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Is De’Anthony Melton the Suns’ point guard of the future?

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Melton’s defensive prowess and ever-improving shooting ability makes him an interesting fit long-term in Phoenix.

NBA: Miami Heat at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Did the Suns just stumble into the point guard who could start alongside Devin Booker for years to come? It’s early — very early — but De’Anthony Melton is showcasing why he was graded as a lottery prospect on my draft board. Not only have Melton’s defensive instincts immediately translated to the pro level but his rebounding ability, too.

Originally drafted by the Houston Rockets at No. 46 overall, Melton slipped as far as he did due to concerns about his shooting ability. While playing at USC during the 2016-17 season — he had to sit out the 2017-18 season due to the FBI investigation into college basketball — Melton only shot 28.4 percent on three-pointers. His shot mechanics were wonky and many believed the 20-year-old guard would be unable to develop this skill set.

With that being said, it’s fair to say Melton was one of the tougher prospects to project in the 2018 draft class. There were many tantalizing aspects to Melton’s game, especially his length and defensive chops.

Melton’s breakout happened during Las Vegas Summer League. When I spoke with former Suns GM Ryan McDonough during Media Day, he said Melton’s most recent performances validated their first-round grade on him.

“Yeah, I think it gave us a lot more confidence in our evaluation,” McDonough said. “We liked him in the pre-draft process, but it was one of the stranger situations that I’ve seen in my career. The guy didn’t play at all. I think even into the season last year it was an ongoing thing. Is he going to play? Is he not going to play? There was certain times where talking to people around the USC program, with their assistant coaches and people who worked for the team, it seemed like he was going to play. So, we kind of adjusted our scouting schedule to be ready to go see him, then actually he’s not going to play. That made it a tough evaluation.

“Obviously as a freshman, statistically, he did some pretty impressive things as far as checking the boxes in a number of different categories. He was a guy who kind of spiked on our draft model, our analytical model because of that but it wasn’t like he dominated college basketball where you’re 100 percent certain the guy’s a first round pick it’s a no-brainer,” McDonough continued. “With us, we watched him in Summer League. He led the Summer League in steals, or was tied for the lead. We liked that he was attempting those shots and that he was confident and working on his shooting. So, it gave us a lot more confidence. In the draft, I think we had him as a second half of the first round grade, and then after Summer League we said ‘Yeah, I think that’s where he should’ve ended up somewhere as a first-round grade.’ At that point, it wasn’t just speculative as it was in June on draft night.”

Outside of international prospects, Melton was this rookie class’s mystery man of sorts. After missing a whole year of competitive action, it rightly brought questions. It’s easy to go with what you know or what you’re more comfortable with as an evaluator when it’s a close call. That was the case with Melton stacked up against other point guards like Jalen Brunson and Jevon Carter, who were taken ahead of him in the second round.

Even though McDonough was unable to see his vision through of building this team with shooting plus defensive versatility around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, he hit a home run on his final move as the Suns’ GM.

Through 13 games, Melton is carrying a 3.4 steal percentage and 1.0 block percentage. Only four other guards so far this season surpassed these specific thresholds: Marcus Smart, Tyreke Evans, Devin Harris and Shaquille Harrison.

Melton also leads the Suns in deflections per game since Dec. 7 at 3.4 in only 27.3 minutes. That’s very impressive, and shows how advanced Melton’s defensive instincts are at this stage of his career.

Since Melton entered into the starting lineup, he is averaging 4.5 deflections per 36 minutes. Meanwhile, Smart sits at 4.7 while playing alongside Kyrie Irving in Boston’s backcourt. That’s interesting, because many draft pundits compared the former USC Trojan to Smart, but, so far, Melton is proving he might be Smart with a consistent jumper. If Melton continues to advance, it’s quite possible he reaches an ever higher ceiling than Smart.

On top of an impressive debut guarding primary ball handlers, Melton has also steadily improved his playmaking ability. Currently, Phoenix’s rookie guard has an average assist-to-turnover ratio of plus-1.7.

Let’s get back to the skill many talent evaluators were questioning with Melton: Will he be able to become a reliable catch-and-shoot threat and be a spot-up threat out of the corners? Many didn’t expect it to happen, and Melton even air-balled a few three-pointers during the media availability of his pre-draft workout in Phoenix which made me question his potential in that area as well.

Instead, a pleasant surprise arose. After putting in tireless work with Pure Sweat’s Drew Halen — who has also worked with Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, and Markelle Fultz (at least tried to save his shot) to name a few — before the draft, it’s paying big dividends. Melton is hitting 44.4 percent from the corner and 42.9 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Both rank near the top for Phoenix’s roster.

Whenever you try to think of the ideal backcourt partner to pair next to Booker, there’s two things that have to be checked off: defense and perimeter shooting. Melton has both in his arsenal — one that’s already a huge plus, and one that has shown promise and will continue to improve as he develops under head coach Igor Kokoskov.

Another metric that proves quickly that Melton is a valuable piece within Phoenix’s system is on/off differential. In the first five starts of his career, the Suns are plus-2.3 when Melton is on the floor but minus-24.7 when he’s off.

Why does this matter? Well, two rookies (Melton and Mikal Bridges), are already Suns’ advanced stats darlings. Even though it might not show up in the box score, their impact is felt on the game.

And when you try to craft a contender around Booker and Ayton, who are minuses on the defensive end at the moment, players like Melton and Bridges make so much sense to help cover the gaps while providing two-way balance. Melton is also a low-usage defensive-minded point guard, like a Patrick Beverley type.

Houston had immense success once it surrounded juggernaut scorer James Harden with switchable wings and guards (ex. Beverley, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and P.J. Tucker). It’s fair to say the Suns are trying to pull off the same when adding in players like Melton, Bridges and Josh Jackson.

Is Melton the Suns’ point guard of the future? It’s a small sample size thus far, but the early returns are telling when thinking about how to create a sustainable contender around Phoenix’s 22-year-old high-usage star shooting guard Booker.