“Freshman Focus” is an Inside the Hall series on each of Indiana’s incoming freshmen. Over the next couple of days, we will take an in-depth look at each newcomer. Today: Romeo Langford.
Editor’s Note: In lieu of our traditional write-ups for this series, we’re republishing our in-depth Q & A with New Albany coach Jim Shannon from last spring discussing Langford.
Inside the Hall: We’ve talked a lot over the years about the different stages of Romeo’s progression as a player. I want to go back to the beginning because I know, just from talking to a lot of different people, that he started out pretty well at Mount Tabor as a fourth grader. Do you remember seeing him play in elementary school and what is your recollection of that?
Jim Shannon: I remember seeing him play in elementary school and he was really a great player. He wasn’t as dominant as he would become, but he was still really, really a great player. But man, he really became dominant when he got to Scribner (middle school). He dominated.
ITH: When do you feel like people in New Albany started to talk about him? I can remember hearing about him really early, but I wasn’t going to go watch a middle schooler. I know you’re really involved in the feeder system for New Albany and you knew about him, but when did you start to think, “this could be something different”?
Shannon: I would say in seventh grade. No doubt in seventh grade I thought he was going to be special. In eighth grade, 100 percent I thought he was going to be off the charts. I didn’t know that he was going be like top five in the nation in his class, but certainly knew that he was Division I, no question, and an Indiana All-Star, no question.
But beyond that, I didn’t know yet. I knew that he was just doing some things, like getting his 3-point shot off, that were effortless for him at that age. He was shooting jump shots in fourth grade. You start to look at stuff like that and you say, “man, this is a little bit different. He’s something else.”
ITH: You mention that seventh and eighth grade period. What can you see in a kid at that age and know they’re going to be special? There are plenty of kids who score a lot of points in elementary or middle school, but they don’t always pan out.
Shannon: Well when you watch young people play in the seventh or eighth grade and they’re dominating like Romeo was, the first thing you look at is, “are they done growing?” Because a lot of kids mature quicker than others and so they’re dominating middle school and other seventh and eighth grade players because they’re already 5-foot-11 or 6-foot or whatever it is. But they’re just bigger and stronger than the rest of the kids. But they stay there, they stay at 5-foot-11 or 6-foot. They don’t get any bigger, quicker or faster. They don’t get any stronger.
So all of the sudden, other kids do and they start to pass them up. Or a kid will play somewhat inside and not have guard skills and again, he quits growing and so he’s a kid that has played with his back to the basket or has played inside because he could. And he could win doing that. The coach plays him in there because he can score easy baskets. The problem is he can’t go out on the floor and play and that’s where he’s going to eventually have to play if he’s going to be a guard and if he stays at 6-foot, that’s what he’s going to be.
That wasn’t Romeo. Romeo continued to grow. You could see the length in his arms. You could tell physically that while he was strong, there was room for him to get a lot stronger. And he also just kind of had that x-factor. You just knew something was different about him when he stepped onto the floor. I’ve seen a lot of great players in middle school. I’ve never seen one like this.
ITH: One thing I often hear people comment on is how he is able to glide past defenders on the floor. Is that God given ability, is it something he really worked on or is that something you could see even back then?
Shannon: He works hard. I think he’s definitely improved his game, his skills. Much of it was God given in terms of being able to have that kind of athleticism. But I think what he’s done is, he’s taken his God given talents and he’s worked hard. When you put those two things together, it allows a kid to improve. I think that’s a good combination.
And then when you put with it the third thing, which is his intelligence is really high, it just makes for a fabulous player. His character, you look at all of the things he’s done, all of the interviews he’s had, all the things we do in terms of visiting people in the community, his popularity is off the charts. So it’s amazing to me that he’s stayed as level headed and even keeled as he has.
ITH: I believe it was after the state championship in 2016 that his national profile blew up. Looking back at some of the rankings before that, he was ranked, but he wasn’t top five. Was he always one of the five best players in this class? Or did something change?
Shannon: Some of the colleges that came in, they always felt like he got better between November and March. I can remember them saying that to me. A lot of that was probably because we were practicing 70 times and playing games. I think all along he was top five, at least in my book. He was always top five. Top five as a freshman, top five as a sophomore. I don’t think there’s any question about it. I just don’t think people nationally knew about him.
ITH: Things changed after that state championship. Everybody started to talk about him. Not only here, but nationally. You had schools like Indiana offering him a scholarship, but also Louisville, Duke … pretty much everybody. How did he react to that attention when it first started to come? What has allowed him to remain so even keeled throughout the process? It’s not that way for a lot of kids.
Shannon: He’s well grounded at home. They talk about life, talk about his responsibilities and how to be accountable given the fact that he is getting so much attention. Again, they’ve just kept him well grounded and I think it’s in his nature. He’s pretty shy. He’s not shy around his friends, but he’s shy around the public and adults. He’s very intelligent, but he’s very shy. It’s just not in his nature to dunk the ball and look around and see who he can trash talk to. It’s not in his nature to beat on his chest or flash a 3. It never has been in his nature.
It’s difficult to say, for me, when that happened because I never saw him do any of that stuff one time. So if he’s never done it, it’s difficult to say, “well here is where I think he made a mature step in the right direction.” He was always mature beyond his age. He came here when he was 14. He just turned 18 on October 25. It just fascinates me how he was able to handle all of this attention. I think when Duke and (North) Carolina and all of the big time coaches were coming in, all of big time programs were coming in, he didn’t flinch. He didn’t treat the blueblood programs any different than the most losing program that came in to see him. From top to bottom, he did not treat anybody any differently. It was amazing.
ITH: His off-the-court contributions get tweeted about and talked about a lot. But there are probably many more things that he does that never get reported. I’ve seen mentions of him going to hospitals, going to birthday parties, all kinds of different things. Why, in your mind, do you think he does all of these things?
Shannon: Any time I’ve asked him and his dad if they could do this that or the other in terms of off the court, they’ve said yes. They’ve never said no. Not one time. He’ll do things like visit classrooms and read to kids. We went to New Washington recently, which you probably saw in the paper, a kid was going to a free throw contest nationally. He’s been invited to one of the school’s graduations. Just to be there for fourth grade graduation. He’s been invited to career day at one of the schools. Another school just wanted him to visit their classroom. He gets asked to do numerous things like asking to send a video to wish someone a happy birthday. He does that.
Most of it is to answer questions for kids or to come in and talk about why he is successful. He comes in and talks about being a good person, working hard in the classroom, working hard on his game and having a great attitude.
ITH: You mentioned him being shy when the media asks a question, but when he’s with these kids, how does he respond?
Shannon: He’s great about it. He always brightens their day. Now he’s quiet and he’s not loud, but he just has a way of walking into a room and the room changes. There’s only a small percentage of people in this world that can do that. He does it. He’s earned it. And I think he will always carry that responsibility. You’re always reluctant to say, “I’m 100 percent sure this kid will have great character from now through his NBA career and on.” I’d put my life on it with him. His character is really off the charts.
ITH: And the autographs went to a different level this year. He always had a smile on his face. What was that like to see?
Shannon: It was crazy. I think a lot of the times on the road, there would be longer lines than at home because they don’t get to see him very often. It was amazing how we would go scout at other gyms and they would be half full until we went there to play and they were sold out, standing room only. It was crazy to see that.
But he was always, win or lose – and we won most of the time – but he was signing after we got beat in the semi-state. He always did it. It just fascinates me how, whether he felt good or not or whether he got injured … unless he physically couldn’t sign because of a finger injury, he always did it. I think once he was hurt and couldn’t sign, but he took pictures with kids instead. I think he feels like, “if I wanted somebody’s autograph that I look up to like LeBron James or whoever and he gave me the cold shoulder, how would that make me feel?”
I think it makes him feel good that he’s been able to impact people at such a young age. He’s going to continue to impact people in probably a more profound way the older he gets.
ITH: When he gets to college and gets into a weight program and becomes a Division I athlete, what do you see as the main areas where he’s going to take off even more?
Shannon: He’s definitely going to get stronger. They’re going to have a strength coach with him, if not every day, close to every day. He’s going to have a nutritionist. I’m not saying that he’s not working out or eating right now, but when you have somebody that’s trained to just do that and you have more time with him in a Division I program, they’ll have everything ready for him. The meals will be somewhat planned, the strength and conditioning will be planned, the individual workouts will be planned, practices will be planned, the academic advisor will have a plan. He’ll have all of that and he and the other 12 or 13 guys will be the focal point. That’s what those people do. They’re locked into that and that only. They’ve got the head coach and a lot of help.
He’s going to get all of the attention that he deserves from all of those people who are professionals. He’s going to get a lot stronger. They’ll put 15 pounds on him the first year in my opinion. I think he’s going to be a beast when he gets stronger. His lower body is probably where he needs it the most. Once he gets that … he’s not easy to push around now, but once he gets that, he will be really tough if he puts on 15 to 20 pounds of muscle.
ITH: You watch him now, there’s not a lot he doesn’t do well. What are the main things he can get better at? You’re nitpicking because he’s an elite player.
Shannon: It’s like being a black belt in karate. You get to those certain levels and you don’t ever get to a place and say, “there’s no more potential in this kid. He’s hit the ceiling.” Maybe he’s a black belt right now, but he could be like a tenth degree black belt. He’s going to get coached really well.
And again, some of the stuff that we’ve done with him and that his trainers have done with him have been great, but he’s going to continue to work on those things and get a split second quicker than he is now. Whether it’s getting his shot off or his first step or whatever you want to talk about … the guys right now that are the best players at the highest levels, (James) Harden, LeBron, they’re all just taking the basics of the games, but they’re honing their skills to the point where they’re just better than everyone at it whether it’s because of quickness or the way they handle the ball, their athletic ability, their intelligence, all of that gets rolled into one. He’ll just keep working on things that he’s always worked on, maybe get introduced to some things he didn’t know because there’s always stuff out there to learn, but I think the sky is the limit. The ceiling is still very high.
ITH: The details are so important when you get to the highest level. How detail oriented is Romeo in his workouts? One thing that he really improved on this year was his step back to create separation.
Shannon: He’s pretty detail oriented. He wants to get better and try new things. I’ve seen him come up with a couple of things on his own where he will come in and start working on it and gets very good at it. I think he watches a lot of NBA. Those guys seem to always be inventing something. It’s fascinating how skilled guys are getting in terms of handling the ball and getting their shots off. I think he watches that and tries to emulate those things.
One thing I’d like for him to do is to watch how hard a guy like (Russell) Westbrook plays. From the beginning to the end. It’s unbelievable how hard he plays. His energy level is unbelievable from start to finish. I don’t think anybody works harder if you watch him really go at it. He’s a competitor.
For any kid, you try to pick out the best in others and then bring that into your game. There’s always another level to push yourself to go to. I think when he works out with other great players and does individual workouts, I think he’ll learn some things about he can be even a step quicker than what he is now, no matter what it is.
And the same thing with defense. It’s not all about offense. He’s got to defend, too. At this next level and the level after that. You’ve got to be able to defend. I think your minutes will go up at the college and the pro level if you can prove that you can guard more than one area. If you can guard the one, that’s great, but can you guard the two? And can you guard the three? If you can do many different things, it’s hard for the coach to take you out.
Even this year, (Darius) Bazley, he was 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9, and I saw him throw his stuff out of there a couple of times. He just put it right back. He can defend. But it’s a whole new level to go from high school basketball to Division I basketball. It’s just totally different. He’ll find that out when he gets into practice. It’ll be harder. It’ll be longer.
ITH: What he’s meant to New Albany … you’ve been here for 20 years. I don’t think this community has ever seen anything like Romeo. Can you put into words what he’s meant, not only to the basketball program, but to the community?
Shannon: He’s brought a lot of attention to not only the school, but to the community and the town. We’ve always been on the map. It’s not like people didn’t know where New Albany was before whether it was just in terms of every day living or basketball. But he took us to another level nationally with the attention that he received and our team received.
It’s been since 1973 that we won a state championship. Even though we had come close a few times, we never did quite get over the hump. He got us over the hump along with several good teammates. So that brought us a lot of notoriety, no question about that.
And then I think just the character aspect, the demeanor and how well liked he is … he’s not well liked, he’s well loved. He’s just loved. We go into New Washington (a community about 35 minutes away) and the kid he went to speak to and hang out with for 30 minutes, has never seen him play. But he wanted Romeo to come. He’s seen him probably on YouTube or TV or maybe watched the IHSAA stream. But he’d never been to a game. And those kids went crazy when we got there. I told him, “they’ll probably go crazy when you get there” because it was a surprise. The principal didn’t tell them.
So they say, “we’ve got someone here that wants to shoot free throws against you.” And then we walked him in. It was cool. He just has that impact on people. He’s such a phenomenal athlete, he’s a good looking kid, he’s articulate, he’s nice, he’s smart.
People that play against him like him. It’s hard not to like him. Coaches of the opposing team, he’ll put a 40-spot on them and we’ll beat them by 30, they’re still cordial. Because he doesn’t throw it in anybody’s face. If I was an opposing school, I would be real tired of hearing about us. But we didn’t bring any of it on our own. It just happened because he’s such a great player. He elevated us to get this attention that we’ve gotten. None of us are different because of it. I think we’re better because of it. At least in my immediate circle, I think we’ve all become better people, better coaches because of it. It hasn’t gone the other way, but it very well could have. And it could have for him and the other players, too.
You want your teams to be player led rather than coach led because I think they play better. It’s harder to do that in high school. But you really want the players to look to their leader and for that leader to be able to get everything out of them that they can. I think he made kids better around him. In fairness to the other kids, they were awesome. He’d be the first one to tell you that.