Melton's instincts have long stood out, and Sixers learning he's more than that


How and why is De’Anthony Melton different?

After a preseason Sixers debut in which he seemed to pop up on every first-quarter play — deflections, steals, troublesome contests — the 24-year-old tried to capture the gist of his game. 

“I think a good part of it is instincts — just knowing the plays, what’s going on, important stuff like that,” he said from the visiting locker room at Barclays Center. “But also just reading body language, understanding what players like to do. Being in this league for now my fifth year, understanding where players like to go, it really helps.”

If you ask about Melton, you’ll hear plenty about his instincts. It’s a core strength for a player listed at 6-foot-2 who last season grabbed 7.1 rebounds per 36 minutes — slightly above both P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris.

You can’t chalk his standout skills all up to natural gifts, though. 

Starting at … power forward 

Melton traces his rebounding prowess back to high school. 

“I played the four,” he said. “So I had to learn how to box out, rebound, defend bigger guys. I think that’s where I learned it from.”

A California kid, Melton chose to attend Crespi Carmelite High School, which is an all-male, Catholic school in Encino. His head coach there was Russell White, who now holds that job at California Lutheran University.

“He did (play the four) as a freshman and maybe a little bit as a sophomore,” White told NBC Sports Philadelphia last week in a phone interview. “His senior year, he mainly played the point for us. … His instincts just always have been incredible, man. He played the four and we were in a very good high school league — one of the best high school leagues in L.A. — so he was playing against Division I guys as a freshman.

“I’d say his evolution just kind of required … for him to be successful, he had to figure out how to get the ball. His freshman year, he probably averaged four points a game. Our point guard was a senior, (London Perrantes), who ended up going to Virginia and played with Tony Bennett. And we were really small. ... So he was playing the four, guarding 6-10 guys and 6-5 guys, and he was probably 6-2. He just found a way to make plays, and that’s how I would describe him even now to anyone that asks. The kid just has this natural instinct — obviously he’s a man now — but he has an instinct of being in the right place at the right time when it matters most.”

White was grateful football soon faded from the picture for Melton, whose exceptional wingspan — 6-8.5 at the 2018 NBA draft combine — makes many surprising plays possible. 

“He played football his freshman year and could’ve been a great football player — didn’t take, thankfully for us,” White said. “My (first) impression was this kid’s going to be good. Again, the instincts stood out. Even as a freshman, he was often guarding the other team’s best player. His length (stood out). Super quiet, not aggressive, but just there. 

“Just needed to be on the floor. It became evident early on that he needed to be on the floor. … I remember, even as a freshman, we were playing Harvard-Westlake and they had a kid who ended up going D1. Tight game, he guards him on the last possession, and the kid pulls up for a 10-foot shot to win the game in the paint — and he blocks it. He didn’t contest it; he blocked it. This is a freshman blocking a senior. This kid was probably 6-5, 210, bucket-getter, and he just blocks the shot and wins the game.”

‘He just knows how to play’ 

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers hasn’t generally needed any prompting the past few weeks to start praising Melton.

It’s sounded like the Sixers’ draft-night deal with the Grizzlies netted a better player than Rivers expected.

“De’Anthony surprises me with his shooting ability, especially from the (wings),” he said last Friday. “I think he led the league in one of those spots (the right wing) last year. And then just his hands. When we get with that lineup of him, Tyrese (Maxey) and James (Harden) or him, Tyrese and Tobias (Harris), defensively, we’re better immediately when he comes on the floor with the rest of the group.”

Rivers did get a glowing preview on Melton from USC head coach Andy Enfield.

“Listen, defensively, he’s just so solid,” Rivers said following that preseason opener in Brooklyn. “I think (assistant coach Dan Burke) had like 10 or 12 deflections … where he’s involved just out of nowhere. He just knows how to play basketball. It’s funny, (Andy Enfield), his college coach, we had a long talk about him this summer. He said, ‘You’ll find that you want to keep him on the floor, because he just knows how to play.’ And his IQ defensively is super high.”

Melton’s college experience didn’t go as planned. 

He impressed as a freshman, finishing second in the Pac-12 to current teammate Matisse Thybulle in steals per game. USC knocked Thybulle’s Washington team out of the conference tournament and escaped with a Round 1 March Madness win when Shake Milton’s buzzer-beating runner attempt fell short. 

Melton returned for his sophomore year but played no games. Because of family friend David Elliott’s alleged involvement in a bribery case, USC announced in January that it was holding Melton out for the 2017-18 season. He withdrew from the school in February. 

On the court, he has positive memories with a coach whose Florida Gulf Coast team became the first No. 15 seed to make the Sweet 16 in 2013. Enfield’s “Dunk City” squad did so with two highly entertaining upsets in Philadelphia.

“Once I got to USC, I think it helped me kind of open the floor,” Melton said. “Just to go out there and play free, be aggressive on both ends. I feel like that instills confidence no matter what. Especially at Florida Gulf Coast, he wanted to get up and down the court, so I think he just brought the same thing to USC.”

Nickname-friendly game 

In Memphis, Grizzlies color commentator Brevin Knight referred to Melton as “Mr. Do Something.”

He was picking up nicknames in high school, too.

“We’d put D on the best player to end the game,” White said. “So he kind of got the nickname of The Closer. And we played some really good players, man. Obviously we’re out here in L.A. and there’s more than a handful of future pros. Aaron Holiday, Tyler Dorsey … we ended their high school careers because D was on our team. I can’t say enough good things, man. Just winner winner, chicken dinner.”

It’s likely that Melton will always be best known for his defense and rebounding, although continued offensive progress may very well be on the table. White said he focused on technique and fundamentals year-round at Crespi, but it wasn't until Melton’s senior year that he “really started putting in extra work.” 

A 29.4 percent three-point shooter over his first two NBA seasons, Melton was nearly 10 percentage points better over his next two. As Melton worked on his ball handling and shooting with skill development coach Spencer Rivers following the Sixers’ Wednesday shootaround, Tobias Harris gave his initial impressions.

“He’s been great,” Harris said. “He’s a great defender, has got long arms. He plays very hard. And his willingness to shoot off the dribble, off pick-and-rolls, off pin-downs, it’s going to be key for us. He’s a key dynamic to this group and is really going to be able to help us this year.”

Teammates enjoy the fast-break action that stems from Melton’s defensive gifts, but his well-roundedness in the half court also looks like it should be quite helpful for the Sixers.

While Melton’s shooting ran hot and cold in Memphis, he checks very basic but important offensive boxes.

“Offensively, anybody who can dribble, shoot, pass, playing with them is always easy,” Milton said last week, “just because you can read off each other and you can catch a rhythm off of each other. And it’s fun. There’s no pressure in the backcourt about who’s bringing the ball up. I think it’s very fluent, because we can get the ball and we can go.”

‘He left a mark' 

Melton is under contract through the 2023-24 season and the Sixers should get a deeper sense of who he is the next two years. Already, he’s shown glimpses of an understated but joyful personality.

He proudly sported the Sixers’ “Big Energy Chain” after the team’s first home preseason game.

After the second, he had a boombox on his shoulder in the locker room. 

For White, Melton’s time at Crespi was personally meaningful beyond the fact that it helped form an NBA player. 

“He left a mark,” White said. “Just a great smile. Never, ever in any trouble. It just wasn’t in his personality. Like all high schoolers, maybe he could’ve done a little more homework and gotten a few better grades, but the kid was never in trouble, never had any issues, left a mark on everyone he looked at and talked to. Quiet. 

“My son is a sophomore at Crespi now and he grew up watching De’Anthony and (Brandon Williams, who played in 24 games last season for the Trail Blazers) and London — these are probably the three best players we had at Crespi while I was coaching there. And he was up late two nights ago. I was like, ‘Why were you up so late? You didn’t get your sleep.’ He was like, ‘Oh, I was watching a video.’ I said, ‘Oh, of your game, of your practice?’ ‘No, of D and Brandon.’ He just goes on YouTube and finds those old games. 

“And then Coach gave him De’Anthony’s number to wear this year and he’s ecstatic. He just left a mark, man. Just one of those guys that naturally has a good vibe about him and leaves people feeling good. Can’t say enough good things about him. I could talk for a long time.”

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