It seemed too perfect a fit not to happen: The draft’s analytics sleeper landing with the Houston Rockets. Where OG Anunoby was the Sexy Blogger Pick a year prior, as Fran Fraschilla put it on draft night, De’Anthony Melton represented the spreadsheet darling of sorts, possessing exactly the kind of profile that would seem to endear a player to Daryl Morey and company. Heading in, though, there didn’t seem to be any good reason Melton would slide to them. With no pick until No. 46, how would the Rockets get so lucky?
The answer, it turns out, is a mix of factors. NBA teams operate in a more risk-averse and security-seeking manner than objective outside analysts have to work with, for example. Not all teams operate under the Best Player Available approach, depending on where they are on the competition curve, where they’re picking, and what immediate needs they think a rookie might be able to fill. Melton is also a little undersized if he’s a two and not yet a pure point if he’s to play the one, and last anyone saw him in game action, his shot mechanics looked to need some minor tweaking.
And then there’s the whole matter of Melton having not played competitive basketball for an entire year. Occam’s Razor would suggest the year off is probably the biggest culprit in Melton sliding to what seems like a pretty great situation for him in Houston. Melton was caught up in the adidas/NCAA/USC mess of an improper benefits scandal, and a few months after USC suspended Melton indefinitely, he opted to declare for the draft.
That put heavy pressure on Melton both at the combine and for the pre-draft circuit. Melton measured 6-foot-3 in shoes with a 6-foot-8.5 wingspan, and even as one of the lighter players in the draft at 193 pounds, that’s good positional size for a combo-guard. He also plays bigger than his size, embracing physicality and using his toughness on the defensive end and rebounding extremely well for a guard. Factor in his open-court speed, vision on the break or in the pick-and-roll, and an extremely high motor defending on or off the ball, and Melton checked a lot of boxes from a scouting perspective.
His numbers were even more alluring. He only shot 28.4 percent on a modest volume of threes as a freshman at USC in 2016-17, but nearly everything else popped. Namely, Melton had elite steal, block, and rebound rates for his position. He also racked up assists well for a lower-usage player with some minor turnover issues. All told, Melton projected very well despite an average true-shooting percentage and pedestrian scoring stats. That he turned 20 just before the draft surely helped, and while a sophomore season plateauing can sometimes be a negative harbinger, no sophomore season at all left room to project what may have happened, had he played and delivered on the breakout season some were anticipating.
“Analytics, that’s like numbers?” Melton half-joked when asked about that element of his pre-draft reputation. “I mean, kind of, yeah. I heard that a lot. But I just play my game, and those numbers just come. I try not to look for stats, and if they come, they come. I just play hard, play smart, and play within the team.”
Ahead of the draft, he looked like a first-round pick even with the year off. Jacob Goldstein’s player projection tool at The Stepien graded it as very unlikely that Melton would bust. In fact, his model gave Melton just an 11.1-percent chance of not being at least a rotation-level contributor at his peak, as well as a 51.1-percent chance of being a starter-level contributor and an intriguing 22.2-percent chance of producing like a top-25 contributor at some point during his career. ESPN’s model ranked Melton 13th in the class, and Kevin Pelton’s personal model had him 12th. Meanwhile, even through more qualitative lenses, Melton looked like a first-round pick. Of 14 pre-draft rankings we averaged, Melton’s average rank was 20, and only Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer had him graded as a second-round talent of the ranking surveyed, way down at No. 32.
Even tempering expectations, Melton looked on paper (or bandwidth) like a potential high-value role player, and if the year off helped his offensive skills come along, he could have been a steal in the late first round. As a flier in the middle of the second, the potential for the Rockets to wind up with surplus value here is immense. It took a bit of luck for the Rockets to have the opportunity to take him, and they made sure he knew they were happy with how the draft played out.