Coming into college, Romeo Langford was a five-star recruit and the second-ranked shooting guard in the country. At New Albany High School in his hometown, the Indiana native decided to play all four years there instead of choosing the prep school route.
Langford’s natural ability to score the ball and make plays for others garnered plenty of national attention and elevated him to the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game, where the world was introduced to his talents on a grander stage. The impressive, young swingman went on to be recognized as his home state’s Mr. Basketball in his senior season before committing to the area’s most popular school, Indiana University.
Hoosier Nation was absolutely thrilled to have Langford join their family. Not only was he a local, but he was also a star in the making that could likely propel Indiana to the top of the Big Ten as a freshman. Unfortunately for both parties, though, the season didn’t turn out to be what they had hoped for.
Langford had to battle through multiple injuries from the beginning of the year, including a lingering torn ligament on his shooting hand that clearly affected and hindered his capability to knock down shots. While he could have gone down an easier path by sitting out, Langford decided to play through the pain and show his teammates that he wasn’t going to school just for a one-way ticket to the NBA.
Alas, Indiana needed him to be healthier. After starting the season 12-2, the team went on to win just one of its next 13 games. There were losing streaks of seven and five during the stretch from early January to late February. And despite closing the season by winning four in a row, a first-round conference tournament loss sent the Hoosiers to the National Invitation Tournament. It would be Langford’s final game wearing the candy stripes.
The next stop for Langford is the NBA. Most mock drafts seem to have him ranged between the lower end of the lottery and the middle of the first round.
“I guess you could say I’m under the radar now,” Langford said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “So now I gotta just earn my respect back, and I feel like when I have my respect back and I’m fighting for these positions, fighting to be a higher pick. I feel like that shows that I am passionate about the game and I enjoy it.
“It really doesn’t surprise me based off what they saw. That’s what they’re going off of. But I feel like it doesn’t really matter what number you get picked. It matters what team and the fit and where you produce once you get there.”
According to a staffer at Indiana, the best may be yet to come for the standout 19-year-old guard.
With the NBA Draft only 16 nights away, Basketball Insiders is giving you an Insider’s Look at Romeo Langford through the eyes of this staffer, who spent a great amount of time with him during the season in Bloomington.
The second that Langford arrived on campus, it was clear he was special.
In the first month of practice, the confident freshman didn’t take long to cement his presence in the program. Indiana’s coaching staff uses a point system in their drills. At the end of the sessions, the leader in points gets bragging rights and is allowed to give his input on a few things regarding practice methods.
According to the staffer, who wishes to remain anonymous, as soon as Langford learned about the competition, he went right at the team’s veteran leader—6-foot-8, 232-pound forward Juwan Morgan.
“He was competing at the highest level against a senior – who’d been there for four years, who’s bigger and stronger,” the staffer told Basketball Insiders. “It didn’t take long for [Romeo] to start winning the practice points. You could tell right away just given his body, his athleticism, his length, his speed, everything that is his package. He’s just different, that’s why he’s gonna be a lottery pick.”
Despite the ailing thumb, Langford was never shy to attack the basket. Using his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame, he drove past guys and finished with grace with both hands, making it look like he wasn’t even trying. The size and length are big reasons why, and he’s able to control it well.
The staffer recalls two memorable games that stuck out to him during the season.
“At Penn State in the first half,” the staffer said. “He scored like eight straight on some silly shots – stepback in the corner over Mike Watkins, stepback to the top of the key. That was definitely one. He had a moment probably every game. He’d rip baseline when the baseline wasn’t even open and he’d tight-rope it and finish at the rim. You’d just wonder, ‘How’d he do that?’
“Another moment was in the Maryland game [where he dropped 28 points]. In the second half, he was cookin’. There was flashes every game with a stepback or a one-dribble from the NBA line to get to the rim. Whatever it was, he just makes it look so easy.”
There is no question about Langford’s work ethic. The staffer asserts he’s very coachable, is a great teammate, isn’t confrontational and certainly isn’t “soft” as some perceive him to be. Rather, Langford experienced the hardships of a tough season with the Hoosiers and grinding through the injuries was one of the first times he had dealt with adversity. Yet, Langford managed and made the best out of it.
“He averaged 16.5 points in arguably the best league in America,” the staffer said. “Whoever was guarding him, their number one objective was to stop Romeo Langford and he still averaged 16.5. So when people say if he ever backed away from a challenge, his numbers kinda spoke for themselves.”
Langford also tied for the top usage percentage (26.1) among freshman in the Big Ten with Ignas Brazdeikis and boasted the 11th-best in the conference overall. Looking at ball screen and pick-and-roll statistics on Synergy, he and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston were two of the top players in the country.
Mind you, this was all with the weight of the state and university on his hampered shoulders.
“Obviously in the state of Indiana, there’s a ton of pressure on him, and I thought he handled that like a true pro, whether it was signing autographs, taking pictures, whatever it may be,” the staffer said. “He never gave the cold shoulder to any kids or anything like that and I kinda think that speaks volumes about how he was brought up and raised and all that type of stuff.”
Langford is extremely close to his family. He came up through the church, knows the difference between right and wrong and is as respectful as they come. We’re talking about “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am” type of manners. Yes, there are some nights where he stays up late or plays Fortnite for a little too long, but he doesn’t smoke or drink, isn’t rude, didn’t miss class or rebel against anybody.
As far as his circle goes, it’s pretty tight. Due to the bond he has with his mother (Sabrina), father (Tim) and sisters (Tiffany and Tisha), Langford is well-protected. His personal trainers, Jonathan Jeanty and Kenneth Dion Lee, are good friends of the family and have been around Romeo since he was in elementary school. Tim seems to be “running his show” when it comes to making decisions and determining who is a positive influence on his son.
Romeo is inspired by everyone in his family and wants to make them proud.
“I feel like they have a big part in me being the man I am today,” Langford said. “And one of the reasons I am playing this sport [is] just so I can be able to provide and help my family in the long run. They’ve helped me a lot. Just being there for me. If I have any questions, I can go to them and talk.”
Family is where Langford gets his personality from too. He’s a quiet individual and it’s not easy to hear him when he speaks in a crowded room. He isn’t much of a talker in the first place. Even so, he is easy to get along with and very likable.
“At first, he’ll probably come off as shy and softspoken, but once he gets comfortable around you and trusts that his best interest is in your hands, [he’ll open up],” the staffer said.
“He has a lot of people kinda pulling him, so he’s able to identify who’s there for him and who’s trying to use him. He has a really good sense of that. So once he kinda gets past that initial shy stage, he’s a really, really good kid about the right things.”
On the court, Langford’s skill set is extremely versatile, making him the perfect fit for a constantly evolving league in the association.
“I just feel like my game translates real well for the NBA, where the NBA’s going right now and I’m just built for it,” Langford said.
“His athleticism and his size and his frame allow him to do a lot. I think right away, he’s gonna be able to be a two-way player,” the staffer said. “Obviously, he still has a lot to learn defensive side, but just given his measurables and his frame and his lateral ability and his quickness, his jumping ability – he, right away, will be able to guard the two and the three in the league at his size and his athleticism. So I think that’ll translate seamlessly.”
As specified by the staffer, Langford is at his best with the ball in his hands. He can operate in the two-man game as the handler, set solid ball screens and is adept at making sharp outlet passes in transition.
“He has good IQ,” the staffer continued. “He kinda knows what he’s looking for, whether to throw back off a ball screen, if they put two on the ball or if nobody hedges or shows, he can get in the lane, he’s got really good touch on the floater.”
In furthering his assessment, the staffer believes Langford has to improve his catch-and-shoot threes. The Indiana product is much better and visibly comfortable off the bounce on pull-up jumpers and stepbacks, and he personally agrees with both notions.
Langford plans to stay in the gym to continuously work on his shot. He knows that the thumb injury affected the way the numbers turned out. After all, if you can’t firmly grip and handle the basketball, how can you properly shoot it?
At the same time, he doesn’t use that as an excuse and understands his mechanics could still use some work.
“My form needs a couple things tweaked here and there,” Langford said. “But I can still shoot the ball. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that…”
The staffer appreciates Langford’s candor and backs his claim.
“I do legit think that his thumb was an issue for him,” the staffer said. “Now, I also think that throughout the course of the year, he got better, he became a better shooter through our program, through the repetition, through everything that we were working with him on. He got better as the year progressed. It wasn’t necessarily his strong suit coming in because he’s just so talented.
“In the end, the jumper now – it’s almost like he didn’t really have to [have one] because he just gets by people and finishes at the rim. I think that was misconstrued a little bit. I think he’s gonna get better and better as a shooter. as his pro career kinda develops and he gets in the right system and he’s able to rep it out and his thumb gets healthy.”
Langford and the staffer both contend that it was a shame he couldn’t go through the full NBA Draft Combine process.
The staffer would’ve predicted him to finish in the top five in at least in every category. Langford would’ve bet on himself to place at the very top of the 2019 crop of prospects.
“Without a doubt, yes, sir,” Langford said.”I feel like I would’ve performed pretty well out there. At least I wish I could’ve [done] some of the testing.”
One particular question often comes up to the soon-to-be rookie: Do you really love the game of basketball?
Langford maintains this is a common misconception due to how he reacts to big plays and his calm, cool and collected manner on the hardwood.
“The main thing I want guys to realize is how much passion I have for the game, how much love I have for the game and how that dog mentality—actually having it, though it may not seem like it the way I carry myself,” Langford says.
“Just ‘cause I don’t show too much emotion out on the court on the outside doesn’t mean I don’t really love the game, which I actually do love. . . I’m not gonna change myself. Damian Lillard doesn’t really show too much emotion. He has a stone face most of the time, but people don’t question his passion and stuff for the game, so it really doesn’t bother me.”
Having observed him up close and personal, the staffer says Langford’s demeanor doesn’t define his palpable presence when he’s playing.
“He’s never gonna be like an overly emotional, rah-rah type guy,” the staffer said. “What you see is what you get with his personality. I would call it even-keeled whether we were up 20 or down 20, 10-game losing streak, five-game losing streak – just consistent with his everyday approach.”
When asked to compare himself to somebody, Langford didn’t want to say. Though, he was willing to say his playing style is similar to that of Bradley Beal. He envisions a similar type of career for himself and is confident he could play a role like the veteran Washington Wizards All-Star guard.
So what needs to happen in order for Langford to reach his fullest potential?
“It’s all about just development. That’s what it is these days,” the staffer said. “Obviously spending time with the coaches and understanding what they’re asking of him and him being on the same page, doing what they ask. And it’s gonna come down to just hard work. It takes time to mature at the end of the day. He’s 19 years old and what you don’t know is what you don’t know. So he’s still got a lot to learn.
“But whoever gets him, if they develop him and spend time with him and get him into the gym and work on his shot mechanics and all that type of stuff, there’s a lot that he can do. He’s a smart player that has IQ, which sometimes you just get these uber-talented dudes that are ball dominant, know how to play, know what they’re looking for. Romeo just has a really good feel for what’s going on, who’s open, all that type of stuff. He is a sharp kid.”
Of course, situation and fit also play a crucial part in all of this at the pro level. Will he play off the bench? Will he start? Is there a vision the organization has for him? These are the factors that have great importance and make a difference.
“If he goes to a really, really bad team that needs him to play early, I think he’ll develop and mature and get better quicker than say if he goes to a playoff team that has a secure starting five, starting seven and he’s working his way in,” the staffer said.
“I think it’s very dependent on where he goes, who’s coaching him, what their needs are, what their vision is for him. It’s hard to predict if he’s gonna [make] an immediate impact like in college – be one of the best players, which he was not only in the Big Ten but in the country – obviously the NBA is very different when it comes to that.”
Regardless of who drafts Langford on June 20, the staffer sees a team being pleased with who he is as a person, his habits and his consistency.
“He’ll represent the program the right way,” the staffer said. “So I definitely think they’re gonna get a very talented guy that hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. Just because, again, shooting the ball is everything in the NBA and I think he’s just gonna continue to get better and better. His body’s gonna continue to mature and get stronger.
“So I think he is very well-deserving of being projected in the top 14 or whatever it may be. . . I mean, he was a highlight show. He’s not like a power dunker or anything like that. It’s hard to say. He’s not gonna be like Miles Bridges and ripping off the rim, but he’s gonna make some shots in the NBA and do some things in the NBA that some people are gonna say, ‘Wow’ – but they’re gonna be like: ‘Woah, that looks really easy.'”
If the NBA allowed players to turn pro straight out of high school, Langford probably could’ve done so. If the option was there, he would’ve considered it.
But Langford doesn’t think he would’ve been ready and likely would’ve ended up where he did anyway. Plus, in one year with the Hoosiers, he changed and became more of a two-way player in preparation for the next level.
“I mean, I enjoyed myself in college and I felt like I learned a lot,” Langford said.” But that was a good stepping stone to go to the NBA.
“I just feel like my body matured. Obviously, I’ll be able to go against some guys that’s older than me. Instead of going straight to the NBA against guys that already have a name for themselves or are already grown men. But that time in college helped me mature as a young man, physically and mentally.”
That aforementioned season of setbacks at Indiana is a perfect example of a learning experience he wouldn’t have gotten had it not been for choosing the collegiate path.
“Had that little slump of shooting. Sometimes during the season or a game, things wouldn’t go my way. We didn’t win that much,” Langford said. “Hardest part was to keep working hard, see the light at the end of the tunnel and the reason why you wake up every day and work out in the morning. . .
“In high school, the majority of the time everything’s going your way. So now, once you keep going up a level of playing basketball—whether that’s college or NBA—you’re gonna go through the times where something’s not gonna go your way.
“That’s just the time for you to show just how resilient you are. Keep pushing. Don’t give up. Everything’s gonna be good in the long run if you just keep working hard.”
There are always going to be question marks with young players making the leap to the highest level in basketball.
Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s learning curve differs. There’s just something that sticks out about that mild-mannered, polite young man from New Albany, though.
Maybe we should use his own words to paint the picture.
Romeo Langford is built for this.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Denver Nuggets
Following a surprisingly successful postseason run, the Nuggets are off to a relatively slow start. Drew Maresca examines what’s going on in Denver in the latest edition of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.
The Denver Nuggets have been on the rise for a while, but it all came together for them last season. If they weren’t already on your radar, a postseason that included two come-from-behind series wins should guarantee that they are now.
The Nuggets finished the 2019-20 season with a record of 46-27 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Along the way, Nikola Jokic proved that he’s one of the best players in the league, while they also received a significant boost from the rising star Jamal Murray, who scored 30 or more points in six of the team’s 19 postseasons games. Michael Porter Jr. also proved his back is just fine after a serious pre-draft injury and that he’s a real threat in the NBA. So what’s there to fix?
Well, the Nuggets are off to an uninspiring start. They are currently 6-6, good for just seventh in the Western Conference. While they’re supremely talented, they must get back on track – otherwise, the team could be in for a long 2020-21 offseason.
Denver’s offense is still effective. Entering play last night, they were scoring 116.5 points per game, good for fifth in the NBA. They draw a lot of fouls, too – 22.3 per game to be exact – which is tied for first in the entire league. So, that’s a start.
Jokic, meanwhile, is still Jokic. He’s playing better than ever and has legitimately entered the MVP conversation. As of last night, he was averaging a triple-double with 24.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists per game. He’s also shooting an insane 41.2% on three-point attempts and 82.1% from the charity stripe.
Porter Jr., who has missed the last seven games with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, began the season on a tear. He showed flashes last season, but he’s done it with consistency so far this season. Porter Jr. is averaging 19.5 points on 42.3% shooting from deep – and he was really hooping in his last game, scoring 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting with 10 rebounds.
JaMychal Green is another bright spot that has done a lot to help replace Jerami Grant, who was lost to free agency. He came over from the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent and he’s fit in very nicely. Green began the season on the bench due to an injury and, in the four games for which he was out, the Nuggets went 1-3 and gave up 120 or more points in three of those four games. Since Denver has surrendered only 109 points per game, which would be good for the 11th fewest in the NBA. He’s also shot the ball incredibly well (52.8% on three-point attempts), while his presence means that the Nuggets won’t have to rely as heavily on 35-year-old Paul Millsap. The hope is, if Green can stay on the court, the defense will continue to even out.
What’s Not Working
A number of things aren’t working right now for Denver. First and foremost, the Nuggets haven’t put forth a complete effort too often. For example, they built up an 18-point lead in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week in which they scored 70 points. They went on to only score 46 in the second half and lost the game 122-116.
On a related note, Denver has also failed to close out tight games. Of their six losses, four were within three points or went to overtime.
Then there are the high-level defensive issues. Entering play last night, the Nuggets had the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league and were allowing opponents to shoot 39% on three-point attempts – also good for sixth-worst. Worse, all of that has been done while playing the fourth easiest schedule in the league.
Drilling down to individual player issues, Murray’s struggles haven’t helped. Yes, his numbers are alright, but 19.7 points, 3.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds is a bit underwhelming considering the performance he put on in the bubble last season. His shooting is down slightly, most notably from between 3-10 feet from the basket (36.8%), and he’s struggled a bit from the free-throw line, too (76.3%, down from 88.1%).
What Needs To Change
First of all, the Nuggets need time to acclimate to one another; the team added seven new players this offseason and when you consider the shortened training camp and limited preseason – which was really only one week long – that leaves little time to build synergy. Theoretically, that should improve with time.
Porter Jr.’s defense is another aspect that must change. He is regularly Denver’s soft spot in the defense because he either loses focus or takes defensive shortcuts. The upside, Porter Jr. is still just a sophomore and his defensive should improve with time – he certainly has the requisite skills needed to be a successful defender (e.g., length and athleticism). So let’s give him a little more time before we make any bold claims about him.
Finally, the Nuggets have to find a way to deploy Bol Bol. Bol is averaging just 6 minutes per game. Sure, he’s incredibly lean and might not match up well in the half court with most bigs. Additionally, he’s a bit hesitant to shoot, despite a solid range. But, while the Nuggets are clearly in win-now mode, what contender couldn’t use a 7’2” shooter with a 7’8” wingspan? If they get Bol a bit more burn and he can mature, it would give the Nuggets one of the most unique weapons in the entire league. And, to Denver’s credit, Bol did receive the first two start of his young career in back-to-back games this week — perhaps that change is already underway.
The Nuggets may have started slowly, but all should be well in Denver. The Western Conference is incredibly competitive, but the Nuggets have more talent than most and, assuming finishing the season is realistic given COVID-19’s impact on it already, the Nuggets should be comfortable with where they are, regardless of their early-season record.
NBA Daily: Fixing The Houston Rockets
Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking a look at the newly-minted Houston Rockets, a team that now has given itself plenty of options.
In the most well-timed edition of Fixing ever, we’re taking a look at the very recently-revamped Houston Rockets. We all knew that one trade was coming one way or the other and now the time has arrived. For how well-designed this beautiful era of basketball was for the Rockets, it surely didn’t deserve the anti-climactic ending it got. Yet here we are. For the first time since Yao Ming’s retirement, Houston is starting from scratch.
Is all hope lost in H-Town? Well, losing Mike D’Antoni, Daryl Morey and Harden is basically like the Justice League losing Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in one swift motion. It would be a major setback for anyone. In situations like this, it’s not about what you lost. It’s about how you respond to what you lost. To their credit, Houston had time to prepare for the disintegration of the Harden-D’Antoni-Morey era, and they haven’t taken their departures lying down.
They’ve wiped the slate mostly clean and, even if there’s definitely room for improvement, the new-look Rockets are a little more exciting than what meets the eye.
It is a shame that Harden never gave this group a chance. Houston had a better offseason than they were given credit for because the high-profile personnel that they lost (or were about to lose) overshadowed what they brought in. Compared to past teams that faced similar circumstances, Houston could have done a lot worse. Let’s start with the best-kept secret that gets more and more exposed by the hour: Christian Wood.
NBA nerds hyped up Wood throughout the offseason for how great he looked during the brief time he was the full-time center in Detroit – averaging nearly 23/10 on 56/40/76 splits. When you take the sample size (13 games) and how Detroit fared in that stretch (they lost all but one game) into account, it’s understandable why it was hard to buy stock in Wood’s potential during the mini off-season.
That’s why Houston got him at the value they did and he’s already one of the league’s better bargains. Those numbers he put up as a Piston have carried on with the Rockets; while his 53/34/66 splits with almost two blocks per game have put him on the map. Wood’s ascension hasn’t led to much team success yet, but he’s the last player to blame for that.
Then there’s Houston’s more well-repped new addition, John Wall. Wall’s probably never going to live up to the $40+ million deal that Houston is paying him, but they didn’t acquire him for that reason. They acquired him in the hopes of him giving them more bang for their buck than Russell Westbrook did. The results have been a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected after what he’s been through. It’s been encouraging to see that on a good day, he still has most of his form.
There are plenty of games left for him to find consistency. We also have to keep in mind that Wall’s just getting his feet wet following two awful injuries. Even if he’s not the same Wall from his prime, this has worked out a lot better for Houston than Westbrook has in Washington. Having the better player as well as an additional first-round pick should be counted as an absolute win for the Rockets.
There are other stand-out players: It looks like the Rockets found another keeper in rookie Jae’Sean Tate who, along with David Nwaba, have infused the Rockets with badly needed energy.
Jae'Sean Tate's defense is absurd. pic.twitter.com/mgMv3lZjp1
— Jackson Gatlin (@JTGatlin) January 15, 2021
Things were obviously better last year when Harden and co. were content, but the Rockets are far from a disaster.
What’s Not Working?
Well, James Harden. Plain and simple. When a superstar wants out, it wears the team down internally. That elephant is too big for the room to ignore, clear that both sides were done with each other by the end. Houston deserves props for willing to get “uncomfortable” just as they promised, but a superstar wanting out brings down the team’s morale no matter what.
It’s why Houston started 3-6 with the league’s ninth-lowest net rating at minus-1.8. There were other factors at play here with all the shuffling parts, but there’s no need for fluff. Harden’s trade demand loomed too large for it not to affect the Rockets. It’s hard for everyone when the best player on the team isn’t buying in. His teammates were complaining about him publicly.
The upshot is that it’s over now. Losing James Harden the player certainly isn’t addition by subtraction – in Houston’s case, that’s Westbrook – but losing James Harden the distraction could certainly be for this season.
Now that the dust has settled, the Rockets can finally take a deep breath and sort out both their present and their future. Presently, there’s going to be even more shuffling now than there was before. At the very least, the roster is going to have players who should be on the same page.
Houston may still have some loose ends from its previous era. From the looks of things, PJ Tucker could be the next one to go. Houston’s prospects are on the come up, but a player with Tucker’s abilities should be on a contender. That’s something that the Rockets, as of now, are not. The same goes for Eric Gordon, but it’s tough to see any of the elite teams willing to put up enough salaries to trade for his contract.
Then there’s the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo has been a good soldier in spite of the trade rumors that have buzzed around him over the last several months. Indiana trading him to Houston signified that he wasn’t re-signing with them. Houston provides a unique opportunity for Oladipo to further re-establish his value as a star. It’s hard to foresee if he’s in their long-term plans or if he’s another asset to move in their rebuild.
With all that said, new head coach Stephen Silas seems to have won over the players. After beating the San Antonio Spurs last night without Harden or Wall, the Rockets, despite not being in the tier of elite teams anymore, should be excited for what the season holds.
As for what the future will bring, their outlook is a lot brighter than it was back in September. Even if they’ll face the repercussions of giving up most of their own first-round picks for Westbrook and Robert Covington last year, they just hauled in a massive load of first-round picks and four pick swaps combined for Westbrook, Covington and Harden since then.
The development of players should put Houston in a good light, which could pay huge dividends for their chances in free agency. We’ve seen teams establish a great team culture while building up a promising future – ahem, the very same Brooklyn Nets that just cashed in for Harden proved that.
The Rockets might be next in line.
The days of Houston being a contender are gone for now. But, thankfully, the days of the Rockets becoming one of the NBA’s premier League Pass favorites may have only begun.
NBA Daily: Payton Pritchard — Boston’s Bench Band-Aid
Basketball Insiders’ Shane Rhodes breaks down the fortuitous start to Payton Pritchard’s rookie season and what it’s meant to the Boston Celtics.
For the Boston Celtics, Payton Pritchard has been exactly what the doctor ordered.
Boston sported, arguably, the NBA’s worst bench unit a season ago. Despite a fearsome-foursome of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, their lack of depth hurt them all season long. It stood in direct contrast to their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, the Miami HEAT, and, ultimately, sank the Celtics’ shot at the NBA Finals.
Now, with Hayward gone to the Charlotte Hornets and Walker on the mend, it was only logical to expect that dearth to once again be their Achilles heel. But, on the contrary, the bench has been rejuvenated — or, at the very least, much improved — to start the 2020-21 season.
And, albeit unexpectedly, Boston has the rookie out of Oregon to thank for that.
Pritchard, the 26th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, faced some serious questions about his game in the lead up to the season. He left the NCAA as the recipient of both the Bob Cousy and Lute Olson awards, given to the nation’s top point guard and non-freshman player, respectively, and served as a leader for the Ducks throughout his four years with the team.
However, in the NBA, a league that’s far bigger, faster and stronger than any competition he’s ever faced, plenty were concerned as to how Pritchard’s game might translate. He’ll never be the most athletic player on the court and, when combined with his 6-foot-2 frame, that raised some serious concerns about his defensive viability at the game’s highest level.
On top of that, Pritchard was far from the only addition the Celtics made this offseason; fellow rookie Aaron Nesmith was thought by some to be the best shooter in the draft, while Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson are battle-tested veterans that would demand a rotation spot from the jump.
Despite those stacked odds, however, Pritchard immediately took a rotation spot for his own, ahead of the higher drafted Nesmith and alongside the veteran Teague in Boston’s pecking order. In doing so, he’s brought a major spark to a bench that desperately needed one.
Save for a 23 point, 8 assist performance against the Toronto Raptors, he hasn’t jumped out of the boxscore. But Pritchard’s played with a veteran’s confidence and has contributed in nearly every game so far this season.
In fact, he’s played with a tenacity that even some of the more hard-nosed veterans lack, while his knack for the timely play has put Boston in the position to win on almost every possession. Pritchard is a +45 in his 10 games played, good for second among rookies and third among Celtics.
Like on this steal and drawn foul with the clock winding down against the Washington Wizards. Or his tip-in game-winner against the HEAT. Pritchard, at all times, is aware of where he needs to be on the court and, more importantly, when he needs to be there to put the team in the best position to succeed. Likewise, he’s moved with or without the ball and put himself in the position to help his teammates make the easy play as often as possible.
That presence of mind is something you just can’t teach — and Pritchard has it in spades.
Beyond the court, Pritchard has easily endeared himself to his Celtics teammates. Brown referred to him as “the GOAT” after just his fourth game, a win over the Pacers in which Pritchard finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in just over 27 minutes and was clutch down the stretch. Marcus Smart, known for his tenacious style of play, has said “the sky’s the limit” for Pritchard and has noted many similarities between himself and the rookie as far back as the preseason.
A bit more reserved, head coach Brad Stevens said “[Pritchard]’s had more good nights, for sure, than not,” after the rookie flashed against the Raptors.
Still, it’s clear Stevens, like the others, has quickly taken a liking to Pritchard and, further, has expected a lot of the late-first rounder. Pritchard, on multiple occasions and despite his lack of NBA experience, has served as part of Boston’s closing lineup, an ultimate show of respect from a coach like Stevens that values defensive execution above most else on the court.
“We’re going to ask him to do a lot right now. And, fair or unfair to him, he’s going to have to be consistent for us, for us to have a chance to be a good team.”
And Stevens is right; to be the best version of themselves, Pritchard must continue to improve his own game and help push the bench even further.
Of course, that kind of pressure is nothing new to Pritchard who, over his four seasons with the Ducks, carried the team on his shoulders and constantly stepped up when they needed him most. And, while he’s been lauded with praise, the rookie has continued to stay humble.
“Coming in, I’m just trying to do my part,” Pritchard said after the team’s aforementioned win over the Pacers. “It’s my fourth game, everything’s coming at me fast and I’m still figuring things out.”
“I just want to win and I want to help as much as I can to get a win.”
As the Celtics forge their path ahead and continue to outfit the roster, players that not only contribute right away but can elevate the play of Boston’s star duo, Tatum and Brown, will be the priority.
And, if any of them are as rock-solid as Pritchard has been so far, the Celtics will be well on their way to an NBA title.