De’Anthony Melton’s emergence creates a good problem for the Sixers once Tyrese Maxey returns

Martes 27 de Diciembre del 2022

De’Anthony Melton’s emergence creates a good problem for the Sixers once Tyrese Maxey returns

Melton is putting up career numbers since stepping into the starting lineup, providing Doc Rivers with some decisions to make once Maxey returns from a fractured foot, possibly this weekend.

Melton is putting up career numbers since stepping into the starting lineup, providing Doc Rivers with some decisions to make once Maxey returns from a fractured foot, possibly this weekend.

WASHINGTON — As De’Anthony Melton took a knee along the Madison Square Garden baseline to begin his pregame stretching routine, 76ers skill development coach Spencer Rivers joked that “Melton’s got to defrost” before the irregular noon tipoff on Christmas.

“Hey, Melt-on!” Rivers added with a “get it?” grin, just in case somebody did not understand the initial pun.

Melton did more than thaw out before that matinee against the New York Knicks. He began the game a scorching 5 of 5 from three-point range, keeping the Sixers offensively afloat before Joel Embiid got rolling and Georges Niang bombed away to push their team to a 119-112 victory. That performance in a showcase game continued Melton’s impressive play in his first season for the 20-12 Sixers, giving coach Doc Rivers a good problem to decipher once dynamic guard Tyrese Maxey returns from a fractured foot.

» READ MORE: Sixers shooting guard Tyrese Maxey could return as early as Friday against the Pelicans

“I just wanted to come out here and just shoot with the ultimate confidence and not really think about my shot too much,” Melton said after the game. “Just come in, be aggressive and just shoot it.

“I know I’m going to get open looks with the players we have and the offense we’ve got. So when they’re open, I’ve just got to have confidence.”

The initial expectation was that, when Maxey is healthy, Melton will go back to his sixth-man role. But the fifth-year guard’s active perimeter defense has been so impactful for a Sixers team that entered Monday ranked second in the NBA in efficiency (108.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) that some outsiders have pondered whether Melton should remain a starter and/or a member of the closing lineup. Melton has also become a long-range shooting threat while averaging a career-best 12.1 points. Doc Rivers said last week that he would bring Maxey along slowly immediately following the injury, although that projected approach did not unfold when James Harden came back from a foot tendon strain earlier this month.

Melton’s defense has been as disruptive as the Sixers envisioned when they acquired him from Memphis in a draft-night trade. Entering Monday, he was tied for third in the NBA in deflections per game (3.8) and ranked second in steals per game (2.1). Now, Rivers feels even more confident with Melton guarding bigger offensive players “that we didn’t know we could put him on,” such as when he helped hold Los Angeles Clippers All-Star Paul George to five second-half points during Friday’s comeback win.

“He knows his role,” the Sixers coach said of Melton. “He’s the best at it for us. He gets his hands on everything.”

Yet when asked about Melton’s efficient shot-making against the Knicks, Harden responded with: “That’s what he’s here for.” That’s evidence of the continued offensive evolution for Melton, whose shooting was the biggest knock against him heading into the 2018 NBA draft. This season, he has connected on 39.2% of a career-high 6.2 three-point attempts per game.

Early on, Sixers coaches and teammates needed to encourage Melton to let it fly. Now, Melton is less than three weeks removed from scoring a career-high 33 points on 8-of-12 from downtown in an overtime win against the Lakers. Even after missing 22 of 32 threes in his previous four games entering Christmas, Melton wanted to exude a confident “vibe” against the Knicks because “I knew my family was going to give me grief if I didn’t go out there and be aggressive.” He has become a popular recipient of the kick-ahead passes from Harden to immediately generate pace after gaining possession.

“You can see the trust,” Rivers said. “James is rocketing balls up the floor now. Teams are back on their heels in transition. [Melton is] just walking into threes.”

Melton went 4-of-4 from beyond the arc in the first half against the Knicks, then drilled a fifth in a row to briefly tie the score at 69 early in the third quarter. Following a stint on the bench because he had picked up his fourth foul, Melton then unlocked his “Mr. Do Something” versatility.

He grabbed a rebound shortly after reentering in the fourth, snapping the ball to Niang for one of his four three-pointers in the period. A Melton steal less than two minutes later led to a Harden lob to Tobias Harris for the alley-oop dunk that put the Sixers up 114-102.

When a Melton long-range attempt finally clanked off the rim with less than five minutes to play — which Embiid followed for a tip-in to extend the Sixers’ advantage to 14 points — teammates playfully gave Melton grief as he walked back to the bench for a timeout. In all, he finished with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, three rebounds, one assist, and one steal in 27 minutes.

“I felt like I shouldn’t have missed,” Melton said with a grin. “But it happened.”

» READ MORE: ‘Mr. Do Something’: How De’Anthony Melton became an elite defender and essential Sixer

Whenever Maxey returns — he is with the Sixers on this four-game road trip, after not traveling earlier in his injury recovery — Melton does not envision his high-energy responsibilities changing much. It is difficult to imagine Maxey, who is regarded as a future All-Star and long-term franchise cornerstone, not ultimately regaining his spot in the starting lineup this season. Melton is perhaps most intriguing as a situational crunch-time defender, given Maxey and Harden are both below-average performers on that end of the floor.

Harden views Melton as a microcosm, of sorts, of the Sixers’ overall development and role definition during their eight-game winning streak entering Tuesday’s game at Washington — which he hopes will help the team reincorporate Maxey. And Melton and Maxey have become fast friends, as evidenced by Maxey playfully joining the small media contingent at Melton’s locker following Sunday’s win.

“That’s my dog,” Melton said of Maxey. “He’s always in a good mood. I’m always in a good mood. So we’ll just be laughing, joking, playing around a lot — especially with Spencer Rivers.”

That was apparent Christmas morning, while Melton “defrosted” before his sharp start against the Knicks.

“I probably won’t feel it as much until I watch [the game] back,” Melton said. “… It’s a special day.”

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