From leading Duke to the Final Four in college, to debuting in the NBA with a pre-LeBron Cleveland team that struggled mightily for three seasons (1999-2002), to winning multiple championships overseas in Russia’s pro league, Trajan Langdon’s playing career packed just about every possible high and low into a 16-year span. Now in his first season as New Orleans’ general manager, all of those experiences have helped to shape the way he evaluates players, something that’s already impacted how the Pelicans composed a dramatically reconfigured roster.
“I’ve been on some teams that were really good, and some other teams that weren’t,” said Langdon, whose Cavaliers clubs won 32, 30 and 29 games after he was the 11th pick in the ’99 draft. “Whether that was in the NBA, Europe or college, there are similarities in terms of successful teams, no matter what level. You try to determine that and mimic that on this level, in terms of character or skill level. You try to take things that worked, and not emulate those things that didn’t work. As a player, I definitely became aware of some characteristics or personality (traits) that I either like or stay away from.”
“I think that’s huge,” said Ronald Nored, a current Charlotte assistant coach who worked for Langdon as a coach for Brooklyn’s G League franchise. “He played for a long time, so he’s seen a lot of different players, in the NBA and overseas. He’s got a good feel about which players are successful and can help teams be successful. He was one of those players (who excelled in intangibles). I think going through that and being in a bunch of different (front-office roles) – scouting, managing a team – all of that helped him get to where he is.”
The Duke influence
Prior to becoming the first Alaskan-born man to ever play in the NBA, the foundation for some of Langdon’s eventual success was laid at Duke, which also produced a staggering five current Pelicans players. Two of those Blue Devils are roster holdovers (Frank Jackson and Jahlil Okafor) from before David Griffin and Langdon took over the front office this summer, while Zion Williamson was the unquestioned prize of the NBA draft lottery, no matter which team ended up winning it (New Orleans did so, overcoming 6.0 percent odds). New Orleans landed Brandon Ingram in a multi-player deal with the Lakers; veteran guard JJ Redick made it a handful of Blue Devils-turned-Pelicans when he signed a free-agent contract in July.
There was no master plan to field numerous New Orleans lineups with Duke players in ’19-20, but when asked for traits that are often shared by ex-Blue Devils, Langdon uses the word “team” multiple times in rapid succession.
“The one thing we all come away with is being together as a team,” Langdon said, identifying a primary influence longtime Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has on players. “Team-first – Coach K has always stressed that the name on the front of the jersey comes way before the name on the back of the jersey. Team-first. We’re always very competitive and really want to win – team goals go above individual goals. Duke players all want to be the best they can be, at whatever level, whether it’s playing in the NBA, European basketball or throughout the years at Duke. It’s all based on winning championships. That’s what we strive to do.”
Whether it was targeting respected NBA veterans like Redick and Derrick Favors; strategizing on how to evaluate a talent-rich ’19 draft class; or determining which players to acquire in a blockbuster trade; traits like unselfishness and character were emphasized by the Pelicans this offseason. New Orleans believes the result will be a cohesive squad that enjoys playing together and creates positive chemistry.
“Obviously Trajan’s been in San Antonio, and he was in Cleveland with Griff, then Brooklyn,” Nored said, referencing each of Langdon’s previous NBA stops as a scout or executive. “All of those places prioritize people first. So it’s no surprise that’s the direction (the Pelicans are) going right now. They want the right people. The right people help you win. You have to identify them, and it seems like they have.”
Path to the Crescent City
After retiring as a player at age 35, Langdon became a part-owner of a clothing store and briefly pursued real-estate opportunities, but as he puts it now, “I knew I wanted to be in basketball, either in coaching or scouting/roster construction.”
In ’12, he landed a job as a pro scout for San Antonio. Based in Arlington, Va., he scouted pro and college games along the East Coast and quickly took a liking to the role.
“It didn’t take me long to find that I enjoyed it and in time became very passionate about it,” he said.
Langdon eventually took a player administration job with Cleveland under Griffin, then was hired as Brooklyn’s assistant GM by Sean Marks in ’16. At the time, the Nets faced what many considered a major uphill climb. A ’13 trade with Boston had left Brooklyn without valuable draft picks at the worst possible time, just as the Nets had become one of the NBA’s worst teams (they won 21, 20 and 28 games over a three-season stretch). Still, just three years after Langdon’s arrival in the Big Apple, the Nets emerged as a major success story, reaching the Eastern Conference playoffs this spring, then made the biggest splash of any NBA team in July free agency, signing both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
How did Brooklyn do it? Langdon quickly deflects praise for the turnaround to everyone else, including Kenny Atkinson, who took over as Nets head coach in ’16-17 and immediately went to work on developing a mostly-unproven young core, featuring the likes of Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie.
“I give a tremendous amount of credit to Kenny Atkinson and his staff, for instilling the mind-set of hard work every day,” Langdon said, when asked specifically about the Nets going from a seemingly bleak future to attracting marquee free agents. “Do the right things, over and over. They drove that every day, and we had players who were willing to listen. You saw players get better day-to-day, game-to-game and season-to-season. We were fortunate to get those kinds of character guys we targeted.”
Although Langdon was summarizing Brooklyn’s approach, he just as easily could’ve been describing what the Pelicans are attempting to execute, a roster overhaul with a similar objective as Brooklyn’s. In the first round of the draft, the Pelicans selected Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker – all lauded for their maturity in scouting reports – then acquired Favors and Redick. The megatrade with the Lakers brought in the trio of Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart.
“It’s incredibly exciting for the city and the organization, that we’ve been able to fill the roster with the type of people we wanted to bring in,” Langdon said. “It’s the same mind-set Griff had in Cleveland and that we had in Brooklyn, in terms of high-character guys who are competitive and team-first. They’re not always easy to find. They’re easy to target, but not always easy to get. It’s tremendous. We are super excited about that.”
Langdon may be hesitant to accept accolades for Brooklyn’s impressive rebuild, but those who’ve worked with him describe his smarts and calm demeanor as strengths, contributing to his rise as a young executive at just 43.
“Trajan’s got a great aura, a great presence about him,” Nored said. “He’s not like the loudest talker in a room. He’s got this stoic demeanor. He walks in a room and he’s serious and all about his business. And he’s got high-level intelligence, with the ability to relate to players – he was one of the best players in Europe for a long time. All of those pieces – his presence, intelligence, ability to relate to people – make him the full package.”
During Langdon’s introductory press conference in May, Griffin noted that Langdon’s vast international background also will be valuable for the franchise. As basketball continues to become more global, teams likely will need to tap into every talent pool available.
“Trajan’s connections will certainly help us a great deal,” Griffin said. “(International scouting is) an area we want to really put a lot of focus on. Because international players – and Trajan having played internationally would have a good feel for this as well – tend to appreciate a city like New Orleans that’s diverse and has the culture and history that it has. So we want to make sure we’re in a situation where we’re becoming a destination for players from everywhere and of all types.”
As it turns out, that doesn’t only apply to players. Langdon’s decision to come to New Orleans was another step foward for a franchise and front office that’s been completely revamped over the span of just a few months. Langdon pointed out that he did not anticipate leaving Brooklyn, having thoroughly enjoyed his three seasons with the Nets and the team’s rewarding ascent in ’18-19.
“I had an incredible three years in Brooklyn, so it had to be something big-time for me to leave,” Langdon said. “When Griff approached me, he gave me that big-time opportunity in terms of role. After working with him in Cleveland (in ’15-16), I always thought maybe there would be a time that we would work together again. I understood the culture he wanted to build, the environment, and what we felt we could change and improve here. I thought there was something special happening here.”