I have to admit it is fashionable and also very easy to judge basketball players by their personal statistics. Easy, because at least the usual statistics of a player are most of the time only one click away on the internet and are almost only waiting to be analyzed by us. Even advanced stats can be found very quickly nowadays, although there is usually more than one click required. Comparing players, recognizing weaknesses, all that is supposedly made fast. Which brings us directly to Keith Langford. Not because his figures are seen as a weakness, but because the Kazan-based and now 33-year-old American has been able to deliver something unique over the last couple of years: statistics sheets with his name on it are never empty.
You might even suspect one or two points, even if the Euroleague-star is not playing. It sounds very illogical at first glance, but in the end, one thing is for sure: Keith Langford delivers, always and everywhere. No matter who the opponent is or how much the defensive concentrates on him. In the end, the ball regularly ends up in the basket of the opponent whenever he steps on the court. Expressed in numbers: 24.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. Incredible statistics for a euroleague-player. To see how much Langford stands out, in this case, in fact, a look at the points-per-game-list of the Euroleague is enough. Anyone who wants to conclude from that that the guard is one of the outstanding offensive players of the competition this year is not wrong. And it yet does not really tell the whole story because when you watch Keith Langford with your own eyes you will recognize many other things that won’t show up in the stats sheet. For example he does not prevent the teamplay with forced actions or shots, regularly finds the open man and takes over in crucial crunchtime-possessions. Only a few days ago, in the home game against Panathinaikos Athens, you could again get a pretty good picture of his class. The following analysis tries to show with some concrete scenes from this game why Langford is so special.
The first picture shows Athens very aggressive defense against the pick and roll. While many teams defend it very conservatively with the big man dropping back, the men around coach Xavi Pascual choose another way. The plan was to hedge all pick and roll’s where Langford was the ball handler which had the intention to block his way to the basket after the screen was set.
Guard James Feldeine and the defensively very important Chris Singleton as a center tried to take away Langford’s pass to Artsiom Parakhouski, who rolled hard. While the guests now can protect their own basket with three players, Feldeine and Singleton keep pushing forward and force Langford to make a pass, which however does not arrive due to a reach-in-foul. The goal to get the ball out of Langford’s hands is also excellent, as Kazan almost only ran the “2-5”-pick and roll and so each time the best defenders from Athens were involved.
In this scene we have the same well-known picture. Langford is looking for the pick and roll with his center, but misses to get loose of the ball quickly with a pocket pass from the ball or even split the pick and roll on his own. Because of the range and the mobility of Singleton, the lob-pass over one of the defenders is blocked. However, Langford still tries the risky pass which immediately results in a turnover.
A few minutes later, Kazan’s number five is again in such a situation. The Feldeine-Singleton-duo even tries to form something like a wall this time to prevent Langford from scoring. In order to not get into the wrong place again, he is determined to keep the ball for a while and try to find a good pass. This almost leads to less turnovers thanks to good ballhandling skills, but obviously also plays the defenders into their hands.
Usual four-on-three-situations, such as the Golden State Warriors had in the NBA last year, are often gone. Draymond-Green-like lob-passes or passes to the open shooters in the corner will be seen very rarely with the russian team. Even if you have to blame Langford for this too, the rolling centers often lack the necessary passing-skills to successfully play these sometimes difficult passes. In addition, it is important to emphasize that there are no rehearsed follow-up actions, because you do not face such an aggressive defense very often. Even highly praised guards like Nando De Colo or Milos Teodosic almost never face such a strong hedging defense, which again speaks for the offensive class of the UNICS-guard. In the following examples you can see which space he gives to his side, but they are not very successful in using it.
So it is for sure that Panathinaikos’ super aggressive hedge-defense will be exploited sometime from a Euroleague-team as the following scenes will show. The problem here is: Although Langford plays the right passes and Kazan gets two wide open looks from the corner, the ball does not find the way through the basket. For opponent coach Xavi Pascual, this is a calculated risk which pays off these times.
In this scene, Langford draws the help-defender (Singleton) after his own post-up and finds Pavel Antipov, who, as mentioned, misses.
But Keith Langford would not be Keith Langford, if he did not find any other ways to put himself on the scoreboard. As the pick and roll does not offer any possibilities, Langford starts playing one on one more because there it is harder for the defense to send help in time. So he chooses the isolation four times in the first quarter, where he successfully executes twice. On one possession Feldeine can not stop the left-handed drive and on the other one Langford nails the step-back-three on the perimeter against Demetris Nichols. Langford is aware that his isolation options are more efficient than the options from the pick and roll against the hedge defense, and so he even gets rid of his own center, who wanted to set the screen. The 33-year-old knows that every ballscreen for him is another hurdle and so chooses the direct isolation on top. If he tries his luck at the elbows, Athens will send a help-defender in Singleton which will prevent Langford from getting a quick basket.
The situation changes in the second quarter as Panathinaikos has to sub out Singleton at some point and present the UNICS-guard a new defense-variation. Athens-coach Pascual knows the defensive weaknesses of his now backup-center Ioannis Bourousis, who is now on the court, and can not hide him in this matchup. Langford is now attacking out of the pick and roll and consistently finds his highflying center Latavious Williams.
In the first picture, KC Rivers commits the mistake and lets the opposing ball handler drive to the middle (still no tactical change, just an individual mistake). With this drive to the basket and then following alley-oop, Kazan is able to easily get on the scoreboard.
In the second example you now can see how indecisive Borousis is when defending the Langford-Williams pick and roll. On the one hand, he tries to hedge and stop Langford. On the other hand, he also wants to prevent the alley-oop pass and rotates quickly back into the zone. However, he can not do both, and so Langford gets into his comfort zone and drains the easy step-back-jumper.
To defend Kazan’s 2-5 pick and roll, you need potential defensive players of the year like Chris Singleton. Slow centers like Bourousis are always punished by Langford. That Ioannis Borousis, last year’s ‘People’s MVP’, can sporadically implement the defensive scheme, he only rarely proves. Here is a positive example:
How much Keith Langford was put under pressure, especially by Singleton and Feldeine, is even more remarkable when you look at how the Athenian defense played against Langford’s teammate Quino Colom. Note how far Singleton drops back into the zone. No comparison to what they did against Langford.
At the end of the first half there were only nine points for Kazan’s topscorer on the statistics sheet. What makes a good game for other players is not enough for the best scorer of the Euroleague.
What changed during the break was his aggressiveness. Langford scored eleven points in the third quarter alone, but all eleven came from isolations. Panathinaikos could not send any help that would not lead to huge holes in the defense. Langford took what he got offered. While a lot of coaches like it when the opponent only gets into one-on-one-situations, Kazan is doing it because of the great outcome. If the number five in the green dress is hot, it is too late. He goes over the left and uses the backboard for artistical layups. He goes over the left, stops briefly, and takes his smooth left-handed floater. He goes over the right and makes jumpshots of all kinds. In short: extremely hard to defend.
On some evenings, you know early when the opponent is in trouble. Just like here:
When the direct way to the basket is blocked, Langford just casually takes the stepback-three-pointer with the defense too far away. Nothing but nylon.
Two other examples, where again Athens big man Bourousis is the victim. Langford comes at full speed over his strong left side. Only a few defenders have the lateral speed to prevent this penetration.
Not until the final minutes, where Panathinaikos trailed by a few points and urgently needed stops, it succeeds again and the ball was forced out of Langford’s hands. But it is once again remarkable how far the defense has to step out to prevent Langford from attacking.
In the end Kazan wins 83-81 against the favored team from Athens. Langford, who was not used very much as a pick and roll-ballhandler but more in isolations in the second half, is one of the main reasons. If Bamberg’s Andrea Trinchieri would be able to get a player for the crunchtime, it is for sure the 33-year-old would be at the top of the Italian’s list. 27 points, four rebounds and five assists ended up on the statistics sheet against Athens. Without seeing the game, you might think that the American has once again delivered a good game. But if you look at ‘how’ it happened, it is even more remarkable. Which again brings us back to the beginning of the article. So enjoy the class of Keith Langford while he’s still there!