve got his back on that.”
Langford has been sidelined for nearly three weeks after his bout with COVID-19. But he recently passed his cardiovascular tests and was cleared to return. He is listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Mavericks.
Coach Brad Stevens said Langford will likely play in very short stints as he gets back into shape. But for Langford, even short stints will offer a welcome switch from the recent, frustrating alternative.
“I think the biggest things will be his conditioning and confidence,” Mazzulla said. “Any time you’re coming back from a long-term injury like his wrist, and any time things haven’t gone the way that you want them to, I think the first thing that goes is your confidence. He needs to trust that he’s where he needs to be to help us.”
Langford missed the Las Vegas summer league as a rookie in 2019 because of offseason thumb surgery. Then at the start of last season he was slowed by a groin injury and a knee sprain, and he later sprained his ankle, too.
The NBA’s COVID-19 pause last spring gave Langford a chance to get fully healthy. But in the Orlando bubble he tore ligaments in his wrist during Boston’s Aug. 15 win over the Wizards. It was determined that he could play through that malady before undergoing offseason surgery, but then he suffered an adductor strain in the Eastern Conference finals. His wrist surgery was completed a few days later.
Amid all of these setbacks, the Celtics front office’s confidence in Langford never wavered, and the team still believes he will be an important part of the rotation this season. When Langford returns, there probably will be whispers about how long he will last this time. There will be questions about his durability. Mazzulla says Langford has no trouble tuning out the noise, but the coach also thinks the noise is unfair.
“I think he gets a negative rap,” Mazzulla said. “Anyone who got a chance to know him would see he’s one of the hardest working guys on the team. He understands the game very well, he very rarely misses treatment sessions, and he loves basketball. He just doesn’t give off that impression to people. A lot of what has happened to him is out of his control.”
Last year Mazzulla worked extensively with Langford to improve the mechanics of his jump shot. For Langford, who made just 5 of 18 3-pointers last year, the shooting sessions this year have been focused on repetition, but there have been no significant tweaks to his form or approach.
“The thing with him has always been his shot,” Mazzulla said. “And I think there are two types of shooters: guys that are really good making shots in practice settings and guys that are able to translate it to the game. I don’t know if it’ll translate or how long it’ll take, but I do know he’s a better shooter than even he thinks he is and what he has shown to this point. It’s a matter of having the confidence and mind-set to translate it to the game.”
During this year’s rehab sessions the focus has shifted to Langford’s footwork. Mazzulla says it will be the key to unlocking his potential. On offense it will allow Langford to slice past a defender off the dribble, or ensure that he is not flat-footed when he catches a pass and prepares to shoot. On defense, it will allow him to find the perfect patterns and angles to disrupt an opponent.
“His footwork is going to be what separates him,” Mazzulla said.
After Langford tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, the individual sessions with Mazzulla were halted. But the virtual study groups were not. After each game, Mazzulla texted Langford and asked him to point out things that he noticed and found useful, from an opponent’s signature move to a general concept he could apply to his own game.
Of course, there is no substitution for on-the-job experience, and it appears that Langford will finally have a chance for that, too.
“He’s not the type to get caught up in proving people wrong,” Mazzulla said. “He just wants to play and make an impact.”