De’Anthony Melton’s return to the Suns’ lineup on Saturday night in New Orleans was a brilliant reminder of the overall winning he has, playing smart team basketball and making plays on both ends of the court.
It was the first start since returning from an ankle injury after the All-Star break as well as his first time playing more than 16 minutes since the break. Melton’s presence on the court for 29 minutes while Tyler Johnson and Jamal Crawford were both inactive were important merely because it signified the rookie was fully healthy, but he produced as well.
Melton simply fits better within the Suns’ system as a secondary playmaker than Crawford or Elie Okobo, and it is puzzling he hasn’t been a more prominent part of the rotation since returning to the lineup. He demonstrated his knack for making the right play more often than not against the Pelicans, getting teammates involved and igniting transition opportunities.
At his best, Melton turns defense into offense and simplifies the game for himself and teammates. He occasionally looks like someone who missed his sophomore year at USC and makes rookie mistakes, but watching Melton in the open court is one of the more exciting things about Suns basketball this year.
In the play below, Melton shows incredible coordination and instincts. More importantly, he looks for Mikal Bridges down the court, a sign of his growth as a NBA playmaker.
While the progress is evident in his play, Melton is no more perfect than another rookie. The reason his mistakes are easier to stomach is that it is clear the rhythm of the pro game is stalling his decision-making. Some rookies make dumb plays — Melton rarely does.
Still, overthinking the game can harsh a team’s flow, particularly in the sort of runaround that took place between New Orleans and Phoenix on Saturday. The Pelicans offered no interior defense on their home court, giving the Suns free paths to the basket.
Melton is not yet comfortable navigating the half court even against such porous defense:
And while helping teammates and swooping in for turnovers on defense may be the strongest individual part of Melton’s game, he still struggles in one-on-one situations. He averages 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes.
Particularly when compared with the guys with whom he is competing for minutes, Melton’s mistakes feel small. Certainly there is an argument to be made that Crawford’s on-court leadership is valuable, but he has the lowest Box Plus-Minus of any regular rotation player by far. Okobo has had a grand total of one overall effective game this year. He is more raw than Melton, and two years younger.
Whereas Crawford’s previous award-winning bench production and Okobo’s higher draft positioning indicated prior to the year they might be better options, that’s not the case.
Melton’s college production, on the other hand, translated immediately. His elite steal (3.5 percent) and block (2.0 percent) rates followed him to Phoenix, as did a solid assist-to-turnover ratio (2.26:1). Melton’s mistakes feel boneheaded but are rarer than his counterparts’ and less costly. He has the best net rating among the trio who have alternated as backup point guard this season.
He also makes many more winning plays than either Okobo or Crawford, with plays like this serving as evidence of how much better he fits within coach Igor Kokoskov’s screen-and-pass system, screening Cheick Diallo to free Josh Jackson for a dunk in semitransition.
Melton should be starting until Johnson heals up and get big minutes off the bench once the former Heat guard returns. With 11 games left in the year, many against inferior competition, seeing what Melton has to offer is more valuable than watching Okobo make more mistakes or Crawford continue to miss shots.
Plus, the Suns have less time to judge Melton. He is only under contract through next season, two years shorter than Okobo.
The Suns are likely to make a move at point guard this summer, meaning they may need to decide even sooner whether Melton is worth further investment. If he continues to play like he did against the Pelicans, the answer is a resounding yes, but the Suns need to keep putting him on the court to truly see what they have in him.