De’Anthony Melton has solidified himself as critical to the Grizzlies’ young core

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De’Anthony Melton’s improvements as a shooter and ball-handler in year three, when paired with his stout defense, make him invaluable to the Grizzlies.

De’Anthony Melton will not win Most Improved Player this season. He does not deserve the award. That honor is Julius Randle‘s. But Melton is, nonetheless, among the crop of vastly improved players around the league. If there were All-NBA teams for this label, he would be on one.

The 6-foot-2 guard has transformed himself from defensive terror beset by conspicuous offensive warts to a viable secondary handler and knockdown shooter. Still just 22 until May 28, he has proven to be a critical part of the Memphis Grizzlies’ rebuild and perhaps their third-most indispensable young player behind Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

He is not a star and very well may never be, but these offensive improvements have at least presented the chance for such a blossoming to materialize. In conjunction with his defense, there is a chance his peak impact is at least star-adjacent.

After shooting just 29.4 percent beyond the arc across his first two seasons, Melton has converted 42.8 percent of his triples this year, looking equally adept on spot-ups and off the dribble.

Following last season, when Melton shot 28.6 percent from deep, including 13 percent in eight bubble games, he retooled his mechanics by widening his base and streamlining his follow-through (read the details in this insightful piece from Evan Barnes of The Commercial Appeal). The tweaks were worthwhile.

On catch-and-shoot 3s, his 45.2 percent clip ranks 22nd among 208 players with at least 100 attempts this season. Not only is he excelling in these situations, but his success is also breeding greater confidence. His 3-point rate has ticked up from .358 during 2018-19 and 2019-20 to .520 this year. He is entirely willing to launch with a hand in his face. Any sort of airspace is exploited by a concise, assured release.

Off the ball, he’s hinted at some on-the-move faculty and shrewdly migrates to openings or relocates when his defender diverts attention away from him.

On the ball, he’s already netted twice as many pull-up 3s this season (nine vs. 18) as he did his first two years and has done so at a healthy 36 percent rate. It’s not a consistent source of offense, but he is far more dangerous now by incorporating this skill into his game.

Off-the-bounce triples are a feature of his attack, not a bug only to occur when everything else goes awry. He intermittently seeks out these opportunities, poised to hoist over outstretched arms because he has the rhythm and belief to benefit.

The off-ball prowess gives him equity as a complementary cog offensively, but these pull-up flashes drive his long-term intrigue. They extend inside the arc as well, where he fuses growth as a shooter with newfound handling manipulation and a distinct on-ball cadence.

During his first two seasons, he shot 28.9 percent (33 of 114) on pull-up 2-pointers. This year, he is shooting 47.8 percent (22 of 46), aware of how to manufacture space to shoot while exploring the lane via ball-screens.

His handling maturation, whether it’s an in-and-out, crossover or between-the-legs dribble, is vital to accentuating his shooting progression. He knows how to leverage screens and guarantee defenders stay reactive in their decisions. Without that component, he would not be equipped to capably handle on-ball reps to the degree he does.

All of these strides, the versatile 3-point shooting, the advantage creation with his handle and the interior pull-ups, coalesce to make Melton a much more valuable offensive player than before. His Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) has risen to plus-0.2, up from minus-1.4 (2019-20) and minus-2.5 (2018-19) his first two seasons.

De’Anthony Melton’s defensive ability is what makes him such an essential piece

These developments, when paired with his stalwart defense, demand increased minutes. Twenty minutes per game, a similar amount to what he played last season, would not suffice anymore. Before, the defense vs. offense tradeoff line of thinking was justifiable and limited his playing time. That is no longer necessary. He cannot plug every hole, but he offers an array of ancillary skills without hampering lineups.

Defense remains his calling card and he asserts himself on and off the ball. He wraps around screens, stays attached downhill, flips his hips to mirror any changes of direction and applies his 6-foot-8.5 wingspan to disrupt ball-handlers.

Despite standing 6-foot-2, that functional length and understanding of how to use it enable him to undertake various assignments. Completely eliminating him from plays is arduous because of his fluidity, body control and length. He is genuinely pestering and wiggles his way through slight openings to snuff out offensive advantages.

As a helper, he is aware, timely and malleable, excelling on stunts, slinking down to muck up events in the post and using never-ending limbs to frequent passing lanes. In each of his three seasons, he’s posted a steal rate north of the 96th percentile and a block rate north of the 85th percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass — the product of diverse event creation.

Seemingly playing with Stickum on his hands, he intercepts fastball passes or snatches the rock from guys during strong-side help. It feels like quite often, opponents foolishly underestimate his length, attempting innocuous shots or passes somewhere near him without accounting for his potential influence:

Melton’s ability to function as a highly useful on- and off-ball defensive cog bears itself through steal and block rates and impact metrics like Defensive EPM, where he’s 23rd at plus-2.1 this year. That defensive flexibility and aptitude has helped him slot in quite well alongside Morant. The Grizzlies boast a plus-13.5 net rating in 374 minutes with those two on the court.

Conceptually, their pairing aligns as well. Melton’s length and defensive credentials enable him to wrangle with a gamut of lead perimeter creators and mitigate Morant’s strength and screen navigation blemishes. Melton’s expanding offensive game alleviates some ball-handling burden, but he isn’t overextended when a dribble-drive maestro like Morant is stationed next to him.

As Memphis aims to balance a playoff hunt with youth development, the harmony between its two premier under-23 guards (shouts to Desmond Bane, too) is exactly the sort of outcome one hopes for. The Melton-Morant duo is a harmonic long-term tandem but they’re succeeding in the short-term too. They should play together more. Fewer than six minutes per game is leaving short- and long-term gains on the table.

Despite enjoying sizable strides as a shooter and ball-handler this year, Melton is not much more than a marginal plus offensively. He is adequate, but that is the extent of it. “Adequate” is still a notable upgrade and acceptable because of his borderline elite defense. Suboptimal burst and poor finishing (57 percent, 38th percentile) cap his offensive equity.

He doesn’t compromise defenses to spur rotations like good, very good and great offensive players do. That is an onerous skill to attain and consistently capitalize upon, but is where his offense falls short. Becoming a better driver or wired to dabble in warranted passing risks — he can be overly pragmatic as a facilitator — should be atop his list of sensible next steps.

Given how quickly he transformed from hesitant, poor shooter to impassive marksmen with a pull-up gear on the dial, it might be rather feasible to actualize one or both as strengths. His swift offensive growth at 22 years old makes one optimistic about further growth in the near future. And it’s a near-future that could see him form a pseudo-Big-Three with Morant and Jackson Jr., delighting NBA hipsters for seasons to come.

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