You can almost hear it in his voice, and more importantly, you can see it on the court.
Joshua Langford is a different player than he was a year ago.
The former McDonald’s All-American is preparing for his sophomore season at Michigan State by torching the competition at the Moneyball Pro-Am, far from a true indicator of what will come this season for the Spartans but certainly an indication of one thing — a healthy Langford is a much more confident Langford.
“I’m pretty excited,” Langford said last week before going for 37 points in one of his many shooting displays this summer. “It’s better to play uninjured than injured, so I’m excited.
“I wasn’t injured the whole season but it is hard to get started when you have that kind of hindrance.”
That hindrance in 2016 was the pulled hamstring Langford suffered just weeks before the season was to begin. The expectations were high for the five-star recruit from Huntsville, Ala., but it was clear early in the season that the 6-foot-5 guard was far from 100 percent.
In the season-opening loss to Arizona, Langford slipped and was beaten down the court by Kadeem Allen for the final basket at the buzzer to give the Wildcats the victory. The injury continued to hamper him for several weeks, but even after it was healed, Langford found himself far behind in terms of conditioning. It led to inconsistent play on both ends of the court.
There were moments when it looked like things were coming together, including after scoring double-figures in back-to-back nonconference games in mid-December. But after scoring 13 in a win at home against Minnesota, Langford went six games without scoring 10 or more, capped by the loss at Michigan when he never even took a shot.
But late in the season, Langford started to look more like the player Tom Izzo recruited. He scored 11 in a win over Iowa and three games later went for a season-high 17 in a blowout of Nebraska. Over the final four games — all in the postseason — Langford scored in double figures three times.
He was as close to healthy as he’d been all year, something he’s worked hard this summer to make sure is the case moving forward.
“This summer I wanted to really focus on conditioning and making sure come in tip-top shape,” Langford said. “Right now I feel like I’m in better shape than I was in mid-season. So I’m at a good point right now with conditioning and my game as well.
“I feel like I’m better than I was last year — mentally, physical and skill-wise.”
It’s been showing on a nightly basis at Aim High Sports in Dimondale. On Tuesday, Langford scored another 33, overshadowed only by the 57 his Michigan State teammate Miles Bridges poured in on the same night.
But while Bridges has been wowing the crowds, Langford has been steadily getting it done, something that could make as big a difference for the Spartans as the return of Bridges or the arrival of Jaren Jackson Jr.
It’s not lost on his Michigan State running mates.
“I think Josh is the second-best player — it’s Miles and then Josh,” senior-to-be Tum Tum Nairn said. “He’s grown so much and a lot of the things he’s doing now are making other people better.”
Added Bridges, “In my opinion, Josh is a high-lottery player. The way he can create for himself, he’s a lock-down defender and can rebound the ball. So he can do as much as me so I think Josh will show what he can do this year.”
Health will play a big part in what Langford does when the games start to count. But nearly as big has been the fact Langford has spent just as much time on his game this summer.
Always a good shooter, Langford has put a heavy emphasis on creating his own shot and becoming a better ball-handler, something Izzo wants and something the staff has been pushing.
“It’s definitely something Coach Izzo has talked to me about — How much better can I get with my ball handling?” Langford said. “That is something he wants me to get better at and I’ve been trying.
“And our graduate assistant (Thomas Kelley) is doing an unbelievable job with us getting us in the gym and also the drill work we do with the team and in camps. Things like that have gotten me better and I’m looking forward to the season.”