Ime Udoka’s tough love, Romeo Langford’s breakout among takeaways

Forsberg: Ime’s tough love, Romeo’s breakout among C’s preseason lessons originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

When Ime Udoka was hired as the head coach of the Boston Celtics, the scouting report suggested someone who would hold his players accountable. In describing Udoka, former coach turned president of basketball operations Brad Stevens suggested Udoka was “warm but demanding,” reaffirming the notion that there would be a heightened level of expectation beyond even the Stevens era.

Twice in little more than a 24-hour span to close out Boston’s preseason, we saw instances of Udoka’s tough love. One day after it was revealed he had suspended Marcus Smart for reportedly missing a team flight, Udoka publicly admitted to benching third-year forward Grant Williams for complaining about fouls that led to a defensive lapse.

Forsberg: Not a great start for Smart as Ime Udoka sets tone

Earlier in training camp, Udoka made it clear that he wanted his players to let him yell at the referees and focus on the next play. Udoka backed it up on Friday night by pulling Williams when he got beat down the court for an easy layup by Bam Adebayo after Williams flailed and complained to an official following a third-quarter whistle.

Williams, who has averaged 7.2 fouls per 100 possessions during his NBA career, is probably the last player who should be surprised by a foul call. But it was an opportunity for Udoka to show his players that going against the desires of the head coach will have repercussions.

Udoka’s tough love maybe was the biggest takeaway from a preseason in which injuries and COVID conspired against learning much about Boston’s core.

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At every step since his hire, Udoka hasn’t been bashful in trying to eliminate some of the more frustrating aspects of watching the Celtics last season. He needled Stevens about the team’s low assist percentage at his introductory press conference, he implored Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to evolve as playmakers, and he’s demanded players follow his rules, on the court and off.

Here’s a few more things we learned this preseason:

Romeo is burning

With starters missing so much time, Boston’s youngest players got thrust into the spotlight and third-year swingman Romeo Langford made the most of his time.

Langford shot a blistering 60 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, routinely knocking down open corner looks. He averaged 12.5 points over 21.1 minutes per game overall, all while unlocking his offensive toolbox, including being more aggressive and attacking the basket.

Celtics Talk Podcast: What to make of Marcus Smart’s suspension, plus exclusive chats with Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

The lingering question is whether Langford can maintain that confidence and impact if playing time isn’t as robust when the games matter. But more than anyone else on the roster this preseason, Langford made the case for a bigger role while showing the flashes of the two-way player the Celtics hoped they were getting when they nabbed him as a lottery pick in 2019.

Injury bug still buzzing

When the Celtics entered camp with essentially a clean bill of health, it was fair to wonder if the injuries and COVID woes that beset this team a year ago were a thing of the past.

They’re not.

Udoka, Brown, and Al Horford all tested positive for COVID. Dennis Schroder bruised his knee (but looked sharp in the preseason finale), Payton Pritchard fractured his nose (we’ll get Masked PP to open the season), and Robert Williams sat out a game with knee soreness that might explain his lack of typical explosion out of the gates. 

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The positive spin here: The Celtics showcased improved depth this preseason and have the luxury of elevating players like Schroder to starting roles and can maintain a high level of play.

That said, it would be refreshing if this team could navigate even a small stretch of the schedule with something close to full health. The Celtics will enter the season with questions lingering about lineups and rotations and they’re just going to have to figure these things out on the fly.

Stock watch

Beyond Langford, 2020 draftees Aaron Nesmith and Pritchard strengthened their cases for playing time with strong preseasons. Nesmith showcased an evolving game, including being able to put the ball on the floor and create for himself. Pritchard’s shooting is going to ensure he gets minutes for a team that needs 3-point consistency.

Jabari Parker seemingly did enough to fend off any charges at his roster spot, at least given the nonguaranteed nature of his deal, though Boston could still explore ways to keep another camp invite if the Celtics could move a guaranteed deal. Bruno Fernando faces an uphill climb to playing time given Boston’s big man depth.

Grant Williams, outside of his complaining transgression, had some quality minutes and this slimmed-down version should help the Celtics. Juancho Hernangomez got an early start but was quiet otherwise, though his strong cutting ability is intriguing.

Theo Pinson, with his steadiness and elite bench energy, and Garrison Mathews, with his anything-but-bashful shooting, stated cases for sticking around as deep depth. Boston still has one two-way slot available to join Sam Hauser in Maine. Other camp cuts can sign with Maine as affiliated players. 

Bring on the real games.


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