What if I told you there is a player in the league that was in the same company as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Jordan, but only received 19 minutes a game?
And what if I told you there is a player in the league that has made an overwhelmingly positive impact for his team, but only a few have seemed to notice?
Here are the only players this season averaging 15-5-5 with 1 steal and 1 block per 36 minutes:
As of March 26th, here are the only players in NBA history averaging 23 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and 40% from three per 100 possessions:
Are those stats comically over-specific and cherry-picked? Yes. Do they show that De’Anthony Melton deserves to play more? Yes. Two things can be true at once.
So who is De’Anthony Melton, why is he so good, and why isn’t he playing more? I can answer the first two questions for you, but not the third. Only Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins can explain that one.
Melton is a 22-year-old, 6’4 combo guard who comes off the bench for Memphis. The Grizzlies acquired the former USC guard from the Phoenix Suns in the Josh Jackson trade during the 2019 offseason. He was a second-round pick known largely for his defense, and didn’t provide much on the offensive end in his first two years. Across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, he averaged 6.4 PPG on only 29.4% from three in 19.6 MPG. He was strictly a defensive bench piece and wasn’t incredibly productive doing anything else.
But that all has changed this year.
Melton, still averaging around 19 MPG, has seen his efficiency skyrocket. He’s shooting almost 48% from the field, almost 44% from three, and has been a perfect fit next to Ja Morant (more on that later).
However, Melton’s calling card has always been his defense, and he continues to be a disruptor this season. His massive 6’8” wingspan allows him to poke the ball out from behind and deflect passes, and that recovery ability allows him to never be out of a play:
The numbers also reinforce his value on defense. Melton is the only guard to rank in the 95th percentile or better for both steal percentage and block percentage (per Cleaning the Glass).
Defense? Check. But Melton has also turned a corner offensively, specifically in his shooting. He’s increased his 3-point accuracy by over 15%, up to 43.9% this season.
Most impressively, he’s shot 39.2% on threes off the dribble this year. That’s a pretty good number on its own, but when you take into account he shot just 16.1% on those attempts last year, it’s a testament to the work Melton put in the offseason.
De’Anthony Melton has also refined his ability to score in isolation and the pick and roll. He has done a great job this year realizing when to go downhill, when to pull up, and when to be patient, executing Chris Paul-esque “snake dribbles” coming off screens:
Below is how Melton measures up in efficiency compared to last season. It’s important to note that this is a very small sample size (in the case of isolation plays), but that’s the point: Melton should be getting more of an opportunity to showcase his skills:
2019-20: 32nd percentile (17 possessions)
2020-21: 99th percentile (10 possessions)
Pick and Roll (as a Ball Handler)
2019-20: 12th percentile (87 possessions)
2020-21: 70th percentile (67 possessions)
Individual stats can always be used to make a point, but the real question is, “Does a player make the team better when he is on the court?” Let’s see how Melton stacks up in this department:
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies’ net rating is 8.0 points better when Melton is on the floor, good for 88th percentile in the whole league. Last season, the Grizzlies were 10.4 points better with him as well.
Back to the idea of how he fits next to Ja Morant. Morant, who isn’t particularly known for his defense, would be paired next to one of the better defensive guards in the league in Melton. He can also space the floor next to Ja, providing elite catch-and-shoot ability. He’s also shown he’s capable of handling some of the offensive workload himself, so in theory the pair should work very well.
It turns out they are. This season, with Ja Morant and De’Anthony Melton on the floor together, the Grizzlies have a net rating of +11.2. For reference, the Utah Jazz’s team net rating for this season is +11.8.
So, the Grizzlies have a player who is a versatile, elite defensive guard. Said player is also an excellent shooter and is an above average playmaker for himself and others when given the opportunity. But he’s 9th on the team in minutes?
So why isn’t he playing more? As of now, both Grayson Allen and Desmond Bane have more minutes and starts than Melton. When Grayson Allen was hurt earlier this season, the Grizzlies opted to start Bane. The logic, at least to me, is that Bane and Allen are the more consistent shooters to pair next to Morant. However, it’s actually Melton that might be best equipped to do this.
On catch-and-shoot attempts from three this year, Melton is shooting 47.6%. This ranks higher than both Bane (45.9%) and Grayson Allen (38.8%). In addition, on “open” or “wide-open” threes, as defined by NBA.com, De’Anthony Melton has been competitive as well. Desmond Bane is the leader here at 47.2%, but Melton isn’t far behind at 44.2%. Grayson rounds out the three at a little over 40%.
Add this to the fact that Melton is not only much better defensively than either Allen or Bane, but is capable of carrying a much larger facilitating role for Memphis, and you have a complete player that is deserving of the starting spot and more minutes, especially if Grayson Allen misses any time with his hip injury.
Only time (and Taylor Jenkins) can tell if De’Anthony Melton will get more playing time.
But it’s clear he deserves it.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass
Follow John Lichtenstein on Twitter @jtlhoops, and keep up with all of Pure Hoops content on social (@purehoopsmedia).