In the original Avengers movie, there’s a heated conversation between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark that is much more poignant in retrospect when considering the eventual fates of their characters. Up to that point in the film, Rogers sees Stark as nothing more than a selfish playboy, unworthy to be called a hero. “You’re not the type of guy to make the sacrifice play,” Rogers snidely says to him. “To lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you?”
But Tony Stark of all people is always prepared for a demoralizing comeback, especially when he’s being insulted. “You’re nothing more than a laboratory experiment, Rogers,” says Stark with total disdain. “The only thing special about you came out of a bottle.”
And what partially makes Endgame such a fantastic culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that Stark and Rogers both come to realize just how utterly wrong they were about each other. Captain America is more than just a super-soldier; he proves to be worthy of Thor’s hammer. Iron Man is not a billionaire playboy acting out of his own self-interest; he (spoiler alert) dies to save the universe.
No matter what the context may be, there’s beauty in realizing how wrong you were about someone, to have them prove you wrong and surpass your expectations in spectacular ways. That’s something that I’ve had to absolutely acknowledge when it comes to De’Anthony Melton.
Now no one is ever going to accuse me of being hypocritical or memory-holing my past takes. So in the interest of transparency, here is what I wrote in my season review of Melton after last year.
If you were to tell me that Melton is out of the league in five years, I 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.
To be fair to myself, I did speak highly of Melton as the analytics wonder that he is. I mentioned that the Grizzlies were better in almost every single statistical category when he was on the court (and still are this year!). But I also said that I wasn’t sure if Melton was actually an objectively good NBA player in a vacuum, so I wasn’t exactly waiving a foam finger.
While Melton was clearly impactful during his first season in Memphis, the main reason for my skepticism was his struggle as a shooter. He shot only 28% from three on a meager 2.3 attempts, and he even regressed from his rookie year in the mid-range area, shooting only 32% on those shots as compared to 46% during his rookie season. He did marginally improve from being the worst pull-up shooter in the NBA as a rookie to merely bad in his second year, as he shot just 27% on 1.9 attempts.
As impactful as he appeared to be, I don’t think it was unreasonable to wonder if Melton’s success was a fluke. He’d carved out a nice role as a pesky defender and seemed to simply just make the team better by his presence, but how many guards in the modern NBA are thriving while lacking the ability to be a consistent primary playmaker or an effective shooter? Someone like Lu Dort of the Oklahoma City Thunder comes to mind, but impactful players with such deficiencies are few and far between.
However, that question is now irrelevant as De’Anthony Melton has become a legitimately elite shooter, and in doing so he’s changed the ultimate trajectory of his career. He is currently shooting 45% on 4.0 attempts from three, which is first on the Grizzlies and seventh in the entire NBA. He has the best true shooting percentage (61%) and effective field goal percentage (60%) on the team. He’s now shooting 57%(!!) on mid-range shots, a ridiculous 68% at the rim (which is higher than Jonas Valanciunas), and is now improved to where he is shooting a superb 43% on pull-up jumpers.
To be clear, I don’t think I was wrong on my philosophy about a player of Melton’s archetype from last season. But I definitely underestimated how much he could still grow in his offensive game when he’s still only 22-years-old. His development has truly been special.
And what makes his rapid development as a shooter in particular so amazing is that it’s almost unprecedented. If his current percentage holds, Melton will have had the single greatest increase in three-point percentage from one season to the next (28% to 45%) among qualifying players. The closest contemporary is Thabo Sefolosha, who jumped from 28% from three the prior season to 44% during the 2011-12 season (I’m not counting Larry Bird going from 24% to 44% in 1983). Even if Melton’s shooting regresses a bit, that’s still incredible.
Whether it’s Giannis Antetokoumpo or Ben Simmons, something I often hear people say is “just wait until they get a consistent jumper!”. But the truth is that it’s much more difficult than many think for an NBA player to improve their shooting. It’s hard for bad shooters to become decent shooters and even when they do, such as in the cases of John Wall, Russell Westbrook and even someone like Dennis Schroder, it usually takes many years for them to get to that point. And even then, players like them aren’t exactly scorching the net; bad shooters almost never become elite ones.
Yet De’Anthony Melton has managed to do it in a single year. And it’s a true testament to his work ethic and desire to be great as well as the Grizzlies coaching staff that he has become such a vastly improved player in such a short period of time.
Back in that same season review piece, I wrote that the jury was still out on De’Anthony Melton and that I needed to see more before I could make a proper prediction for what he will become in the NBA. But the jury has now reached a verdict: he is a phenomenal basketball player, and the sky is the limit for what he can achieve.
Even now, I don’t really know what Melton’s tantalizing upside is. He is quickly taking his place among the league’s top 3-and-D guards, but there’s still so much for him to add to his game, especially since he's only 22. As his ball-handling and playmaking improve, it’s possible that he could grow into a Jrue Holliday or even Joe Dumars-type player. The uncertainty is what makes him so fun.
But there is one thing I am certain about, especially when it comes to De’Anthony Melton: it’s sometimes okay to be wrong.
Stats found via NBA.com and Basketball Reference.