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Nicolo Melli Could Be New Orleans Pelicans’ Unsung Hero

Breaking down the game of the Pels newest Euro import.

Turkish Airlines Euroleague Third Place Game Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul v Real Madrid Photo by Francesco Richieri/EB via Getty Images

Few teams made turnarounds as massive as the New Orleans Pelicans did this offseason. They survived the aftermath of the Anthony Davis debacle and recovered better than anybody could have expected. After passing the draft with flying colors, adding the best prospect of the last decade and a half, Didi Louzada, David Griffin and Trajan Langdon continued their hot streak in free agency. Derrick Favors was a fantastic add, a talented big man who will have the chance to play at his preferred position this season. With their morass of talent, the Pelicans needed an elite floor spacer and there are few better in this regard than JJ Redick.

While Zion Williamson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick live in the spotlight, one paramount addition continues to fly under the radar. Thinking outside of the NBA box, the Pelicans turned to Turkey, coming to terms with Fenerbahçe big man Nicolo Melli on a two-year, eight million dollar contract.

A mystery man to most NBA fans, Melli has played in the Euroleague since 2010, appearing with EA7 Emporio Armani Milano, Brose Bamberg and Fenerbahçe. This season in the Euroleague, the 6’9 big man posted a pedestrian stat line of 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks per game; however, in recent years he’s played a key role on a successful Fenerbahce team, one which has lost in a final to Luka Doncic and Real Madrid and was also defeated by Shane Larkin and Anadolu Efes.

Looking at those individual numbers, skepticism for Melli’s NBA prospects is understandable. How can a player who posted the counting stats of a bench warmer in Europe contribute in ‘Merica? Impact and value runs deep and counting stats are just the crust. To understand what Melli brings to the Pelicans and why I value him so highly for this team, we must dig past the crust to the mantle and get to the core of his goodness. Like Earth’s, Melli’s core value has an inner and outer segment. The outer being the more discernible piece of his game: his shooting.

Not including Melli, the current Pelicans feature only five players who are league average or above three-point shooters over their career (JJ Redick, E’Twaun Moore, Darius Miller, Jrue Holiday, Josh Hart, likely Nickeil Alexander-Walker). Many of their best players — Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and more — are below-average three-point shooters at the moment. This is where Nicolo Melli adds so much value: over all of his contests this season, Melli shot 41 percent from long range on 4.2 attempts per 36 minutes. He’s a certified sniper, shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc in each of his last four seasons.

As soon as he steps on an NBA floor, Nicolo Melli will be one of New Orleans’ best shooters. More than being an elite distance shooter, Melli’s ability to stretch defenses as a big man is immensely valuable. In the modern NBA, front court spacing has become less of a luxury and more of a given. Without Melli, the Pelicans’ big man room has a dearth of shooting. None of Zion, Favors, Hayes and Okafor can reliably stroke the long ball. Combined with quite a few perimeter players who don’t shoot well, the Pelicans could see some spacing issues arise — a type of problem which can kill half court offenses.

Melli’s shooting will be vital in unlocking the Pelicans’ half-court offense, playing him at the four and the five and letting him bomb away. Last season, he placed in the 84th percentile on catch and shoot jumpers, and oddly shot significantly better on guarded (93rd percentile) than unguarded (64th percentile) jumpers. He has a smooth, high release, one which will make him deadly in pick and pops with Lonzo and Holiday:

Due to his shot diversity, the Pelicans won’t have to relegate Melli to shooting open corner threes. For a 6’9 four, his handle is palatable enough to dribble into pull-up jumpers, a skill not many big men can offer. Last season, Melli placed in the 50th percentile on off-dribble numbers, a respectable figure for a big man. Melli won’t be jacking pull-ups with any sort of regularity, but it is a great weapon to have at his disposal nonetheless. He has the requisite handle and fluidity to take a few dribbles and rattle in a pull-up shot:

When defenses commit to Melli’s shooting and run him off of the line, his handle allows him to attack closeouts and get shots at the rim. On this play, Fenerbahce initiates the offense with double drag screens with Melli as the second screener. They flow into a flare screen action, with Jan Vesely (not) screening for Melli flaring towards the corner. Celtics’ big man Vincent Poirier closes out hard and Melli beats him baseline, finishing at a tough angle.

In the 71st percentile around the rim (non post-ups), Melli has the touch and craft to finish around the rim. Penetrating baseline, Melli is patient. He pumps, steps through and finishes the baby hook with touch:

An underrated athlete, Melli’s first step is well above average for a big man. He’s no Zion Williamson, but he has enough juice to toast many slow footed big men off of the dribble. It is easy to dismiss Melli’s athletic tools as a product of playing Euroleague competition, but this is not the case. Many Euroleague players are good enough to play in the NBA and the league features real talents (hi Niko Mirotic!). While he won’t be able to dominate athletically, the NBA still employs plenty of big men stuck in molasses who Melli can comfortably burn. Popping to the top of the key, Melli’s shooting gravity forces Walter Tavares to close out hard. Without high-level change of direction and horizontal quickness, Melli dusts Tavares with ease:

Fenerbahce sporadically deployed Melli as a pick and roll ball-handler and he had resounding success. Melli’s offense is perimeter dominant, but most of his minutes come as an ancillary player. Granted, Melli logged only 21 pick and roll possessions including passes on Synergy, but he placed in the 99th percentile in these situations. With more quickness and mobility than many lumbering bigs, Melli attacked the hoop with ferocity, flashing impressive balance and body control here to hang between two defenders and finish with touch. Most NBA power forwards are not nimble or coordinated to do this:

He’s not a great vertical athlete by any means, but he has enough pop to climb the ladder on rare occasion:

Off the ball, Melli is a savvy cutter, timing his dives to the rim with precision and locating holes in the defense for ball-handlers to exploit:

As a scorer, Melli fits the profile of an ideal off-ball floor-spacing four man. His shooting will pop and fans will catch on to the ice cold Italian. Shooting is only the outer layer of his offensive goodness. The inner layer and the core of what will make Melli such an effective role player for the Pelicans is his feel for the game. This often goes unnoticed by fans, yet it is one of the most important traits for great NBA players to possess.

Nicolo Melli is a basketball savant and his decision making on offense is the easiest way to demonstrate this. On offense, Melli rarely forces his own shot, making the extra pass and finding better shots. Since 2013, Melli has posted an assist to turnover ratio above one each season, with a ratio above 1.4 in every year since 2014. On this drive, Melli could force a shot or panic and cough up the ball. He keeps his dribble alive, pivots and locates an open corner shooter:

When Melli spots big men sealing in the post, he floats passes in the perfect spots, leading Vesely deep in the paint:

In pressure situations, Melli radiates an aura of tranquility, rarely crumbling and making poor decisions because of it. Triple teamed, Melli passes out to a cutting Vesely, forcing the defense to scramble and Fenerbahce adds three points (Melli misses more advanced reads at times; he probably should have hit the open weak corner shooter here, but this is a nitpick):

After collecting the offensive rebound, Melli waits patiently for a shot to open up, holding onto the ball, finding Luigi Datome on his cut:

Aside from these “right decision” plays, Melli has real vision and craft as a playmaker. His passing as a big man opens up so many avenues for his offense, adding more versatility. A capable passer on the move, Melli makes plays most traditional power forwards cant: he blows his man off of the line and hits Vesely in the middle when the help defense stunts toward him:

Melli even flashed some playmaking ability as a pick and roll ball handler. This will be more of a novelty than a translatable skill for his NBA role, but the ability to facilitate even once or twice a game is miraculous. Melli slices baseline, hitting the diving big man for free throws:

This is next-level vision and craft from Melli, letting the roller slip into space and wrapping the ball around the defender with the masterclass bounce pass:

Melli didn’t playmake out of the short roll as regular as he could with his distributing chops, but I’d imagine he’ll get the chance to pass as a roll man more when he slides up to the five.

Defensively, Melli wins with his feel for the game, just as he does on offense. Team defense is vitally important in the NBA, yet it is far less conspicuous than smothering on-ball defense. On offense, one player can carry the load. On defense, this is not the case. Defense requires all five players to work in harmony and this means more than stopping your man. It means being aware of off-ball actions, rotating and making plays off of the ball. In all of these areas, Nicolo Melli excels.

In the Euroleague, Melli posted a 2.2 steal percentage and a 2.4 block percentage, two indicators of his defensive IQ. Melli is basketball Einstein defending off of the ball, sniffing out potential gaps and closing them shut. This possession is a team defense clinic; Melli picks up the short roller, stymies his drive, rotates in front of the driver and contests with great verticality:

Reading the play, Melli spots the ball handler beat his teammate middle. He slides in his path and forces a turnover, preventing a would-be layup:

Vincent Poirier has a mismatch down low, sealing off Luigi Datome. If Melli doesn’t peel off of the weak corner, timing his rotation perfectly to stonewall Poirier right as he catches the ball, this is two points for Baskonia:

Standing 6’9 without above average vertical explosion, Melli won’t be a feared rim protector in the NBA. However, he is never afraid to put himself in dangerous situations and risk being on SportsCenter. When two defenders double the post, a runway opens up for Walter Tavares to build up momentum for thunderous slam. If it weren’t for Melli’s elite defensive awareness, this would be an easy dunk, but Melli fouls to save the jam:

Aside from these more eye-popping rotations and deterrents, Nicolo Melli routinely makes innocuous plays in help defense which are invaluable in the long run for a winning team. Most will miss these plays, but they compile to impact the game in a big way. Guarding two defenders at once, Melli stunts at the roll man, coaxing a pass out and he closes out to the shooter:

Here’s a play only the careful eye will be able to praise: the ball handler beats Vesely middle, so Melli stunts at him, thwarting the drive, and recovers to the shooter:

So many players lose their bearings defending in transition, conceding open shots. Melli is locked in, picking up the open shooter and forcing the offense to reset:

Like a middle linebacker, Melli is an excellent communicator, directing teammates to their spots and, just as importantly, hearing and internalizing directions from his teammates. On this possession, the offense calls a flare screen on the weak side. Melli detects the play and calls out an off-ball switch. He pushes Jan Vesely to pick up his man and defend the pick and roll, before sliding over to help on the drive. Even though Melli had the awareness to help, his lack of size and vertical leaping can render his contests ineffective at times:

Sometimes, his lack of tools make him an afterthought around the rim, with the offense easily maneuvering around and through him for the score:

Given his natural tendency to make plays off of the ball, Melli over helps at times, swarming to the ball when he shouldn’t. This is a minor complaint and necessary tradeoff for all of the benefits his help defense bring, but something clever offenses can and will exploit. The low defender has the help on Sergio Llull’s drive covered, but Melli inexplicably wanders off of the strong corner shooter, giving up an open three:

In order for the Pelicans to maximize Melli, he’s going to have to play small-ball five, if only in spurts, for 10-20 minutes a game. Though he lacks size and athleticism, Melli has the smarts to survive at the five part-time. At 235 pounds, Melli has good enough strength to defend the post at a competent level; he should be able to bang with non-elite post scorers down low:

While Melli is mobile, he is not great switching onto guards and defending the perimeter. He’s solid moving in a straight line, which helped him excel as a hedge defender. When he has to move laterally and change directions, Melli struggles. Melli flashes competence on the perimeter at times, though, here switching onto Mavericks’ wunderkind Luka Doncic, moving his feet and contesting his step back:

Most of the time, Melli can’t hang with quick perimeter players on an island. His weight transfer is poor: Melli doesn’t sit low enough and he backs way up here, giving the guard a wide open three:

Defending in pick and roll, Melli has no chance sliding against Rudy Fernandez, who scorches him on the way to the tin:

Because of his struggles changing directions, Melli’s closeouts are inconsistent. Melli turns his feet the wrong way, can’t halt his forward momentum and gives up a straight line drive:

A solid rebounder in Euroleague, Melli wins on the glass with positioning and strength. Against the athletic giants of the NBA, he could struggle on the glass due to his tools, especially when he slides up to the five:

Aside from all of the good things Melli brings to the court in a vacuum — shooting, playmaking, decision making, team defense — he has a higher purpose in the context of the New Orleans Pelicans. His reason for being in the Bayou and the reason he’s so important to the Pellies is more altruistic: his fit with Zion Williamson. From the second he steps on an NBA court, Zion will be one of the most feared players going to the rim. His rim gravity will be immense, with his all-universe athleticism and handling ability:

Zion is going to live at the rim, but he will crave floor spacing around him. For now, Zion isn’t a three-point threat. In order to maximize his own offense and the half court offense of the team, Zion needs a big man next to him who can stroke the three ball. This is where Melli becomes so valuable.

At Duke, Zion put up historic rim volume and efficiency while being the second most efficient three-point shooter on his team; this is how poorly the Blue Devils spaced the floor. He’s never played with a shooting front court mate and the spacing Melli provides gives Zion more room to drive and more windows to make passes. I hope Alvin Gentry plays Zion and Melli together at the four and five. While this duo is vulnerable to traditional big men, it has devastating offensive potential, rife with shooting and layups and smart passing.

Defensively, Zion will be able to run the five in spurts despite his height due to his athleticism and strength. Early in his career, this role may be uncomfortable, which makes Melli’s post and help defense so valuable. With a sound five man clogging up leaks and defending second-unit big man, he will have the freedom to roam around and wreck havoc on opposing offenses:

Nicolo Melli is nothing more than a role player. He won’t ever be an All-Star. He will play and score less than Derrick Favors and JJ Redick and he won’t ascend to the national spotlight. This is the nature of “little things” aficionados like Melli; his team defense and decision making will go unnoticed by most. However, the New Orleans Pelicans will be fully aware of this. He will help the Pelicans achieve their foremost goal: making Zion Williamson’s development as smooth as possible.

Only 28 years old, Nicolo Melli has a chance to be one of New Orleans’ unsung heroes for the near and foreseeable future.