February 29, 2020, 4:17 pm
Welcome back, Hoop Ballers, to another installment of our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into one of the most efficient rookies of the season who is totally flying under the radar, Nicolo Melli of the up and coming New Orleans Pelicans.
A Proven Winner
At age 29, Melli is not your typical rookie as he has played more than a decade professionally in Europe with stints in his home country Italy as well as Germany and Turkey. He had previous opportunities to come to the NBA and prove himself against the world’s best talent, but he chose to remain in international leagues up until this summer.
And what is the common in all his stops you might ask? Success, as he is a Turkish League champion, a Turkish Cup winner, an Italian League champion, a two-time German League champion, and a German Cup winner.
In the 2017–18 EuroLeague season, Fenerbahce made it to the Final Four and even though they lost to Real Madrid, Melli was the top performer in the Finals as he scored 28 points, the most points scored in a EuroLeague Finals game by a player since all the way back to 1985! A member of the All-EuroLeague Second Team in 2017 and of the All-German BBL First Team in 2016 with Brose Bamberg, after a successful 12-year professional career in Europe he was looking to take the next step in his career and the Pelicans were smart to sign him to a very affordable 2-year deal for $8 million.
Melli missed the World Cup in China this past summer after undergoing a scheduled knee surgery but the procedure was nothing serious and he was ready at the start of the training camp.
Finding a Role
New Orleans came into the season with a lot of optimism and hopes that a playoff berth was in reach after the team surrounded Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson with proven veterans. Melli was projected to come off the bench as a stretch backup big in the second unit getting 15-20 minutes per night, and he was seen as an excellent fit in the Pelicans’ up-tempo system. With Zion sidelined to begin the season and Derrick Favors also unavailable due to some personal issues and a combination of ailments, Melli was immediately put in the spotlight as the Pelicans were running dangerously low on healthy bodies.
Preseason went well for the rookie from Italy and in five games he averaged 8.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists, shooting 37.5% from the floor and 32% from behind the arc. Melli had been a renowned sharpshooter but never much of a volume scorer, while he has only averaged 20.7 minutes per game during his career in the EuroLeague. After playing next to Zion in the preseason and developing some chemistry with his teammates he received extended minutes right off the bat while still adjusting to the speed of the game and the differences between European and NBA basketball.
Here is a possession in the season opener against the Raptors where he fails to properly understand the 3 seconds violation and gets whistled for it.
With myriad injuries torpedoing any chance of success, Alvin Gentry had to experiment with different lineups. He tried Melli as a power forward next to Jahlil Okafor and Jaxson Hayes, a scheme that proved to be too slow and lethargic, or as a center with a small-ball lineup. The Italian big is not gifted athletically and he tries hard but the truth of the matter is that he is at a disadvantage against bigger, faster and more agile opponents.
He also has never been a rim protector which made it hard for the Pelicans to put him in small lineups without an explosive partner (like Zion) to help with weak side defense. Look at Emmanuel Mudiay just cruising to the basket with Melli unable to provide any kind of defense against the attacking guard.
All these highs and lows were reasonable to expect but the veteran forward maintained his focus, even when he found himself out of the rotation, and he continued to impress his teammates and the coaching staff with his work ethic. Here is what Jahlil Okafor has to say about Melli back in January.
Getting the Green Light
Melli has always been an effective perimeter player but he has been the perfect role-player with his previous teams, fitting nicely and becoming everything but a volume shooter. He averaged just 7.4 points on a mere 5.7 field goal attempts and 2.2 from behind the 3-point line playing in the EuroLeague over his combined nine seasons in Italy, Germany and Turkey. What really made Melli attractive to the Pelicans this summer was his 3-point shooting ability as he is a career 38.7 percent shooter from behind the arc.
New Orleans was eager to get him the ball and let it fly but this has been a transition for the Italian power forward, who usually looks to set up a screen or move the ball with his teammates.
Look at this possession where he finds himself wide open after the nice ball movement by the Pelicans but he is able to immediately identify that J.J. Redick is also open next to him.
In his first 26 appearances with New Orleans, Melli barely averaged one made three per game (0.9), but in his 21 games since the calendar flipped to 2020, he has drained 37 treys in 77 attempts, shooting a ridiculous 48 percent from behind the arc, by far the best percentage in the NBA among players attempting at least three 3-pointers in at least 10 games.
This is obviously no coincidence as the presence of Zion Williamson has finally opened up the court for players around him and Melli’s looks are more open than ever. Lineups that include Zion playing as the center give a tremendous advantage to the Pelicans as teams are clogging the paint or double-teaming the rookie, leading to wide open looks for the Italian forward who has a knack for making his shots, especially from the top of the key. Look at Lonzo Ball quickly identifying the matchup and throwing the ball into the paint for Zion, who delivers the pass to Melli for an open three as soon as Hassan Whiteside races to help Carmelo.
Additionally, when used in small-ball lineups, Melli’s ability to pull a big out of the paint due to his size, basketball IQ and shooting helps the Pelicans generate some quick and easy offense. Look at another interesting lineup that the Pelicans deploy on the following play with four shooters and Zion as the center. The Bulls stay close to the perimeter guys like Melli which leads to an easy pass to Zion, who has no problem finishing against a smaller Zach LaVine.
Fantasy Implications: M3lli Time!
After a slow start to the season, Nicolo Melli has adopted exceptionally well with his new team and he has been flirting with borderline top-150 value for the last couple months. His numbers will not impress you but it’s the efficiency the makes the Italian a valuable commodity as he is averaging 8.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.3 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.6 blocks on 53.8 shooting in just 19 minutes per game in the last 21 games.
J.J. Redick hurt his hamstring on Friday and Melli should be looking at a minutes increase in the next couple weeks as the Pelicans make a push for the playoffs. He absolutely has a place, even in standard leagues, and,even though some regression on his shooting should be expected, it appears that the Italian forward is in his comfort zone right now, enjoying the best stretch of his short NBA career.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of February 29th.