Rebuilds have a lot of negatives for fans who understandably want to see their team win, but they do offer the possibility to focus on more than just the standings. One of those options is the opportunity to embrace a flawed player with potential for what they could become without having to be too concerned with expectations or production.
There’s just something enjoyable about rooting for an underdog to figure things out, to put everything together and surprise everyone. That’s true for everything in life, and not that rare in the NBA. Think back to Danny Green, getting waived twice before carving out an illustrious NBA career, or Patty Mills, who was discarded by the Trail Blazers and was close to having the Spurs give up on him before getting in shape and becoming one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Being there to watch them was special.
Now Spurs fans have the opportunity to experience something similar but without having to worry too much about expectations. San Antonio is not one piece away, so if the player you choose to get overly supportive of doesn’t pan out, nothing bad will happen. Before this season, for me that player was Lonnie Walker IV. Now, it’s Romeo Langford.
Langford has everything anyone could look for in someone to get irrationally invested in. His high school exploits made him a highly-rated recruit who did well in college but hasn’t lived up to the potential that got him drafted in the lottery. He’s been in the league for a while, but is still young and has suffered some injuries, so it’s reasonable to assume he might still have untapped potential. His game isn’t flashy, which would normally be a minus when picking favorites, but his defense-first approach stands out on a team that struggles terribly with getting stops and his hustle is inspiring. More importantly, he’s mostly missing just one skill to actually be a viable NBA player, so there’s a path that could reasonably lead to Langford being a rotation wing.
The skill that Langford is missing is, unfortunately, a key one. Reliable three-point shooting is a must for a perimeter player and he doesn’t have it. After shooting just 27 percent in college, Langford has hovered under 30 percent from beyond the arc for his career in the NBA. He seems to have regressed since making progress in Boston, as he’s still taking the vast majority of his attempts from outside while being wide open but has converted on just 27 percent of them this year after making 36 percent on those same types of looks with the Celtics last season. He’s not a great free throw shooter either, so there are not a lot of reasons to be optimistic about him actually developing as an outside threat. But that’s the entire point. If he had a three-pointer, he’d already be a viable player.
Let’s go against reason and imagine that Langford starts hitting some of those open threes at the rate he did it with the Celtics the rest of the way, first as the starter and then off the bench once Devin Vassell returns. He ups his value a little, but once his contract expires the Spurs decide to bring him back on a team-friendly deal, to be their young veteran wing to pair with Malaki Branham. Defense remains his calling card, but he regains some of the confidence he had as a younger player and stays healthy. The shot continues to come along to a point where he’s not a liability and he essentially becomes a Herb Jones-type player. Maybe the Spurs move one of Vassell or Johnson for a superstar and Langford starts as their low-usage stopper or maybe he just brings hustle off the bench.
Is any of that likely to happen? Not really. Langford will probably do enough to get another look as an NBA player but the shooting is unlikely to magically improve and wings who can’t shoot don’t normally have a long shelf life in the NBA. The Spurs might be impressed by his defense, but it would make no sense to make him a priority in free agency, especially with two entrenched starters at his positions and Branham around.
But what if does happen? What if Langford goes hot from outside and becomes more confident in his offense? Next season he takes over the Josh Richardson minutes as San Antonio starts building for the future and stays for a few years helping the team regain his defensive identity. How great would it be to have been here for the start of it, to believe before everyone else did?
It’s so easy to grow indifferent toward the fate of every player on a rebuilding team that isn’t a core piece or on a rookie contract, armed with the knowledge that a lot of roster turnover is probably coming. Resisting can be fun, though. You don’t have to pick Langford, but rooting irrationally for someone to suddenly exceed expectations and become the best version of themselves is a way to navigate the losses and the uncertainty of the upcoming draft with some optimism.
If you haven’t yet, pick someone and obsess over their improvement or lament the lack thereof. Get excited for those Isaiah Roby garbage time minutes. Celebrate when Zach Collins looks like the player he was supposed to be before the injuries. Become Keita Bates-Diop biggest fan or check G League games and insist that someone there could be part of the next great Spurs team.
Maybe you’ll be wrong and get nothing back for being invested in someone that might be gone in a few months, but who cares. At worst you’ll have overcome the apathy that threatens every fan’s engagement during rebuilding, but at best you’ll have one of the most satisfying experiences in sports: being there from the beginning as a prospect blossoms into the next star.