It has been quite the last few months for De’Anthony Melton. A new contract, newly solidified future in the NBA (presumably with the Memphis Grizzlies), and an all but guaranteed spot in a young rotation that should theoretically play to his strengths. His fit next to young superstar Ja Morant? Ideal in transition. His projected offensive improvements? Enough to only grow the opportunity in front of him in Memphis. The Grizzlies want to run. They want to defend well as a unit and force deflections/steals. Melton’s skill set checks all those boxes.
So when De’Anthony was a Did Not Play - Coach’s Decision in the last game Memphis played before COVID-19 contact tracing put a pause on their season, it caught many by surprise.
Melton has had his own issues with the virus. He missed four games (and a 5th despite being cleared) due to being in the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols early on in the campaign, which surely hasn’t helped with his timing and being in game shape. So much of the style of play that the Grizzlies pride themselves in involves timing and chemistry with teammates. While Melton is not new to Memphis, his time away allowed for the likes of Grayson Allen, John Konchar, and Desmond Bane to show that they can also contribute to winning basketball.
And for at least one night, Coach Taylor Jenkins has taken notice of the overall state of this roster - and feels Melton may not be in the rotational mix.
What has, for at least the short-term, Melton on the outside looking in despite (through just seven games played) putting up career best shooting numbers both overall (46.3%) and from three (35.3%)?
Grayson Allen knows how it feels
Grayson Allen had injury issues that held him back in his first season with the Memphis Grizzlies. Due to various ailments, in particular a hip injury later on in the campaign, Allen missed 35 games and De’Anthony Melton was there to fill the void. It in part was the Grayson injury that allowed for Melton to show what he was capable of. In the first five games of the 2019-2020 season, it was Allen that was a key reserve player with Melton being on the back of the bench with limited minutes and three DNP-CDs. Coach Jenkins is apparently nothing if not consistent. But once Grayson went to the injured list, De’Anthony got the chance to prove his NBA worth.
So now, after Melton’s five game absence, perhaps Allen retaking his original place in the rotation shouldn’t be as shocking as it was Monday evening.
Now Grayson has nowhere near the physical gifts of De’Anthony as a defender. He’s not quick enough to be the same kind of impact player in transition. But Allen, who can definitively be seen as a superior perimeter shooter at this stage to Melton, has been able to close the gap between himself and Mr. Do Something in the key areas of transition offense and defensive opportunities created.
It especially shines through on the transition side of things. While Melton still does much at an elite level in that category - he is among the league’s best both overall (99th percentile) and off rebounds (97th percentile) when getting out and running, per Cleaning the Glass - Allen is not a pushover in this area. In fact, when compared to De’Anthony, Grayson is currently superior in the critical area of points added per 100 possessions in transition, with Allen registering +2.9 points (84th percentile) to Melton’s +1.2 points (66th percentile). So while De’Anthony’s physical ability should put him ahead of Grayson, right now he simply isn’t in terms of production in the opportunities created.
The same is true (but to a lesser extent) defensively. While Melton remains elite in terms of steal (2.8%, 98th percentile) and block (2.3%, 100th percentile among combo guards) percentage, Allen is respectable (54th percentile in block percentage) to above average (77th percentile in steal percentage) while being much better at not fouling opposing players than Melton. Grayson is in the 96th percentile among combo guards at a 1.6% foul rate whereas Melton is a well below average 38th percentile at 3.1% of his defensive possessions ending in a foul.
Coach Jenkins loves what Allen brings to the Grizzlies. He shoots threes at an extremely high rate, at a better conversion percentage than last season’s “inexplicable love” Jae Crowder. He defends hard without fouling. As long as he can maintain comparable to even better in ways transition play, while converting from beyond the arc at a 35.6% or so clip, Jenkins will have little reason (especially in his mind) to go with Melton ahead of Allen. He didn’t make that choice a year and a half ago when the 2019-2020 season began. He almost certainly won’t now.
Morant missing did him no favors
In the NBA Bubble last summer, Tyus Jones was out and De’Anthony Melton was forced in to action as a point guard - something he is physically capable of doing, but is not his strong suit. This season, as Melton anticipated having a chance to be back on the wing as a secondary creator and runner at and around the basket with Ja Morant and Tyus Jones orchestrating opportunities for him and others, he was once again forced in to point guard duty. Ja went out this time (ankle injuries stink) and with Melton’s ability to run offenses in a pinch, in his current small sample size of seven games played and 139 minutes logged De’Anthony has spent 42% of the his time on the floor at the traditional “point guard” position according to basketball-reference.com.
This is less than ideal. He has posted a career worst 18% assist percentage so far despite being cast as a primary creator due to Morant’s absence, and both his three point attempt and free throw attempt rate are also ranking at career lows. He’s not a point guard...and it does his game a disservice when he’s forced in to that role.
In 22 minutes together (small sample size) Ja and De’Anthony are a +15.7 in net rating. That’s not surprising because those two have an ability to get out in transition together and create. But beyond being in a position he doesn’t thrive in, having that role has thrown off the slot in the rotation where Melton succeeds the most - alongside Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke. Remember, last season those three together posted the team’s very best net rating as a three-player lineup - +20.2 over in over 300 minutes played together! That bench unit was a major reason the Grizzlies overachieved in year one of the Jenkins era.
Now? In 27 minutes on the floor together this season, that trio is a -30 in net rating. A 50 point difference.
Brandon Clarke has been a starter. Same with Tyus Jones until recently. The ability for De’Anthony to be alongside two players who he has both natural and invested chemistry with has not been there to this point. Without that familiarity, Melton has had to try to be in a position to formulate connections with others, like Desmond Bane (+12.2 net rating in 75 minutes) and Xavier Tillman (+16.1 in 74 minutes). He has shown that malleable skull set that is able to fit alongside others remains, meaning he isn’t so far gone he can’t recalibrate those connections with Clarke and Jones as they return to their reserve roles in the weeks ahead.
But between the play of Allen and the insertion of Justise Winslow in to the rotation, will there be minutes for Melton to make his way back to the revenge tour of one of the NBA’s best group of reserves? Is De’Anthony going to lose his spot partially because of being the good soldier, filling in as he did in the Bubble as a point guard...and struggling with that position, just as he did in Orlando?
It seems possible - if not probable - and that would be a mistake. Melton is a young, gifted wing who can grow even more in to his flexible game. He just needs to be utilized properly.
The depth of Memphis creates a good problem...but a problem nonetheless. Once the team is fully healthy, there will be good players that won’t play on a nightly basis. So much has been made of the strong starts for Xavier Tillman Sr. and Desmond Bane, and rightfully so. But will minutes remain when Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. enter the fray sooner rather than later?
That question, regarding two rookies, is to be expected. When applied to a player who just signed a 4-year contract worth over $30 million, it defies logic a bit more.
De’Anthony Melton as of now is not capable of being the offensive cog in the Grizzlies machine that Grayson Allen is. He to this point hasn’t been able to create a gap in what he does well compared to other wings that is so wide that he must be played, and the return of key Memphis players may limit whatever opportunity he will have to prove he can still do so. It’s certainly possible Melton’s absence from the game against the Suns as a healthy scratch is a one-time thing - an attempt by Coach Jenkins to twist different screws and pull different levers trying to manufacture offense for a team struggling on that end.
But it could also be the start of a larger realization that many feared to be true - that Melton, while talented, is not a fit in the schemes of Jenkins and his re-signing had more to do with not wanting a young, talented player walk for nothing than him being a core Grizzly moving forward. And that contract (in fairness, along with several others on the roster) could be attractive in a future trade down the road. It is within the realm of possibility that it is Melton’s contract, alongside that of Gorgui Dieng, that uses the current advantage of depth to bring in a positional upgrade on the wing.
The season is still young, as is De’Anthony. Kyle Anderson has had success this season, and is perhaps a lesser fit for the schemes of Jenkins than Melton, especially offensively. He will get another chance, hopefully in a situation where he can better display what makes him special and not at the point. But as he sat on the bench watching Memphis win without him, even for just one game, he had to think about what that may mean moving forward.
And what has to happen so he can make sure that doesn’t happen again.