The Atlanta Hawks have a need for good basketball players. If you could distill the central task facing President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Travis Schlenk this offseason into a single mantra, it would be this:
Acquire more good basketball players.
To make things simple, the Hawks didn’t have many good basketball players during the 2019-20 season. Trae Young was marvelous. John Collins, after returning from a self-induced suspension, proved to be one of the most efficient bigs in the league. And that’s about it, at least in terms of full-season impact.
Of course, Atlanta also allocated a greater percentage (by a strong margin) of minutes to players 23 and younger than any other team in the league, according to The Athletic’s Seth Partnow. A team with such a heavy investment in young players is unlikely to excel in the wins department, and, indeed, Atlanta’s primary prerogative for this season was development, not chasing a postseason berth.
Not helping matters was perhaps the worst collection of supporting veteran players in the league. Atlanta’s supporting cast around Young and Collins largely comprised youthful, inexperienced players (and their accompanying highs and lows), past-it veteran contract dumps, like Chandler Parsons or Allen Crabbe, and other players, like Jabari Parker, who simply didn’t fit at all.
As a result, the Hawks weren’t a very good basketball team. And, to be frank, considering their roster-building approach last summer, they seemingly didn’t want to be good. But, if you believe the scuttle around the organization, including publicly stated ambitions of achieving a playoff appearance in 2021, the Hawks are ready to throttle forward next season.
And, with just under $50 million in projected cap space this offseason, according to Early Bird Rights, Atlanta is well equipped to construct a roster capable of challenging for a top-8 seed in the East next season.
However, a quick look at the free agent market in 2020 slightly dampers hopes of a great leap forward. It’s not likely the Hawks will be in contention for Anthony Davis’ signature. More likely, Atlanta will look to cultivate a more coherent veteran presence next season, perhaps tapping names like Joe Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or Maurice Harkless, each of whom would upgrade a rotation in dire need of impact.
While I would endorse the pursuit of solid veterans, an issue there is that players like Joe Harris (entering his age-29 season) are less likely to be impact players during Young’s prime years. In addition, a preference for younger talent has been noted on the record by Schlenk, in an interview with Chris Kirschner of The Athletic:
“Schlenk said, ideally, he will add players he feels are still growing or can still grow with the young core that is currently in place.”
Generally speaking, it makes more sense to invest in players who can grow alongside Young, entering their primes around the same time, than it does to invest in veterans who can add wins in the short term but might be past their primes when Young enters his own prime. As a result, Atlanta could look to the restricted free agent market to find young talent, using their considerable cap space as leverage to pry them from their incumbent teams.
One such young player who could make sense for Atlanta, in terms of both their need for good basketball players and in full view of their long term timeline, is De’Anthony Melton, currently of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Impact beyond the numbers
Everyone who has watched more than one game of basketball grasps on some level that the game isn’t about accumulating statistics but producing impact, something that might not always show up in a player’s counting stats, but is felt in his contributions toward winning games. Ultimately, the measure of a player is less the sum of his box score numbers and more how he affects outcomes.
Take a quick glance at Melton’s statistics and you might be underwhelmed. But look deeper, and you find a winning player.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the best on/off differential on Memphis belongs not to Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ja Morant, but Melton. He also had the best net rating among players who logged at least 500 minutes for the Grizzlies. His team was more than four points worse with him off the floor, according to PBP Stats.
Further, Melton has the team’s second-best mark in total RAPTOR (min. 500 minutes played) as well as the team’s second-highest PIPM. Despite playing only a little over 1,000 minutes, he’s third on the Grizzlies in PIPM’s Wins Added category. In summary, metrics, which attempt to ballpark holistic impact, really like Melton.
But why do they like Melton so much, a player with relatively uninspiring box score stats?
Primarily, Melton provides impact by playing superb defense at the point of attack. With a defensive rating of 105 per NBA Stats, he posted the team’s top rating among players who played at least 500 minutes.
Equipped with great hands and instinctive, Melton is a force as an on-ball defender, where he’s usually tasked with mucking up the point of attack and disrupting the opponent’s offensive rhythm. He was one of only five players to post at least a 3% steal rate this season (minimum 40 games played). He’s able to generate them on or off-ball, and, in my viewings, he’s particularly adept at poking the ball away from the rear when opponents drive past him.
Among players grouped into the “Point of Attack” defensive role in Krishna Narsu’s defensive metrics, Melton ranks in the top 10 of D-PIPM, further supporting that he was among the league’s best on-ball defenders this season.
Melton’s anticipation on defense also carries over to blocking shots, where his length (6’8.5 wingspan) is an asset in erasing attempts. This ability allows him to make plays not just as a perimeter defender, but on the interior as well.
His effectiveness in generating both steals and blocks is unique in a player of his size. In fact, Melton and Eric Bledsoe are the only two players listed at 6’2 or shorter in NBA history to compile seasons with at least a 3% steal rate and a 1.5% block rate among players who played in at least 40 games.
Owing to his physical tools, instincts, and motor, Melton is able to play bigger than his listed height. According to Narsu’s data on defensive coverage possessions by position, Melton actually defended shooting guards about 44% of the time, his highest usage against any position, evidencing his capability to defend both guard spots.
This shows up in his rebounding as well, as he rebounds very well for a guard. He and Patrick Beverley were the only players 6’2 or shorter to post a total rebound percentage of at least 10% this season. For his position, Melton falls into the 86th and 87th percentiles in offensive and defensive rebounding rates, respectively.
In spite of his height, Melton spent almost 85 percent of his time on the court playing shooting guard. From there, playing next to another ball handler is where he’s most effective, supplying secondary playmaking, knocking down open shots off the catch, and attacking the basket.
Offensively, Melton is a work in progress, yet he posted the team’s best offensive rating among players who played at least 500 minutes, giving him two-way impact. His offensive role could be broadly described as a secondary creator, where he works alongside a primary and fills in gaps in playmaking as needed.
Although turnover prone, Melton is a pretty good passer overall and generally does a fine job of creating for others without dominating the ball. His assist to usage ratio ranks above average for his position at 0.97 and his averages in seconds per touch and dribbles per touch compare similarly with Lonzo Ball, another creator who doesn’t need much time on the ball.
At his best, Melton operates as a secondary offensive conduit, offering his offense the capability to reset possessions with him running pick and rolls, making quick passes to set up teammates, and scoring himself when needed. In essence, Melton allows a team to play with two point guards, gaining the offensive benefits of enhanced playmaking from two-PG lineups, but without the typical defensive trade-offs.
Where Melton must improve as a ball handler is limiting his turnovers, where he ranks in the 11th percentile. His penchant for turning the ball over plays a role in his poor pick and roll performance; he ranks in just the 15th percentile as a P&R ball handler and turns it over on 24% of these possessions, per Synergy.
He has a tendency to make mental lapses when he gets into the paint and his options aren’t clearly delineated. More problematic, 68% of his turnovers are live ball turnovers, which are particularly painful because they often lead to buckets on the other end. His 53 live ball turnovers easily paced Memphis, well ahead of Morant, who committed 27. Although he’s generally a good playmaker, Melton clearly must get better as a decision maker if he hopes to grow his on-ball usage.
As a scorer, Melton is most effective attacking the basket. He shot 57% around the basket on non-post attempts according to Synergy, ranking in the 68th percentile. More of his shots come at the rim than from any other area, perhaps another testament to his ability to play bigger than his size. He’s also skilled at drawing fouls, with a shooting fouled percentage (the percentage of shot attempts a player was fouled on) of almost 9%, good for 65th percentile among combo guards.
Offensively, the area where Melton will most need to improve to unlock his upside is his perimeter shooting. Only a 31.6% shooter from beyond the arc, he will need to get better here in order to optimize his minutes alongside a primary creator. However, looking into the numbers a little closer, there is reason for optimism.
Just a 28% shooter from long range in his lone season at USC (note: he was ineligible for his second season and sat out), Melton has improved his three-point percentage in each of his two professional seasons. Moreover, he shoots a solid 82% at the line, offering hope that he could continue to improve his perimeter shooting, given the relationship between free throw shooting and proficiency from deep.
Further, dive deeper into the stats, and one finds more reasons to be positive about his long term outlook as a shooter. On spot-up attempts which Synergy classifies as “no dribble” — essentially a proxy for open shooting attempts — Melton shot 18/45 (40%), falling into the 68th percentile. Not a huge volume of attempts, of course, but encouraging nonetheless.
Additionally, on catch and shoot attempts from distance, Melton shot 30/82 (36.6%) for the season. This certainly isn’t a notable mark, but it represents baseline proficiency. Synergy counts things a little differently, but he falls into the “average” category on catch and shoot attempts there. More or less, the point here is he’s at least capable of converting the open shots that are created for him at a passable rate.
Taking into account his development since his college days, his average-ish ability to make open triples, and his solid free throw percentage, I take a “glass half full” outlook on Melton’s shooting. While I don’t think he’ll become a sniper, I think he can hit roughly average efficiency on roughly average volume.
DARKO, a new machine learning-driven projection system for basketball, at least broadly aligns with my view on Melton’s shooting, projecting his “true talent” as a shooter at around 33%, higher than his current percentage of just under 32%. Because DARKO’s projections change in real time, Melton’s “true talent” from deep could (and probably will) change. But overall, I think he’ll be adequate from distance; and given that his impact primarily comes from defense, “adequate” is basically all you need. He won’t be Kevin Huerter as a shooter, but he might be Eric Bledsoe.
I’ve also included a couple of his misses below.
While the shot in the first clip, early in the shot clock from a below average shooter, might not fall into the category of a good shot, I would still classify both of these attempts as “good” misses, relative to where Melton is at this stage of development. In essence, these aren’t the misses of someone scared to pull the trigger. While they might not go in, it’s at least good to see the confidence from someone trying to get better in a critical area.
Although only 24th percentile among combos in overall three-point volume for the season, Melton gradually began to increase his attempts. From Feb. 1 until the suspension of the season, 39% of shot attempts were threes, ranking a much-improved 48th percentile in three-point frequency, more along the lines of what you would like to see from a guard.
Taking everything together, an optimistic shooting outlook for Melton, who turns 22 this month, amounts to the case that I’ve laid out: capable enough.
And, to that point, I’ve included this three-player DARKO comparison with Bledsoe and Marcus Smart, to show where Melton lies at the same point in his career. If Melton can develop along similar lines as a shooter, his holistic outlook as a great defender, a good secondary playmaker, and a capable shooter, fits the profile of a player who fills the role of a high impact glue guy.
On that note, let’s take a deeper look into how he could fit with the Hawks, and what it might take financially to pry him away from Memphis.
Melton’s fit with Atlanta
As detailed in the introduction, the Hawks need good basketball players and hence represent a potential suitor for Melton’s services. For the same reasons that Melton was successful this season in Memphis, he could also be successful in Atlanta. Playing next to Morant, the pairing had a net rating of +4.3 over 428 minutes per PBP Stats; with Morant off the floor, Melton had a net rating of +10.3 over 442 minutes. He was effective with or without Morant.
One of Atlanta’s biggest weaknesses this season was getting absolutely destroyed in minutes without Young on the floor. With Young on the bench, Atlanta had a net rating of -12.5 over 1,136 minutes this season. To remedy this, Atlanta brought back veteran Jeff Teague from Minnesota, but he was mostly uninspiring in his short tenure. In my view, Atlanta could do better with their backup point guard minutes. Capable of playing both guard spots, Atlanta could turn to Melton as their primary ball handler for their second unit.
Or, since Melton played much more at shooting guard this past season than point guard (and was obviously more effective there), they could insert him into the starting lineup, where he would provide a big defensive upgrade over Huerter, a questionable fit defensively with Young, who could then be moved into the second unit where he would operate as the primary ball handler.
Melton could also provide Atlanta with another perimeter player who can actually score around the basket and draw fouls, a needed quality in Atlanta’s rotation.
But most importantly, Melton can play with Young. If he keeps developing as a shooter, he’ll have plenty of open opportunities owing to Young’s creation. Further, his ability to defend both the point of attack and “guard up” at times against more traditional wings due to his physical tools gives him much appeal to a team that “finished” the season a meager 28th in defensive rating.
Because Young is the only “set in stone” piece on Atlanta’s roster, the primary question that should be asked regarding whether a player might fit in Atlanta should be, “does he fit with Trae Young?” For Melton, that answer is “yes”. While it might take time to figure out Melton’s optimal role in Atlanta, be it alongside Young or coming off the bench, simply adding a good young player who fits with Young, as well as their long term timeline, makes him a smart investment for a team seeking to improve.
For the reasons I’ve laid out, including my general optimism about both his shot and his upside as a high end glue guy, I think Melton should be one of Atlanta’s top targets this offseason.
However, because he is a restricted free agent, and is often the case with restricted free agents, Atlanta will almost certainly have to sign him to a formidable offer sheet in order to have a realistic chance of securing his services.
Melton’s cap implications are somewhat complicated, but Memphis cannot offer much more than about $9.5 million per year, via Early Bird Rights, depending on where the 2020-21 Salary Cap ends up. However, under the Arenas provision, which applies to restricted free agents who have only been in the league for one or two seasons, competing teams cannot offer a first-year salary more than the non-taxpayer MLE. To make a long story short, Atlanta could offer a four-year deal that would make it painful for Memphis to match on the back end, and this would likely represent their best chance of stealing him.
Given that you generally have to overpay to land a coveted RFA, Atlanta might consider offering something like four years and $50 million. With thanks to both PTH’s own salary cap guru Bob as well as PTH alum Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights, that deal would look like this — assuming current salary cap projections — on Memphis’ cap sheet, if they chose to match:
- 2020-21 - $9,755,000
- 2021-22 - $10,242,750
- 2022-23 - $14,671,027
- 2023-24 - $15,331,223
As you can see, the increasing amounts, especially in the last two years of the deal, would give Memphis something to think about. From Atlanta’s side, that deal would cost them $12.5 million flat over each of the next four seasons.
Is Melton worth that? Given the value of versatile defenders who can also create, and perhaps knock down open shots as well (especially in a playoff context), I think Melton is worth it, particularly considering Atlanta’s needs. Melton is simply a player who makes the team better when he’s on the floor.
With a war chest of cap space, and few options to splurge on, Melton represents a wise gamble for Atlanta, in my view. Not only does he fit with their best player, but he’s in his early twenties and should enter his prime around when Young enters his. Would it be better to spend that money on a veteran who could help in the short term, or on a player who could help in both the short and long view? Perhaps Melton is less proven, and thus comes with more risk, but the other view, and the one I find more compelling, is that he could become a core piece in his own right.
For more analysis, I’ve consulted the PIPM Career Projections Tool to try and get a rough idea of what Melton could bring to the table on his next deal.
With an important caveat that calibrating projections for a player with less than 2,000 career minutes played is inherently difficult, making this more of an additional data point rather than the crux of an argument, PIPM forecasts paints a rosy picture for Melton, projecting steady increases over the next four seasons. He ranked in the top 50 of PIPM this season, and with continued growth, he could be a steady fixture near the top of this metric. It’s also important to note that PIPM does not attempt to measure talent, but rather ballpark impact, which often goes hand in hand with role, and how effectively a player performs within it. In his current role, as a combo guard most effective next to a primary ball handler, Melton could continue to thrive.
To further emphasize how high PIPM is on Melton’s future, it projects a three-year value of $55 million, which would make the 4/$50m offer referenced above an excellent value, should the projections come close to their mark.
In theory, you’re not paying for what Melton is now, but rather what he could become after making a leap. So, while he might be “overpaid” along the contract parameters I’ve proposed based on what he is right now, the idea is he would grow into that, and perhaps even become a value on the back end of that deal.
For reference, I’ve provided a chart showing Multi-Year PIPM to provide a comparison for where Melton, Bledsoe, and Smart all fell at the same points in their careers. To be clear, I’m not outright comparing them as players, although I do think enough similarities exist for me to be comfortable using them together.
Of course, I’m not implying that Melton, based on where he is right now, will end up becoming a better player than Bledsoe or Smart, but I’m using this to illustrate that he has a realistic chance of becoming an elite complementary piece - the kind that can, in the proper team context, provide high impact.
These are the sorts of players that can elevate a good team into a contender. Or, in a more relevant sense, they can help a team achieve respectability if the primary piece is already in place.
For a team with a surplus of resources, but a scarcity of meaningful options, Melton could be a shrewd signing. Of course, given that he’s a small sample size player, it’s possible he could fail to make key improvements, or even regress. But overall, I feel comfortable that he has a reasonable floor as a solid bench player, and his defensive acumen will see him earn reliable minutes in a rotation that lacks that quality. If his floor is basically “solid bench player” and his ceiling is “elite complementary player,” I think the reward outweighs the risk from Atlanta’s perspective.
Sooner or later, the Hawks will face real consequences if they fail to make improvements and assemble quality talent around Young. They are facing a balancing act of needing to improve the wins column next season, but also continuing to cultivate young talent in order to unlock the highest possible ceiling for Young’s prime. Melton is the rare free agent who could potentially meet both criteria.
As with almost any young player, there are many scenarios as to how Melton’s career could unfold. But taking smart risks is the name of the game. While Schlenk has drafted well in Atlanta, he should not depend on the draft alone to acquire young talent.
If Schlenk and the Hawks choose to leverage their considerable cap space, the franchise could force Memphis to make a very difficult decision regarding Melton’s future. Moreover, Schlenk could face a tough decision in his own right in terms of how far to go to seal Melton’s signature. Even still, Memphis could decide that Melton is valuable enough to pay a premium for and retain him, but at least then Atlanta made them work for him; even if they lose out on him, at least they followed the right process.
From my side, divorced from the real world implications of team building strategy, the decision is easy: get good basketball players, and sign De’Anthony Melton to a lucrative offer sheet.