Compared to other additions the Memphis Grizzlies made this summer, De’Anthony Melton was best described as a lottery ticket to take a chance on. Acquired from the Suns in exchange for Kyle Korver and Jevon Carter, Melton was viewed as an intriguing prospect more than a player that would make an instant impact. In fact, it was the impressive play of the other player that the Grizzlies acquired with Melton, Josh Jackson, that created significant buzz for some at the beginning of the season.
For the first quarter of the season, Melton was buried on the bench as Taylor Jenkins and his coaching staff were figuring out how to best utilize their roster. He played in just seven of the Grizzlies first 18 games, and only played double-digit minutes twice. However, as injuries began to limit roster options, Jenkins had little choice but to feature Melton in a bigger role. Now that he had his chance, Melton hit the floor running with every intention to take advantage of his opportunity.
Since December 1st, Melton has received more than 12 minutes in every game Memphis has played. Melton has not just been present when he has seen the court; he has made his presence felt. Melton has been nothing short of a revelation. Among NBA sophomores who have played more than 400 minutes this season, Melton is one of only five players who rank in the top ten of PER, Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player. While it may be debated how much value should be placed on these statistical categories, they collectively prove that Melton has been extremely valuable for the Grizzlies this season.
In terms of his individual skill set, Melton does not stand out as many other players do. He does not score, pass, or rebound as one of the best in the game. However, he is a stat sheet stuffer, as he has a variety of ways to contribute when on the court. Melton is one of only two players, along with Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs, who have played more than 430 minutes in the NBA this season and produced per-36 minute averages of 15 or more points, 8 or more rebounds, 6 or more assists, and 2.5 or more steals. The significance of these numbers proves the Melton’s all around game can add positive value in a variety of ways on both ends of the court.
Melton also has displayed the ability to add value beyond the box score, as he alluded to while chatting with the guys of the GBBLive podcast this week. A growing trend regarding Melton is that the Grizzlies are simply a more effective team when he is on the court. When Melton is on the court, the Grizzlies have a 115.7 offensive rating; when he is off the court, that measure drops to 107.3. When Melton plays, Grizzlies’ opponents produce a 106.7 offensive rating; when is on the bench, that measure increases to 114.9. Simply put, more times than not, the Grizzlies perform better both offensively and defensively when Melton is in the game.
With or without the ball on offense, Melton has proven to be an efficient piece for the Grizzlies. Though he is averaging just 5.7 shots a night, he is shooting 45.2% from the field, 89% from the line, and over 50% on two pointers. He is contributing 0.8 offensive rebounds and 2.8 assists in just under 17 minutes played per game. Though he may not be a frequent or elite scorer, Melton has proven to be clear asset for Memphis’s offense facilitating and creating both on and off the ball.
While Melton may play an effective supporting role on offense, he has quickly become a premier perimeter presence on defense. Melton’s 103 defensive rating is currently the best on the Grizzlies roster. Since December 1st, when Melton started seeing regular minutes, 34 different 3-man lineups have played at least 75 minutes together for the Grizzlies. Of those 34 groups, seven of the nine combinations that have produced the best defensive rating include Melton. Furthermore, in regards to that same group, Melton is a part of seven of the ten combinations that have produced the best NET ratings for Memphis. These numbers make a valid case that the Grizzlies play their best basketball with Melton on the court.
While Melton does have success in terms of actually defending his assignment on the perimeter, a key reason he is so effective on defense is his elite ability to create steals. Melton is one of only three players since the beginning of the 2018-2019 season who have played at least 1400 minutes and have a steal percentage of 3% or better. With his ability to create turnovers, Melton makes it harder for the Grizzlies’ opponents to settle into a rhythm in their half court offenses.
Though Melton has not even played 1,500 minutes in his career yet, his production and statistical profile compares favorably to a few other guards that Grizzlies fans are familiar with, Dejounte Murray and Delon Wright. The significance of these similarities should not be overlooked. With Taylor Jenkins’ background rooted in the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, it is very encouraging that he has shown the ability to develop a player such as Melton into a significant talent like Popovich has done for decades.
The Grizzlies front office has now identified both Wright and Melton as targets in trade returns. Both players have improved the future outlook of the franchise, and offer proof the that Grizzlies lead decision makers and successfully find talent that will fit well with their young core.
This is why the emergence of Melton means just as much for the future as it does for the present. When he is in the lineup, Melton has a rare ability to minimize the weaknesses and maximize the strengths of his teammates. His style of play is the a wonderful compliment to the skill sets of Morant, Clarke, and Jackson Jr. His effective passing, facilitation, and movement without the ball makes the offense more efficient. His rebounding, perimeter defense, and active yet intelligent footwork makes the defense more effective. The Grizzlies are and will continue to be one the NBA’s most exciting and productive teams in transition and during fast breaks. Melton’s elite ability to cause steals and turnovers further enhances that ability, making if a bigger advantage for the Grizzlies against their competition.
It is no surprise that both the Mavericks and Spurs made long-terms commitments to both Wright and Murray this summer. It is also no coincidence that with players now in more featured roles, both Dallas and San Antonio are playoff contenders. As a result, it seems to be a good bet that Melton could create a similar narrative for Memphis if the Grizzlies were to invest in him for the future.
Though he may not be the elite scoring guard that many have envisioned as the piece that would take the Grizzlies to the next level, there is no denying Memphis is at its best when it features Melton. As a result, it seems the Grizzlies have found another piece for their present and future core that improves their chances of becoming a perennial contender faster than most may have expected.