The second year center is still not ready to be a contributor at the NBA level. His movements on the floor were often slow yesterday, especially laterally. He had trouble catching the ball. And while it wasn’t all bad for Melo yesterday, it wasn’t great, either.
So it would seem that another trip to Maine might be in Melo’s future. They call it the developmental league for a reason, and Fab needs time to develop.
But there’s a problem with that course of action. When asked what he saw his role would be this year, he gave a telling answer.
“Being part of the team. I just want to be part of the team.”
The follow-up question was “did it feel like you weren’t part of the team last year?”
“No, it didn’t.”
So this is the Celtics’ problem:
How do the Celtics balance the need for Melo to get the repetitions he needs to learn the game of basketball without sapping him mentally, and undoing whatever it is he’s learning in Portland?
At halftime, right when Danny Ainge was giving Melo this little pep talk I photographed, I was talking to a few people about him when one made the comment that Fab’s basically a 13 year-old in NBA years. It seems like a knock on him, but it’s actually more of an explanation of why Melo struggles.
He started playing competitive basketball in 9th grade. He then went to Syracuse, a program that didn’t do him any favors for his future when it stuck him in the middle of a zone defense. The Celtics now have on their hands a guy who only about a year ago really started to learn what he’s supposed to do on a pick-and-roll, which is only a staple of every NBA offense.
So when he’s out on the floor, he’s thinking. A lot. And when a player’s brain is occupied with wondering where to be and when, it takes a little bit longer to put a player where he needs to be. Instead of the brain instinctively hitting the “hedge hard” button, and then after an appropriate amount of time the “now recover” sequence, he’s thinking “ok, now is where I have to hedge… here I go… look at me hedging… good job Fab. OH SHIT, I HAVE TO RECOVER!” Now add a layer of “what am I doing here” and the Celtics run the risk of their construction project falling behind schedule.
Luckily for Melo, this season might provide him with fresh start with a fresh coaching staff and an opportunity to get more time with the big club in Boston. Despite plenty to be negative about in his first chance to see Melo as a Celtic, Brad Stevens focused on the positive.
“I’m not able to compare last year or even two weeks ago to what he’s doing today but I thought the things that impressed me about him today was the way he tried to communicate defensively. I thought he was very active I thought he was very engaged. Obviously, he made a couple of big jump hooks right in front of us with a soft touch. He’s a guy with size that can play in the paint… and defensively it looks like he’s got a decent feel with what’s going on.”
I thought fab did a lot of positive things,” added Celtics assistant and Summer League head coach Jay Larranaga. “He gives us an inside presence. He had a nice couple of jump hooks, rebounded, had a nice blocked shot. He’s, like all of us, a work in progress, but I thought he made some really good steps.”
It’s those flashes of promise that make you see why the Celtics are willing to be patient with him. When he just reacts on the floor, he can do things like reach back and block Victor Oladipo on what seemed to be an easy lay up. When he actually did catch the ball, he showed that he does, indeed, have a soft touch around the rim.
But right now, the Celtics need to approach Melo with the gentle touch of an archaeologist on a dig. They are finding the pieces of an NBA game buried somewhere in that body of his. Now they need to take the time and find the right way to pull all those fragile pieces together, and create something impressive.