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The jury is still out on De’Anthony Melton

Who exactly is this guy?

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Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For nearly the past decade, there has been an ongoing tension between analytics and the casual eye-test when it comes to the overall evaluation of NBA basketball. For example, there has been endless debate over players like Carmelo Anthony in the latter stage of his career who look the part of productive NBA players and produce solid counting stats, but seem to have a negligible or even negative impact on winning basketball for a variety of reasons. Offensive-minded players who specialize in being shot-creators—for better or for worse—like Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Clarkson (who has been objectively great for the Jazz this year!) and Kendrick Nunn fit in this category.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, there are players that the analytic community loves for their supposed impact on winning basketball while not being especially prolific as far as counting stats are concerned. Alex Caruso, Shake Milton, Monte Morris, and the Memphis Grizzlies’ own De’Anthony Melton, who very well be the analytic community’s most beloved player, fit in this category.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As far as this ongoing debate is concerned, I find myself somewhere in the middle, with Melton in particular being a confounding conundrum for me to figure out. So as the highly intelligent and articulate basketball blogger that I am, here is my informed opinion on him after his second year in the NBA: I have no clue if De’Anthony Melton is a good NBA basketball player.

At his best

NBA: Boston Celtics at Memphis Grizzlies Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the more optimistic perspective. Whether you prefer analytics or the eye test, Melton is an undeniably great defender because he has preternatural defensive instincts, impressive lateral quickness, and a 6’9” wingspan to boot. The eye test confirms: watch how quickly Melton is able to react and jump into the passing lane for this steal.

Now watch him use his combination of length and lateral quickness to rip Jalen Brunson before he hardly even realizes what is happening.

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.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

And from a more simplistic perspective, it simply can’t be understated that the Grizzlies were just almost always stronger when De’Anthony Melton was on the court this year. They were better in every single statistical category when he was on the court, and he also had the best plus-minus on the entire team. To be sure, “Mr. Do Something” always seemed to be doing just that whenever he was on the court for the Grizzlies.

So when a player is a tenacious defender, superb rebounder, and generally seems to make your team better when he’s on the court, that does, in fact, mean that he’s a “good” player, right? That would definitely seem to be the case, but here’s the issue with De’Anthony Melton: he really isn’t particularly good, or even average for that matter, in most of the areas that are necessary for solid guard play in the modern NBA—a fact which was unfortunately on full display in the Orlando bubble.

At his worst

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

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.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

His issues with shooting become even more prevalent when he’s asked to do so off the dribble, which is a critical skill for NBA guards in generating spacing. As a rookie, he was statistically the worst pull-up shooter in the NBA as he shot 19% on 1.7 attempts off the dribble. And he unfortunately was only able to raise that number to 27% on 1.9 attempts this season, which was last on the Grizzlies among players who played at least his number of minutes. So as far as his pull-up shooting is concerned, he made the jump from “worst in the NBA” as a rookie to merely “terrible” this season…which I guess is positive depending on how you look at it?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of shooting, Melton also struggles mightily as a playmaker when asked to be anything other than a secondary playmaker in the second unit, a reality that was shown in Orlando. To be fair, eight games is a small sample size, but he was so terribly bad on offense in the bubble in the absence of Tyus Jones that it’s now a legitimate question to me whether Ja Morant and Jones made him look better than he actually is this year. Over those eight games, he averaged *shield your eyes* 4.4 points on 27% shooting and shot 13% from three, and he often just looked totally lost on offense.

A contributing factor to his discomfort as a primary ball-handler is that he struggles with handling the ball in traffic. Plays like this where Admiral Schofield rips him once he dribbles into a crowd were not uncommon this year.

If he ever becomes an above-average ball-handler, his ability to dribble in traffic and by extension create plays for others will improve. But until that happens, he is locked into being a secondary playmaker in the Grizzlies’ bench lineup, with his shooting woes preventing him from being a real challenge to Dillon Brooks’ place in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future.

What comes next?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The future in and of itself is cloudy for De’Anthony Melton. To be sure, he has been immensely impactful by every analytical measure, and he does bring a potentially elite skill to the table with his defense. If you were to tell me that in five years, he is an elite role player that has made a couple of All-Defensive teams, I would not at all be surprised.

However, if you were to tell me that Melton is out of the league in five years, I also would not be shocked, even if I think that’s a very unlikely outcome. He simply appears to lack the requisite offensive skills that a combo guard needs to thrive in the modern NBA. Of course, maybe he doesn’t need them; maybe he is the true heir to Tony Allen like I wrote about over a year ago. And it also can’t be understated that he is still very young at just 22 years-old and has plenty of time to figure out his offensive issues.

Regardless, the jury is still out on De’Anthony Melton, and I still need to see more before I can accurately predict what he will be as a finished product in the NBA. Since he is a restricted free agency in an offseason where most teams will be strapped for cap space, he will in all likelihood be back in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform next year. And if he is, maybe the jury will finally be able to reach a verdict on this confusingly talented player.

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