June 27, 2022
In the late hours of the night following the 2022 NBA Draft, Daryl Morey began a press conference in a regretful mood. Not because he had buyer's remorse about acquiring Grizzlies guard De'Anthony Melton, but because the Sixers were not able to help Danny Green get another championship ring before sending him packing. It was only after stopping to think for a moment that Morey seemed to realize, after 1 a.m. on the East Coast, that he couldn't actually share any thoughts about his new acquisition.
"We’re looking for players who can contribute," Morey said Friday morning. "We were the No. 1 defense two years ago. We were good last year. We want to make sure we improve that. So if we can get a perimeter defender, maybe for a draft pick, we’d feel very good about that. I think someone like that is someone who can really contribute and be a two-way player. Someone like that would be a really nice addition.”
Not the sneakiest approach you're ever going to hear, but certainly a window into Morey's mind while we wait for the deal to become official. The likelihood is that we won't talk to Melton until after the dust settles for Philadelphia in free agency, so it might be a bit before we hear from the most important people involved in the transaction. That in mind, let's take a closer look at Melton and his path to get here.
Melton's path to professional success was, to put it lightly, a bit of a strange one. He wasn't a particularly odd prospect during a productive freshman year at USC. Melton was the same disruptive presence he is these days, just doing it in the Pac-12, but he had questions about his jumper and his ability to consistently win as a ball-handler, questions that many players face if they hope to make it in the league without prototypical wing size or better. Another year at USC to prove himself and his ability to grow might have pushed him further up draft boards, with a lot of metrics friendly analysts keeping a close eye on him.
That sophomore year was wiped out before it could begin. A USC assistant coach was implicated in the 2017 NCAA corruption scandal that impacted at least two dozen universities, and his own school decided to suspend Melton indefinitely prior to the start of the year. Melton would withdraw from the university in late February 2018 before ultimately being drafted by Daryl Morey's Houston Rockets in round 2 of that year's draft.
During his first two years in the league, there were few indicators of Melton having a chance to be a high-impact, two-way player. While he continued to play disruptive defense in limited minutes for the Phoenix Suns during his rookie season — Melton averaged 2.5 steals per 36 minutes as a 20-year-old rookie — he struggled to make shots and ultimately found himself without a home as an offensive player. Without a point guard's skillset to get by without a shot, there were plenty of questions about how to make the most of Melton's skill set. The same was true when Melton moved to Memphis for his second season, that year interrupted in March by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he hit a personal low during the NBA's bubble restart, shooting 13 percent from deep during eight games in Disney World.
That humbling moment, Melton has said since, was the inspiration to dig deeper and work to correct his flaws. Between the bubble and the start of the next offseason, Melton rebuilt his shot from the ground up with help from skills trainer Luke Cooper, the current head skills trainer for Overtime Elite who trained Melton while working for Drew Hanlen's Pure Sweat company. One of the foundational pieces of that rebuild, which Melton has mentioned in the time since, was working on the base of his shot. Melton was asked to fight his instinct to bring his feet in when he shoots in favor of a wider base. Other changes, including his hand/wrist placement and follow-through, came later.
“I would say for me just making sure my base is wide," was Melton's explanation for an end-of-season hot streak this past March. "Make sure I got a solid, good foundation to start there because I used to bring my feet in too close. Just establishing that and making sure I get under the ball. Use my legs, too. Those three things I definitely try to go through every day."
He's not always able to keep sight of that, leading to some ups and downs in form, but as shooting has become a more natural (not to mention successful) exercise for Melton, he has expanded his shotmaking to different types as well. Melton has made strides as both a pull-up shooter and an off-movement player, the latter of which might be critical for him as a piece of Philadelphia's offense. Runners, floaters and pull-ups were part of the program he and Cooper put together two offseasons ago, and that work has shown up more as he has established a higher baseline as a catch-and-shoot player. Melton went from a total non-entity as a pull-up shooter to someone teams at least have to think about. He's probably somewhere between the 51.4 percent he posted on pull-up jumpers in 2020-21 and 39.8 percent he posted last season.
That look he has in the Phoenix still above is representative of the work he had to do to make teams respect him as a shooter. Now that teams treat him as a more credible threat from distance, Melton is able to create more advantageous situations off-the-bounce. I would label him as neither a good or bad ball-handler — he's not someone you want frequently trying to break guys down off-the-dribble, but he has enough burst to separate if you show your hand as a defender, and the length/strength to finish if you allow him to get the edge.
For the Sixers, team construction should allow them to get value out of Melton's offensive talents while somewhat minimizing his flaws. He does have a tendency, as many role players too, to bite off a little more than he can chew as a ball-handler. Memphis' most successful lineups that included Melton nearly all included another ball-handler in the backcourt to take on a healthy portion of the creative duties, whether that was All-Star Ja Morant or free agent guard Tyus Jones. Lineups with Jones and Melton were in the 93rd percentile of all lineups last season in net rating, per Cleaning The Glass, while Morant/Melton lineups were in the 85th percentile. The drop in effectiveness of Memphis lineups was steep when Melton was asked to be something closer to a lead/solo ball-handler, though those lineups have a smaller sample size, and aren't especially relevant to how Melton fits in with a Sixers team employing James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.
Melton is on a team-friendly contract as a result of those early issues as an offensive player. But he managed to get a long-term contract in spite of any early issues he had on offense because of the other side of the ball, where Melton has been as disruptive as almost anybody in the league, save for one of his (potential) new teammates.
Standing at just 6'2", Melton's 6'8" wingspan allows him to level the playing field against guys with more prototypical NBA size. On a good day, you could say he has 1-3 switchability, though I'm of the opinion that asking him to guard threes on anything close to a full-time basis is asking a bit too much. Regardless, he's an excellent option against most backcourt players, low to the ground and quick off of his feet with the arms to blow up possessions in a number of different ways. When the Sixers sit in drop coverage against pick-and-rolls, Melton will be another excellent option to have chasing a lead ball-handler over a screen, rearview contesting from behind or simply getting back into the play to prevent an attempt in the first place.
Though he's probably more valuable as an off-ball disruptor than as a lockdown, grind-it-out defender, Melton has some important traits for modern on-ball defense. Screen navigation hasn't been an issue for him, which is important in his quest to make it work as a small-ish (if long) defender at this level. Over time, he has done a better job of learning how to defend without fouling, a skill that the Sixers were in desperate need of last season as they relied far too heavily on Matisse Thybulle's risk/reward style of play.
You might describe Melton's approach as a version of Thybulle's dialed back just slightly. That's not to say he isn't a gambler — Melton loves to get into passing lanes and send his team running the other way, and the ability to turn teams over is part of what has made him a valuable contributor off Memphis' bench. He does a nice job of balancing defensive needs with defensive wants, providing useful help defense with head-up attention while taking chances that benefit his team more often than not. Combing through rate stats, Melton shows up on a lot of leaderboards on a per-minute basis, fourth in deflections per 36 and eighth in steals per 36.
One point of intrigue that hinges on what the Sixers do the rest of the offseason — playing Thybulle and Melton together at the same time. We've seen Thybulle at his best as a defender when he hasn't needed to be the 1A perimeter defender at all times, playing off of someone like Ben Simmons and causing havoc away from the ball. While Melton doesn't have the size and overall utility to free Thybulle up in that way, getting another good defender with young legs in the rotation would free Thybulle up to be a little more adventurous, or vice versa if Melton could focus on turnover creation with Thybulle checking a top assignment.
(Thybulle's place on the roster is still up for debate, obviously. Rumors continue to pour in regarding the Sixers' interest in PJ Tucker, and the possibility of moving Thybulle has frequently been connected to possibility. Here's what I can tell you — the Sixers have certainly engaged in trade talks regarding Thybulle this offseason, and as they did in the case of Melton, they'll continue to listen to offers if they believe they can turn current players or assets into vets who can help right now. If they can't, it's not as though Thybulle is persona non grata in Philadelphia.)
There are still some questions I have regarding how Melton fits into the bigger picture. As of this moment, Melton is probably the fifth-best player on the roster at worst, behind the Joel Embiid/James Harden/Maxey/Tobias Harris quartet unless you want to get spicy and slide Harris down (I don't). Melton is a good fit in the backcourt next to either of Philadelphia's entrenched starters at both ends, capable of picking up their slack on defense and benefitting from what they offer on offense. Can you fit him into the lineup with all three guys together, though? That's less certain. Melton would have to be something close to a full-time defender on the wing. You're talking about a difference of about three inches in height and four inches in wingspan relative to Thybulle, so hold off on slotting him in anywhere Thybulle or Danny Green traditionally set up.
Don't expect a guard to completely change Philadelphia's rebounding problem, but it should also be noted that Melton is an excellent rebounder relative to his position. Philadelphia could use all the help they can get in that department, so adding a good athlete with a nose for the ball should cut into one of their biggest weaknesses.
Barring further roster changes — and the Sixers have been active in their attempts to reshape the roster this offseason — Philadelphia only has a couple of options left to reshape the roster. Under the assumption that James Harden opts in and extends, an outcome that has been reported by a number of trustworthy reporters, the Sixers will only have access to the smaller, non-taxpayer MLE outside of minimum contract signings.
If we are to believe what has been floated up to this point, that would potentially put them out of the P.J. Tucker sweepstakes, who reports have suggested is after a ballpark deal of three years, $30 million, some reporters even linking the Sixers to that possibility directly. I am more skeptical than most when it comes to that exact deal, which would require Philadelphia to use the non-taxpayer MLE and hard cap the team the rest of the season. Most cap-dump deals for the Sixers would necessitate sending multiple players on smaller deals out for nothing (at least, no salary) in return, cutting into what little depth they have in service of a move that leaves them with basically no wiggle room the rest of the year. If the Sixers' calculus is off with what their roster needs to look like, or even if they have bad injury luck, they could be locked into a depleted roster with little-to-no means of escaping the hell they've created for themselves.
To be clear — the Sixers' interest in Tucker is real, but the only outcome where it would seem to make sense to hard cap themselves for Tucker is if the Sixers find a suitor for Tobias Harris, clearing a significant chunk of cap space with just one outgoing player. A move of that sort would not just free up money for Tucker, but free up room under the cap apron for the Sixers to utilize filling out the rest of the roster. But until/unless that happens, the Sixers need to be prepared to chase Tucker and other free agents with just the taxpayer version of the MLE.
(All of that changes if Harden decides to opt-out and sign a new deal with the Sixers in free agency. In a new dispatch on his Substack, Marc Stein floated this as a possibility on Monday. I have mostly stayed out of the Harden reporting back-and-forth except to say this — Harden is going to be back, and I think what form that takes has been and will continue to be fluid.)
With Melton on the roster, the Sixers are a better basketball team than they were with Danny Green essentially out for the year, but they are left with holes to fill. At present, they have a group of productive starters, a couple of good athletes coming off the bench, and a need to find players who represent the glue that makes it all work. Melton solves some of the problems they have on their backup units and assuming Doc Rivers is willing to get a bit creative, they have some interesting lineup combinations to put on the floor that don't leave them compromised at either end.
But one move was never going to fix all of their problems. Just how important Melton is to their contention hopes will only be spelled out when the dust settles in free agency and we can see what the full picture looks like.
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