While most Boston Celtic followers were thrilled to get Jared Sullinger with the 21st overall pick of this spring's draft, Boston's selection of Syracuse center Fab Melo one pick later garnered significantly more debate. As Grantland's Bill Simmons pointed out, the Celtics got the pick they used to select Melo from the Los Angeles Clippers by way of Oklahoma City in the Kendrick Perkins trade. They could have kept flipping the pick until it became unprotected in 2017, and while the Clips look like a team on the rise right now, this is the Clippers we're talking about here, one of the most luckless franchises in the history of professional sports. This is not to bad mouth the Melo selection, there's a lot to like about him. However he isn't nearly the finished product that his fellow rookie Sullinger is, so opinion is much more divided on what he can provide this season.
Melo's rep coming out of college was defensive force, offensive work in progress. He has NBA size, the one thing that no coach can teach, at seven feet even and 255 pounds, and this combined with his raw athleticism makes him an imposing force in the middle of any defense. He's not much of an offensive threat so he's never going to stuff a stat sheet, but he makes a big time impact on the defensive end, an area where statistics often don't tell the full story. The concern with Melo defensively is that, up until now, he has played exclusively in Syracuse's zone defense, which allowed him to be an extraordinary help defender but gave him few opportunities to show his man-to-man capabilities. The first thing Melo will need to do upon arriving with the Celtics is show that he can guard one-on-one. The help defense is great, particularly as the Celtics will occasionally go to zone looks. However we all remember the impact Greg Stiemsma made as a help defender in the regular season, but come playoff time he was so incapable of guarding one-on-one that most of his minutes were given to Ryan Hollins. The Celtics already have a number of big bodies that project ahead of Melo on the depth chart. If he can't prove that he's an impact player, and can't guard a pick and roll, early on he wont play much this year.
There in lies the real issue for those who expect a lot out of Melo this year – minutes, he's not going to get many. The Celtics don't even feature a true center in their starting lineup, instead starting power forward Kevin Garnett at the five. Most of the backup floor time will go to either Chris Wilcox or Jason Collins depending on the matchup, making Melo the odd man out. There is frankly no way that Melo leapfrogs Wilcox on the depth chart, and his chances of usurping Collins aren't much higher. Whatever his other faults Collins is regarded as one of the better low post defenders in the game. Considering that Melo doesn't offer anything more on the offensive end and is still raw defensively he likely wont see any action unless one of the afore mentioned players get injured.
With all of that being said there is one thing about Melo that should be very encouraging for Celtics fans – he is a very quick learner. Still relatively new to the game of basketball after growing up in Brazil playing soccer he has already made fantastic strides in his development. The transformation he made from his freshman to his sophomore season at Syracuse was truly shocking. As a freshman he was overweight, could barely make it up and down the floor, and looked out of place every time he stepped onto the court. By the same time next year he was one of the best big men in all of college basketball. If this upward trajectory can continue this pick will be a steal. It may be that the Celtics have found the next Serge Ibaka – a foreign player who, at the time of the draft, was still very new to the sport, but has developed enough of an offensive game that teams can't ignore him and is one of the best defenders in the game. Melo is an excellent athlete with NBA size who has said himself that he loves to learn. Sure that didn't exactly translate to the classroom at Syracuse given that his academic struggles eventually got him suspended for the NCAA tournament. However they have manifested themselves on the court. For all the talk about his offensive limitations he runs the floor very well, has excellent hands and is always ready to make a catch, and actually has displayed a nice touch on his mid range jump shot. If he can keep developing these talents and assimilate his defensive mindset to Boston's defensive scheme he will be a big time player for Boston sometime in the near future. It just doesn't look like it will be this season.
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