One on one with Trajan Langdon

Recognized as one of the best shooters in Duke history, the Alaskan Assassin, Trajan Langdon, left Duke following the 1999 season to begin a professional career that included several years in the NBA and then overseas. Now the former Blue Devil is a basketball scout for the San Antonio Spurs. We discussed all of that and more in our latest alumni series interview.

To start, I see you are working in the Scouting Department of the San Antonio Spurs, can you share what led you to that career path?

Trajan Langdon: I finished playing professionally the summer of 2011, and I took a year off to really think about what I wanted to do post-basketball career. After thinking about it and talking with a lot of people, I knew that I wanted to stay in basketball, I just didn’t know in what capacity.

Towards the end of my career I didn’t know if I wanted to work for an agent and then after talking with my agent, he recommended to me that I look into working for a team and that he thought that would be a better path for me and something that I would be more passionate about with my background. So I took some time and I talked to some different people about the different sides of the game and figured I would try out the organizational side first by being a scout. That was probably better for me and was a better fit for what I was looking to do more of. Then I talked with a couple of teams, San Antonio being one of them and then RC Buford offered me a job and I took it and started running with it.

I know in the NBA there’s different kinds of scouting between college, overseas, advance game scouting, player personnel, etc, etc. What kind of exposure have you had to the different kinds of NBA scouting since you started working for the Spurs and what led you to doing the type of scouting that you are doing now?

The club asked me from Day One whether I wanted to do college or if I wanted to do pro and I told them pro is what I wanted to do, that was more intriguing to me because I played for a while both in the NBA and overseas professionally. I just thought it’d be something I could learn faster since I was more familiar with guys in those arenas. I do pro games in the NBA, the NBDL, some European and international scouting as well.

What kind of things have you learned doing this kind of scouting?

I learned a lot just from the people in our group, especially our Scouting Coordinator. I did a lot of learning with him in terms of learning from them what did they really want from me in my scouts and reports. Everybody was very helpful, and everybody told me that they weren’t just going to tell me or just show me how to do it, they wanted me to bring my own style and my own input to it. They didn’t want something vanilla that somebody has already done, they wanted me to bring my own style with the way I viewed players and the game and then communicate that to the group. They’ve been very encouraging of me to go out, find my own path and to figure it out and if you go the wrong way, we’ll tell you and help you figure out how to steer it back. That hasn’t happened and it’s been great to be a part of this group, they are very inclusive and I love working with them.

How major an adjustment was it for you going from being a professional basketball player to being a pro scout?

Well, with playing when you get done playing, you just go home. You prepare, you have practice and then you have a game and then whether there’s treatment or stretching, you maybe watch some film after the game of how you played in that game and how you can get better, but other than that…that’s it. With scouting, it’s going to a game several hours early, watching practice, watching the game, talking with the coaches and the players, sometimes staying after for hours to write your report or go to meetings. Doing some video scouts, keeping up with what’s happening with the League and news and trying to stay abreast of different trends in the NBA not just for scouting, but also just to keep myself educated on where the game is going and how organizations are being ran, how rosters are gathered together and managed, those are all things you do as a scout.

That sounds like you may have an eye in the future on working in an NBA front office someday, is that a part of your hoped-for plan?

I do like the scouting world but I’m similar in that respect in that I like to build, I like to learn and I would like to work my way into the front office to be a part of decision making and that world someday. Some people I respect and enjoy being around and conversely who respect me like the knowledge that I bring, so that’s good.

Before scouting you had a really diverse playing experience in the NBA and overseas. What are your most memorable memories from your professional career?

Obviously getting drafted is something that will always stand out and then playing in Cleveland. That was a dream come true to play in the NBA at that time with all the great players in the League, they are the best players in the world and to be able to play against them every single night, it was a great challenge. My time in Europe was great, I was with great teams my entire nine year career and we won at a very high level and I was fortunate to play at a very high level. The thing that sticks out the most for me is the European Final Fours that I was able to play in and the Championships we won including specifically the 2008 Championship where I was the MVP in Madrid.

Did you have some really different experiences with the various overseas teams you played on in terms of organizational approach and playing styles?

The interesting thing for me is I played nine years over there and six of the years I played for, five of the years I played for one coach and the other year I played for the assistant coach who had a very similar style to the head coach, so for six out of the nine years I played in a very similar system, which was a defensive approach with a lot of teamwork and ball movement, physical basketball with a very detailed oriented coach.

The other three years that I played, styles were a little different but not much. You had to defend and if you wanted to play at a high level which I did, you had to defend and teams are pretty much stacked so you have to move the ball and share the ball, it’s not going to be a situation where you shoot for over 20 points every game. The highest point per game average on any team I played on was about 16 points per game, and that’s where you were going to maybe get eight or nine shots a game at most and you have to be efficient and you have to defend. That’s pretty much the style of team I played on for all nine years overseas and it was a style that fit me very well.

What was off the court life like for you in the different places you were in overseas? How did you adjust?

It wasn’t too difficult for me because I was fortunate to have played with USA Basketball for years before all that. I had traveled to Argentina and for two years I went to Athens, Greece so I was worldly in my mindset in terms of having been over there and experienced things. I started out not far from a town near Venice and then I went to Istanbul and Moscow, so I had great experiences whenever we traveled. I got out and saw the towns that we visited and I just tried to have an open mind as possible. I didn’t really have any crazy stories honestly to speak of when I was over there. Obviously the language barrier was difficult at the start but basketball was always the easy part. I tried to learn the language, I tried Italian and I picked up some and then I tried Russian and I picked up some there as well and I befriended a lot of the domestic players that I was on teams with and I really had a great experience, I don’t have anything negative to say about my experiences and if I had to trade anything for them, I wouldn’t have. Looking back on my experiences overseas, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

How do you think your time at Duke helped prepare you for the diverse professional experience you ended up having?

I think it was huge just because of everything it was about. The whole thing of playing good defense, playing team basketball on good teams with a lot of talent, that’s what I did my years at Duke. I had no problem being coached hard, I had no problem playing under pressure and playing at a high level with talented players and learning how to share the ball and share success. All of that played a big role and Coach K challenged us to win every single day and to play at a high level and compete every night. When the stakes are high, that’s when you should play your best is what he would say and that’s what really prepared me to play over in Europe.

Speaking of playing with really talented guys you obviously played alongside the talented freshman class that came in with Elton Brand and Shane Batter and a few others—what was that experience like as you adapted to playing with those new teammates?

It was unbelievable with having those guys come in and be better than what people expected with their maturity being beyond their years and they were good people. They were good guys and people that I have a relationship with to this day. When we come across each other, we always have a good time talking about whether it be our families present day or what’s happening professionally with each other individually, we’re always on the same team. They were a great group of people those teams including the freshman group or everybody else, I had tremendous relationships with them and it’s always good times with them whenever I see them, even to this day.

What kind of influence or leadership role did you play as an upperclassmen what that freshman class came in?

I think the biggest influence that I had was during my senior year, being the captain on that team a lot of it was just communicating with them on and off the court. It wasn’t a rah-rah type of thing, it was more making sure we were prepared and guys could always come to me if they had questions. I always tried to be focused and play the right way and to stay positive because obviously there were some different distractions with how talented we were and with guys were preparing to leave and have that be the first time that had ever happened in Duke’s history. There were a lot of ulterior things going on off the court and I just tried to keep us focused together at the same time and I thought we did a good job with that. We were a very talented team at the time and I’ll say that what Kentucky is doing isn’t as easy  as a lot of people think it is with trying to keep everybody focused and on the same page, playing the right way and playing to win is something we had to work towards as players.

What do you think actually helped you set that influence despite those distractions that you mentioned being there?

I think maturity, I think the seniors including myself and Wojo really worked at that and I think Coach K really did a lot with that as well. I think learning from a lot of different people and just staying grounded and really learning what motivated each person was important, that was the right thing for our team at that time. I took it in stride and I just tried to deal with who the guys were instead of the pressure and I just tried to be focused on them as people and we went from there.

Who did you really get close with during your time at Duke?

I stayed close with Shane Battier, we stay in contact. Steve Wojciechowski and I stay in contact, Jeff Capel, Chris Collins but like I said, any of the guys that I played together whenever we come across each other, we always connect very well and we had a great time on and off the court with each other.

Three of the four guys you just mentioned are in the college coaching ranks now—what’s that like for you seeing former teammates coaching in college basketball now?

Yeah I’ve had the opportunity to visit with all of those guys during this year which has been great. I’m very happy for all of them and they really deserve all the success that they’ve had. They are all very hard working guys and I respect them and they deserve what they have earned at their schools.

How have you seen your relationship grow over time with Coach K?

With Coach it’s delicate because he spends so much of his time with his present team whether it be his Duke team or his USA team, he’s always really focused during the season with whatever group he’s with, so you really don’t want to affect that. When you step into that, you are kinda an outsider so it’s delicate but he’s great at balancing those things. I’ll send him a text here or there, and I was at the 1000th win against St John’s. It’s always great seeing the energy he brings, the motivation he brings to his group and the leadership obviously. For him to keep doing this after all these years is just tremendous. Over the years and seeing him doing all the things that he does, I’ve got an even greater respect for him in terms of what he’s done at his level for many years. It’s a lot of communication from afar and he really understands the respect and appreciation that I have for him and for what he did for me.

What was his approach to you coach to player during your time at Duke?

He was pretty…I think everybody’s freshman year at Duke, he goes at you and challenges you. I don’t know if he does that now but he challenged you verbally and he wants you to respond so he can see what kind of effort you give. I always knew that he was in charge and I would always tell him to tell me what you want, you can always do that, just communicate it to me in a way that I will understand what you want and I’m good. I think after freshman year for the next three years he really understood that with me and he would take me aside and he would tell me what works and how I could get it. With me it was very easy and it was something I think got better every single year. He’d bring me in for meetings or he’d bring me in before games or at halftime and he would tell me when I needed to get more aggressive, it was a pretty simple relationship and not many words needed to be spoken one way or the other. There was a great amount of appreciation and respect both ways.

With the National Championship Game season, are there any memories that really stand out for you personally from that year? B
I think starting freshman year and the year we had as freshman with not achieving and doing what we were supposed to do and then having a losing season, then taking a step back in terms of where the program was and then finally climbing all the way out of that and ultimately playing in the National Championship Game, that’s something that really stands out to me. It was always a goal for me to win a National Championship, I never took it for granted and it was difficult to understand the difficulty of that. To actually be able to get there though and to get our program back to that Championship level and have a chance to compete for it is something that has always stayed with me and I’m pretty sure it always will.

Elton and Will Avery shared some memories they had from the day of the National Championship Game against Connecticut, for you, do you have anything you really remember from that day?

I really remember the game to be honest and just how high a level game that was. It’s something you dream about being a part of as a kid is being in a National Championship Game and you know when you are a part of it. When the Duke Blue Devils ran on that floor and you know it’s your last game, you get really emotional because you are playing at Duke and while you don’t know where you are going next, you know where you are is great. Those years were a tremendous experience for me and those 40 minutes are almost like a dream. You compete at the highest level and you do what you do what you are supposed to do and whoever makes baskets and sticks to the game plan was who was going to win that game and there was a lot of emotion. It was probably the most difficult game to play in in terms of emotions because it was such a high emotion game and it’s hard to really control those when you are young. You think you are old at 22 but you really are not. It was an incredible experience and I’m glad I was a part of it.

What helped you deal with the emotions after the game if I may ask?

I think my approach in life has always been control what you can. You can control preparation, you can control the effort that you give on the court but sometimes you just can’t control the way the ball bounces. They were making shots and we weren’t, they were executing and they were the better team that day. I think you have to keep it in perspective and there’s a next step in life after that game and in your career and then you have to move on. That’s how I looked at it and I understood it was a great ride and it was over for me after that. It was a difficult situation, but it always has to come to an end for everybody and I think that’s how I looked at it.

  You came to Duke before the internet and social media got so involved in recruiting, so there’s not a lot of record…I’m curious as to what it was that made your choice Duke?

I think it came down to three things. It came down to academics, the basketball program itself and also the head coach. All three things were just stellar when I was choosing a school, there was no better place for me to go to in terms of all three things and the fact that they were recruiting me made it even easier. 

What was Coach K’s and Duke’s approach to recruiting you?

To be honest, he didn’t have to say too much. They were coming off seven Final Fours in like nine years and back to back National Championships, there wasn’t a whole lot that he had to say. All he said was that he wasn’t going to promise anything, he promised that you could earn a spot and earn minutes and he promised that he would be fair. We’re going to compete at the highest level and obviously the academic standards were very high there. He just said that we would really love to have you be a part of our program and we think you could add a lot to our group but he never promised anything. He said we’re going to push you hard and hopefully you can become the best player that you possibly can be, that was his goal. I think that spoke a lot about him as he was very honest from Day One with me. 

Thank you again for making the time for the interview. In closing I wanted to ask if you had any closing thoughts for the Duke fans who are going to be reading this?

Yeah just that I really enjoyed every minute of playing at Duke and that I meant everything I said in my Senior Speech. I was so thankful for the 9,314 fans who were in that gym each and every time we played there had a great deal to do with what I loved about basketball and my enjoyment of playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium for Duke University. I enjoy going back for a game there every time just because of the excitement in that arena and to see the excitement that playing in that arena portrays on the Duke players, I’ll never forget that. 

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