The date was April 11, 2017.
As the Memphis Grizzlies played their final game of the season against the hapless Dallas Mavericks, the goal was simple: No injuries. They had already clinched the 7th seed in the West and had nothing left to accomplish. To be sure, it would be tragic to lose a pivotal player right before the playoffs.
But tragedy decided to rear its ugly head that day.
As Tony Allen lunged for the ball going out-of-bounds, he suddenly stopped. He had obviously bothered his right leg, and he headed straight for the locker room.
That would be the last image that Grizzlies fans would have of Tony Allen in a Grizzlies uniform. The Grizzlies career of the greatest defender the franchise had ever known—hell, one of the greatest defenders ever—would end with a whimper instead of a bang.
And yet over two years later, the Grizzlies have added a player that echoes Tony Allen with both his size and defensive affinity in De’Anthony Melton.
That’s of course not to say that Melton will have the impact that Allen once did. After all, there can only be one “Grindfather”. But there’s something eerily familiar about seeing another 6’4” defensive bulldog in a Grizzlies uniform.
And a defensive bulldog is what Melton projects to be both now and in the future.
He possesses a 6’9” wingspan that allows him to wreak havoc both on and off the ball. Although he came just short of the NBA’s 58-game requirement to qualify in statistical categories (he played in 50 games), his 2.5 steals per 36 minutes would have been first in the NBA if he had qualified. As stated in D.J. Foster’s excellent piece for the Ringer, Melton also ranked second in the NBA in deflections despite his limited minutes and posted the highest steal percentage (3.3 percent) of any rookie who played at least 900 minutes since Rajon Rondo in 2006-2007.
At just 21 years old, De’Anthony Melton is clearly on pace to become one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA. His ability on the defensive end should ensure that he becomes a reliable rotation player for the Grizzlies.
It’s his play on the other end of the court, however, that leads to doubt whether he will ever become more than that.
His offensive numbers were generally passable for a rookie point guard as he averaged 9.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per 36 minutes. He demonstrated solid court vision and took care of the ball as well, posting a 2.1-1 assist to turnover ratio.
It is Melton’s shooting, on the other hand, where the car careens off the cliff. Again, shooting 39% from the field and 30% from three are not absolutely atrocious splits for a rookie. But it’s the type of shots that Melton missed—or rather, the ones that he was completely incapable of making—that are the most concerning when evaluating a young point guard. His pull-up shooting game is virtually non-existent.
Now it might be unfair to say that Melton’s shooting off the dribble is nonexistent—that would imply that he simply doesn’t shoot off the dribble. It’s just no exaggeration to say that he was the worst pull-up shooter in the NBA last year. Of the 208 players in the league that had at least the amount of FGA off the dribble that Melton did (1.4 per game), no one shot more poorly than his 19% from the field. To put that in perspective, the second worst was Delon Wright, who still managed to shoot 23.9% on 1.5 pull-up jumpers per game. Melton also made just 10% his pull-up threes, and he only attempted 0.4 per game.
For a point guard to thrive in the modern NBA, they have to be a consistent threat to shoot off the dribble, whether in the pick-and-roll or otherwise. With virtually no exceptions, all of the league’s above-average point guards are proficient in this area. And unfortunately, it is a skill that De’Anthony Melton does not possess as of yet.
Of course, he’s still young and very well may improve in this area. But with it as horrendous as it is now even compared to other rookies, it’s unlikely that Melton’s pull-up shooting will ever approach a league-average level. Even with his skills in other areas, this deficiency probably limits his ceiling to a backup point guard.
Yet it’s those same skills in other areas that could allow the Grizzlies to maximize Melton as a potential starting shooting guard in the future.
His length and defensive tenacity would definitely compensate for Ja Morant, who doesn’t project as more than a league-average defender. Hypothetically, Melton and Morant could have a relationship similar to that of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry on the defensive end. Melton, like Thompson, could defend more physical, explosive players, which would allow Morant to invest more of his energy into being the primary creator like Curry.
Melton’s more redeeming areas of his offensive game would also translate well as a shooting guard.
While his pull-up shooting may be a black hole, he did shoot an encouraging 36% on catch-and-shoot threes last year. And since he played in Phoenix, which is a desolate wasteland for point guards, it’s easy to imagine that number rising with Ja Morant and Tyus Jones setting him up. He also displayed an impressive knack for scoring at the rim. His 57% conversion-rate at the rim this past year was higher than Mike Conley this past season (55%) and decimal points lower than Russell Westbrook during his MVP season in 2016-2017.
As a point guard, De’Anthony Melton is a skilled but limited prospect who likely projects as something akin to a longer, more defensively tenacious Elfrid Payton. But if he continues in his development, he could become the modern NBA shooting guard that the Grizzlies have searched for endlessly—a wing who can shoot, defend, and create for others. He will never be a proficient shooter off the dribble, but that’s not a skill that the Grizzlies will need for him to consistently showcase if they maximize him in the way that they should.
And if the Memphis Grizzlies do maximize De’Anthony Melton, they may just find their spiritual successor to the greatest shooting guard that the franchise has ever known—a player that not only echoes his defensive skill and tenacity, but also presents a more modern and complete skill set.