De’Anthony Melton a diamond in the rough for Grizzlies bench

Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images /

As it turns out, it takes more than one season to become an effective two-way player. The Memphis Grizzlies are seeing it firsthand with their diamond in the rough, De’Anthony Melton.

A quick look at the stat sheet wouldn’t tell you much about De’Anthony Melton, both for Sunday night’s game or the Memphis Grizzlies‘ season at large. He’s not a potent scorer, a lead playmaker or a 3-point marksman. In fact, he’s not even a starter, and just barely cracked his way into the rotation at the start of December.

But just like he did late in Sunday’s road contest against the Phoenix Suns, his former team that needlessly lumped him into last summer’s Josh Jackson salary dump, Melton makes plays on both ends of the floor that extend far beyond your basic points, assists and rebounds.

“Just the consistent way of impacting the game on both ends of the floor,” head coach Taylor Jenkins said of what he’s seen in Melton lately. “Defensively, we’ve got a lot of trust in him to go out there and take on different matchups. He finds his way into stats that don’t even go into the box score — deflections, hustle plays.”

Against the Suns, the critical play in question actually did translate to the box score. What was once a 14-point Grizzlies lead in the fourth quarter had dwindled down to three with 52.6 seconds left after an 11-0 Suns run. The Grizz desperately needed a bucket to avoid giving the home team momentum, but despite Jonas Valanciunas finishing with 30 points, despite Dillon Brooks being on fire from 3 and despite Melton’s reputation as a shaky shooter, it was the second-year combo guard who stepped up.

Melton, who only had eight points all night, caught a swing pass, attacked the rim and drew the foul with 36.2 seconds left. He sank both free throws to extend the lead back to five — putting him at 46-for-52 from the charity stripe this season — and Memphis eventually iced the game at the foul line.

All of it was indicative of Melton’s increasing value in late-game situations, as well as his progress with his shooting technique.

“He made an aggressive play,” Jenkins said. “We tell these guys to be aggressive at all moments. He just took it downhill attack, which is a really impressive part of his game. Got downhill, made a good move, got fouled, knocked down two big free throws for us.”

On the season, Melton’s 7.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game on 45.3 percent shooting don’t really jump off the page. The same goes for the eight points, two blocks and two rebounds he tallied in Phoenix. Even since the start of his “standout” December (9.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals in 20 minutes per game), his stat line doesn’t really, you know, stand out.

However, a closer look at the Grizzlies’ recent success and a deeper dive into the numbers paints a better picture, a picture that has Melton firmly situated among the second unit as an irreplaceable fixture.

Any conversation about Melton has to start with the defensive end, where his length, positional versatility, footwork and all-around instincts truly shine for any player, let alone one in the middle of his second NBA season.

“He’s a guy that can wreak havoc on the defensive end,” Jenkins said. “He comes up with big-time, winning plays, rebounds. Obviously he’s a guy that we’re growing confidence in.”

Part of that confidence lies in Melton’s ability to play two or even three positions depending on Memphis’ lineup.

“Obviously there’s the matchup focus, what guys we can put him on one-on-one, but also just impact in a lot of different coverages for us,” Jenkins said. “Whether we’re in our centerfield, we’re in our blitz, we’re in our switching, which is ‘Red,’ we know we’ve got a lot of confidence in him to go out and even guard bigger guys if we end up switching. He’s fighting in the post, coming in and crashing on the boards, but he gives us a lot of versatility whether we wanna play bigger lineups or smaller lineups where he might even be the 3. It definitely gives me a lot of options to work with.”

For Melton, that focus on bringing energy to the defensive end of the floor has been the key to cracking and staying in the rotation.

“I’m just playing hard and trying to play the game the right way,” Melton said. “My team’s doing a great job, we’re all playing together, we’re all playing smart and we’re all locking up on the defensive end. So when we lock up on the defensive end, it’s easier to get out and run, get open shots and open layups. So stuff like that, it helps and benefits everybody, not just me.”

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out in a glowing review of the Grizzlies’ bench unit, Melton ranks fifth among all rotation players in deflections per minute, and he’s dangerously close (2.8) to cracking three steals per 36 minutes — rarified air that would put him among a grand total of 24 players to ever reach that benchmark for a full season.

A look at plus/minus and on/off-court numbers further reveals Melton’s value to winning basketball, aside from his 18.0 Player Efficiency Rating or how the Grizzlies have won nine of their last 15 games after a 6-16 start.

In just 16 minutes on Sunday, Melton was a plus-nine, boosting him to a team-high plus-75 on the season. His partnership with Tyus Jones has been a fruitful one; Lowe originally pointed out their absurd success together, and it only increased over the weekend, with the Grizzlies being a whopping plus-96 in the 182 minutes those two have shared this season.

Memphis’ defense being nearly 10 points stingier per 100 possessions with Melton on the court isn’t surprising, but its offensive rating is also 6.5 points better with him out there. Overall, the Grizzlies’ Net Rating drastically swings from a plus-8.9 with him playing to a minus-7.3 when he sits.

Playing against bench players will obviously help in that respect, especially in an increasingly feisty second unit that includes Jones, Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson. But a 16.2-point swing in Net Rating cannot simply be chalked up to playing opposing benches, especially with the progress he’s shown on the offensive end.

“I think he does well shooting the 3-point shot,” Jenkins said. “Obviously he’s a guy that can be a secondary ball-handler out there. We’ve finished some games with him, which has been big. He’s taken huge strides since he’s gotten into the rotation, but we know that every single night he’s gonna make some kind of impact on both ends of the floor.”

True enough, Melton’s 33.3 percent shooting from 3-point range on a mere 1.7 attempts per game doesn’t exactly scream “sniper,” but he’s made tremendous strides as a catch-and-shoot threat, making 42.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season.

Sure, it’s on a limited sample size of 26 attempts, but compared to his rookie year in Phoenix, when he shot 30.5 percent from deep and 75 percent from the free-throw line, his progress from beyond the arc and from the foul line shows the hard work on his shot is paying dividends.

“It’s a confidence thing,” he said. “A lot of shooting is mental, so I wanted to make sure I worked on that side of it first. I definitely feel like it helped me and my confidence, and confidence in my all-around game.”

Whether it’s a matter of mental preparation, reps, confidence, playing time or all of the above, De’Anthony Melton is quickly proving himself as a diamond in the rough and a reminder that it usually takes a 21-year-old more than his rookie year to start showing two-way potential. As the Suns sift aimlessly through Tyler Johnson, Ty Jerome and Jevon Carter at their backup point guard spot, the bitter irony of Melton closing out the game against his former team shouldn’t have been lost on anyone in Phoenix.

With a young core of Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks in place, Melton’s value is only going to continue to rise.

“These guys take it one day at a time,” Jenkins said. “Their individual development, obviously our team’s developing at a great pace this last month and a half, but we know we’re never satisfied. We’ve just gotta keep getting better, whatever area it is.”

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