Before each of the Celtics games at TD Garden this week, as most of the players put on uniforms and stretched and studied film, Romeo Langford sat at his locker in street clothes, just wishing he could finally be part of it all.
“It’s definitely annoying,” Langford said. “It’s hard to be battling these injuries and then finally getting back and thinking things start going well, and then something small happens.
“But I’ve just got to keep staying positive and don’t get down on myself because it’s a long season, a long career, a long journey. There’s a lot of basketball ahead of me.”
The Celtics selected the 20-year-old with the 14th overall pick in June’s draft. He was the only lottery selection among Boston’s four draftees, an obvious indicator that the team believes he has the most promise.
But the start of his NBA career has been slowed by one nagging injury after another. First he missed the Las Vegas summer league as he recovered from thumb surgery. Then in the preseason he was slowed by a groin injury and a subsequent knee sprain that carried into the start of the regular season.
Considering his youth and the Celtics’ depth at the wing position, Langford was expected to spend much of this season with the Maine Red Claws anyway. When he was finally healthy, he went to the G League and showed what he is capable of by tallying 27 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 blocks in his first game.
Then just a few minutes into his next one, on Nov. 15, he sprained his ankle, and he has been sidelined ever since.
“Luckily, he’s got great emotional maturity for his age,” said Celtics assistant coach Joe Mazzulla, who has been assigned to work closely with Langford. “To be 20 years old and go through some of the stuff that he has to this point, I think he handles things very well.
“He’s never one to get down on himself, but sometimes you pick him up or push him a little bit. He’s very level-headed and optimistic.”
Langford is excited to be nearing another return. He has completed shooting drills over the past few days and believes he will be cleared for full practices next week.
The Celtics were in the midst of their five-game Western road trip when Langford injured his ankle, so he left Maine and returned to Boston to continue his rehabilitation with a member of the team’s training staff.
He has also spent plenty of time watching film with Mazzulla. They have studied each game, focusing both on what the Celtics have done well and what they have done poorly. And they’ve also studied other players from around the league who have qualities the Celtics believe Langford should emulate.
“He’s a great student of the game,” Mazzulla said. “He loves to play basketball and watch basketball. He’s a smart player. When you show him something once, he can usually translate it onto the floor. I think for him it’s just a matter of getting reps.”
Game experience will be important for Langford because it will allow him to test himself against high-level players, but it also will give him a library of his own clips to study. Right now, he is mostly just able to study others, because he simply has not been on the court very much.
Langford said he has already learned plenty by watching his teammates surge to a 13-4 start.
“They have such good attention to detail,” he said. “Everything we work on in practices, I see them doing it or facing it in a game, and they know how to react. There are no curveballs.”
When Langford returns, it remains most likely that he will spend much of the year with the Red Claws. Some lottery picks would view that as a slight.
But Langford knows it is temporary, and that it is part of his path.
“The front office did a great job of communicating why they drafted him, and he trusts why they drafted him,” Mazzulla said. “He trusts this whole process. I’m not saying everything is easy. But he’s mature enough to say, ‘OK, here’s where I’m at and here’s where I need to get to. What do I need to do to get there?’ He’s great at seeing that.”
Added Langford: “I know my name is going to be called eventually, and I’m going to be ready. All I can do is just stay ready. I want to have fun and just contribute to the team and contribute to us being successful.”