De’Anthony Melton is like an unexpectedly intriguing book. When you read the first chapter, you find yourself enthralled in a way that you weren’t expecting, and you suddenly want to do nothing more than read it cover to cover.
Yes, the first real chapter of De’Anthony Melton’s career with the Memphis Grizzlies was full of intriguing twists and turns. There were moments when he was so impactful that I began to wonder whether he may be hailed as a deity in the cult-like pantheon that is the NBA analytic nerd community. Yet there were also times in which I wondered whether he was even good at basketball. To be sure, “Mr. Do Something” always seemed to be doing just that, for better or for worse.
And the Grizzlies decided that they wanted to see Melton keep doing so, inking him to a 4-years, $35 million contract. The deal could prove to be a bargain if he improves as a shooter, and this season will give a clearer picture as to the compelling player that he will become.
While many thought that Melton could be the crown-jewel of the Grizzlies-Suns trade in the summer of 2019, few expected him to have the impact that he did last year. The Grizzlies were better in every single statistical category with him on the court, and he had the best plus/minus on the team. Their best stretch of basketball began almost immediately after he became a consistent member of the rotation in December.
Here is an excerpt from my season review on him:
The analytics confirm the tape: he was tied for second on the Grizzlies this year in defensive box plus-minus (2.0) and was third in defensive win-shares (1.7) while often taking difficult assignments on defense. His production on defense was extremely impressive as well, as he was second in the league in both steals per 36 minutes (2.4) and deflections (4.8) behind only Matisse Thybulle. He was also impactful defensively on the glass, as he averaged 6.9 rebounds per 36 minutes, which ranked first among Grizzlies guards and also ranks 58th all-time among guards 6’5” and shorter.
With preternatural defensive instincts, impressive lateral quickness, and a 6’9” wingspan to boot, Melton was able to wreak havoc on both sides of the ball. His averages of 7.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game don’t exactly jump off the page, but he thrived as a secondary playmaker in the second unit next to Tyus Jones.
When he became such a pivotal member of the Grizzlies’ rotation, it became a question as to whether the Grizzlies would be able to retain his services. He didn’t necessarily play his way out of their price range, but it became a legitimate question as to whether he would command more as a restricted free agent than the Grizzlies should pay.
But then the Orlando bubble happened. In the absence of Jones, Melton’s weaknesses as a shooter and a playmaker truly exhibited themselves, as he averaged only 4.4 points on 27% shooting and 13% from three. He often looked totally lost on offense, and he just wasn’t the player that he had been for most of the year.
His struggles in the bubble certainly didn’t inspire any confidence in his already-lackluster shooting. Again, from my season review:
He simply cannot and will not shoot, which would normally be considered a debilitating issue for guards in the pace-and-space NBA. Even with two other elite playmakers in Ja Morant and Tyus Jones, he struggled mightily from every single area of the floor (outside of at the rim, where he shot a superb 62%), as he shot 28% on a meager 2.3 3PA per game and only 32% from mid-range, which was down from the 46% he shot in that area as a rookie. For the season, he shot 40.1% from the field—which, if I might add, is lower than what notoriously inefficient gunner Dillon Brooks shot this year.
So while Melton did establish himself as a legitimate NBA rotation player, there are still at least as many questions as there are answers for his career going forward.
While there are definitely questions as to what De’Anthony Melton will eventually become, what’s not in question is that he will have a more significant role going into year two in Memphis. That could happen as soon as opening night on Wednesday, as he could very well find himself in the starting lineup in the absence of Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. Regardless, he will definitely play more than the 19 minutes per game he averaged last season. He’s simply too impactful to not do so.
But regardless of how much he plays on a night-to-night basis, he will still fill the same role that he did last year. He will thrive as a secondary playmaker next to Ja Morant and Tyus Jones, and he will alleviate pressure off of them by taking the more difficult defensive assignments in opponents’ backcourts.
At his core, Melton is a glue-guy. And he will exemplify that role no matter who is on the court with him at any given time.
Season Best-Case Scenario
Melton’s ultimate upside both for his career and this season will be determined by his shooting. If he has significantly improved his shooting coming into this season, then he will elevate himself into elite role player territory.
Of course, he doesn’t have to light the world on fire from beyond the arc, nor should he be expected to do so. He only shot 28% from three on 2.3 attempts from last year. But if he could raise those numbers to 35% on at least 3.5 attempts, he will stretch opposing defenses in a way that he hasn’t previously. Becoming a more effective and willing three-point shooter makes him more viable as a starter, since his newfound gravity could open up more driving lanes for Ja Morant among others.
With all of that being said, the ideal season for Melton involves him becoming a league-average shooter while taking steps toward becoming a primary playmaker. Tyus Jones and/or Morant will inevitably miss a few games, and it would be gratifying to see Melton excel in taking the reigns of the offense after he simply wasn’t able to do so back in Orlando.
I’ve often compared Melton to Dejounte Murray, and I think he should aim to have similar numbers to what Murray had last year in his third season. If he averages something like 10-5-4 on 45% shooting and 35% shooting from three, then the Grizzlies should be quite pleased with his progress.
Season Worst-Case Scenario
Unlike several other players in the Grizzlies’ wing log-jam, Melton is not at risk of falling out of the rotation. He’s proven himself to be entirely too impactful for that to happen. However, while he may not face a challenge to his place in the rotation, he will be challenged by the prospect of stagnation.
NBA teams will do everything in their power to make stagnation Melton’s reality. They now have a full year of film on him, which will only accentuate his weaknesses. If he doesn’t improve as a playmaker and a shooter, then the game may come even harder to him than it did last season.
The worst-case scenario for him is that his hypothetical stagnation causes him to lose some minutes to other young wings on the Grizzlies’ roster like Grayson Allen and Desmond Bane. He won’t fall out of the rotation, but there’s a real possibility that his impressive impact last season was more of a mere mirage rather than an undeniable sign of greater things to come.
It’s a testament to Melton’s consistency (outside of the Orlando bubble) last year that my expectations for him are not at all a far cry from what I deem to be his best-case scenario for this season. I believe that he will find his way into the starting lineup in at least 15 games this year and that he will showcase improvements in every facet of his game.
Regardless, Melton will not be a finished product this season. At 22-years-old, he still has plenty of room to grow, and that will be an important fact to keep in mind for him this year. But the fun will be found in seeing what steps that he will take.