Entering this offseason, the Philadelphia 76ers were confronted by the need to address various holes in their roster preventing them from actualizing the hopes of championship contention. Among those needs sat improved guard depth, versatility at the point of attack and a defensive-minded presence who could also space the floor, a la Danny Green, whose torn ACL was expected to sideline him for much of 2022-23.
By trading Green and the No. 23 pick in exchange for De’Anthony Melton during last week’s NBA Draft, the Sixers tallied off a few boxes from their summer checklist.
Melton is not a panacea. His arrival alone should not vault Philadelphia from second-round out to title contender. What he does do, however, is improve this team’s flexibility on both ends and lighten the burden of pressure for stars like Joel Embiid and James Harden.
Melton is good. That is important. More good players reduces the necessity of perfection for a team’s stars. They will always lead the way, but a hand on the shoulder as those stars shepherd things is a welcomed dynamic.
In 2020-21, Melton, from my vantage point, crafted a borderline All-Defensive-caliber campaign. This past year saw him experience some drop-off from that tier — defensive performance is much more fickle than general analysis often lets on — but he remains very, very good through an array of manners.
On the ball, he’s highly adept winding around screens to neutralize pick-and-rolls. Whether he’s applying his 6-foot-8 wingspan to hound initiators or wiping away passing windows, Melton understands how to quell the impact of ball-screens.
He’s pretty comfortable guarding 1-2.5 (think of ~6’7 as an upper limit), owns quick hips and controls his movements to keep tethered amid scoring pursuits. Headlined by animated, dexterous hands, he touts keen playmaking instincts and amplifies them with speedy ground coverage. According to Cleaning The Glass, among combo guards, he’s never ranked below the 94th percentile in steal rate or 85th percentile in block rate through four NBA seasons.
He’ll poke out takeaways from behind, peel to the roller for interceptions or deflections, disrupt gather moves or simply irritate someone from a possession’s start to conclusion. Most importantly, screens, even if he’s a bit slow around them, will not mitigate his services. He finds ways to stay involved, a mark of a good defender.
One component of Melton’s defense that amplifies his value is his knack for playing bigger than his size. The Sixers didn’t have many of those dudes last season. The Memphis Grizzlies certainly did (and, collectively, were a bigger team), Melton included, which helps explain why they’ve finished top seven in defensive rating the past two years and were rather exceptional in 2021-22.
Melton will capably front a big man to deny an entry pass and sprightly bolt off the floor to engulf it. He’s a technician playing the nail or stunting and recovering in help. Calling him a weak-side rim protector is an overestimation, but he chips in on tags and rotations inside on a semi-frequent basis. He dances through screens to soundly deliver in an off-ball chaser role (weekly reminder from me about how much Philadelphia missed someone in this gig last season).
Three years into legitimate rotation minutes, it’s as if his wingspan and awareness still catch offenses by surprise when he gets his mitts on a pass or rotates swifter than anticipated.
He supplements his on-ball malleability with the arsenal to embody multifaceted defensive duties, too. Depending on the surrounding personnel in a given lineup, he can mold himself to accommodate everyone else. That is a rather useful trait and one most of his new teammates do not emulate.
One last area Melton should certainly bolster for Philadelphia’s defense is transition, a glaring sore spot for it the past couple years. Melton’s athletic tools — bounce, length and quick hips/hands — shine in the open floor. There tends to be a degree of athleticism necessary to stymie fast-break forays and Melton undoubtedly zips past that quota.
The Sixers’ transition troubles felt tied to the underwhelming athletic profiles of most of their rotation players last season, two aspects Melton helps to alleviate. He navigates disadvantageous situations rather aptly and makes a point to apply pressure upon whoever commandeers the break, something I feel Philadelphia regularly failed to do in 2021-22.
Over the past three seasons, the 24-year-old guard has finished 32nd, 56th and 28th in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus. He’s simply a tremendous defender and one who will garner significant minutes for the Sixers. They can shift his responsibilities where necessary and should maximize his lucrative versatility.
A major reason Melton projects to enjoy such a prominent role in Philadelphia is his rise as an outside shooter since 2020-21. During his first two NBA seasons, he netted 29.4 percent of his triples on three-point rate of .358. Over his past two seasons, he’s cashed 38.8 percent of his long balls with a three-point rate of .536.
Most importantly, he’s an exceptionally confident shooter with a steadfast trigger. He’ll fire amid closeouts, can launch on the move and doesn’t glue himself to a singular spot around the arc. Because of his audacity and effectiveness, defenses offer him genuine respect as a shooter. This is not a mirage where he’s subsisting on a diet of wide-open looks. He lets those suckers fly from a smattering of brazen deliveries.
Melton has established himself as a credible and good long-range marksman the past two seasons. It’s been needed because warts arise elsewhere. Due to limited burst and handling in traffic, along with an insufficient midrange game (37 percent since 2020-21), per Cleaning The Glass), he struggles mightily scoring inside the arc (45 percent the last two years).
He lacks a floater and the pull-up is yet to emerge on a reliable standard. As such, decision-making concerns populate with extended creation reps. Memphis’ offense is considerably more egalitarian than Philadelphia’s, so the hope for its sake would be that he’s extended fewer of these chances.
Rather than viewing him as a steady, supplementary ball-handler, he should be treated as a guard who can sporadically direct a pick-and-roll or on-ball opportunity in the proper setting. He displays dazzling passing flashes, but often adheres to a shoot-first mindset, which hamstrings offensive possessions occasionally.
Perhaps, given he’s only 24, he takes a leap as a midrange scorer and consistent facilitator, though he should earn increased creation volume, not be guaranteed it. Station him off the ball as frequently as possible.
Experimenting with three-guard lineups of Harden, Melton and Tyrese Maxey is an endeavor Philadelphia should explore. A reality where those are three of your five best players next season is not implausible; I’d wager it could be likely.
Flanking Melton with perimeter creation to keep him off the ball and surrounding the two scorers with a menacing defender tracks conceptually. Although opposing lineups will help inform some of these rotational patterns, this tactic must be envisioned, at the very least.
Adaptability exists at the core of deep, successful playoff runs. A season ago, Philadelphia was short on adaptability. Melton’s arrival shifts adaptability closer to a strength than a weakness of the roster. He plugs obvious gaps in the rotation and will make the Sixers better next year.
Fans and members of the organization should be excited about this move. A good player, one with experience on multiple playoff squads, now calls Wells Fargo Center his home.