Any Syracuse fan watching the Orange’s 85-67 victory over Connecticut last Saturday was likely pleasantly surprised by Fab Melo’s shooting touch.
The big man went 3-for-3 on midrange jumpers, showcasing a skill he’s flashed at times this year but hasn’t demonstrated consistently.
“He’s a decent shooter,” coach Jim Boeheim said after the win. “He really is. I don’t mind him shooting.”
Given his trajectory of improvement from last season it’s no surprise that Melo’s making in-season strides. Clearly, he’s come a long way from the overweight, out-of-shape freshman who could barely stay on the court last year. And that bodes very well for the future.
It’s no secret that the major reason the Orange struggle in the half court is that they lack a low-post threat in the mold of Rick Jackson or Arinze Onuaku. If Syracuse fans are lucky, Melo will be that player.
He’s been working on his offense with assistant coach Mike Hopkins, and it’s paying off.
“We work on [shooting] a lot,” Melo said after the UConn game. “He knows I’ve been working.”
He’s not there yet, obviously. At the moment, on offense, Melo plays a role similar to that of New York Knicks 7-footer Tyson Chandler. Though Melo obviously lacks Chandler’s pogo-stick athleticism, both players function primarily as screener, roll man, and finisher. Melo’s good enough around the rim that he opens things up for Syracuse’s perimeter players to drive, and he’s fully capable of punishing defenders who help off him. He’s the chief beneficiary of guard Scoop Jardine’s erratic alley-oops.
His court sense is also good, in spite of how recently he picked up the game. It seems markedly improved over last season, though part of that is undoubtedly due to his conditioning.
Though he averages only half an assist per game, he’s actually a solid passer, too and has produced some highlight-reel assists as the season’s progressed. He’s also flashed the ability to put the ball on the floor.
Melo’s primarily known for his defense, and his feel for the game is apparent on that end. Very few players are good at both blocking shots and taking charges. One skill usually outweighs the other: either a player’s athletic and blocks shots, or he’s more ground-bound (or shorter) and takes charges to compensate. Look no further than Baye Keita, a very good defensive player, but almost exclusively a shot blocker.
Melo, of course, is elite at both. He’s tenth in the nation in block percentage (a measure of the percentage of shots he blocks while on the court) and alters virtually ever shot an opponent puts up inside. And when he tries to take a charge—which happens at least once or twice a game—he picks his spots well and almost never gets called for a blocking foul himself.
While midrange jumpers are nice, Melo’s major weakness is that he has virtually no discernable post game. He almost never posts up, and only really has one move, a baby hook shot that he tends to laser off the iron. He’s struggled against the physical defenders and whistle-averse refs of the Big East.
But he has the physical tools and the instincts. And every available bit of evidence points to his possessing the work ethic, too.
“He can shoot. He has a great touch for someone who’s 7 feet,” said guard Dion Waiters after the win over Connecticut.
Onuaku might be the template here. He played sparingly his freshman year, but returned as a low-post threat in his redshirt sophomore year after missing a season due to knee surgery.
Melo already has one leg up on Onuaku. Onuaku’s abhorrent free-throw shooting made him a liability late in games. Melo’s shooting 64 percent from the stripe; not a particularly good mark, but not a terrible one either, and not enough to keep him off the court. He’s made a few clutch free throws this season, too.
He’s already made one jump, and if this is what Fab Melo is—dominant on defense, serviceable on offense—most Orange fans would probably be happy with that. But there’s room for more. And it looks like Melo wants it.
There remains one sizable elephant in the room, however: whether Melo declares for the NBA draft this summer. He’s played himself into first-round discussion in an extremely deep draft. After the season’s over, he has to at least consider going pro, although another season to refine his skill set would significantly increase his draft stock given the dearth of back-to-the-basket big men in the pro ranks right now.
If he does come back next year, don’t be surprised if he comes back with an improved post game. And don’t be surprised if that Syracuse team is as good or better than this one.
“I knew I had to work a lot [after] last year,” Melo said after Syracuse’s early season victory over Fordham, speaking about his hard work last offseason. “I had a lot of hype. I didn’t ask for the hype, but the media gave it to me. I knew I had the potential so I just had to work.”
Once again, there’s hype surrounding Fab Melo. The difference is, this time he’s earned it. And if he keeps following his own advice, the Orange will be in good shape.
Wesley Cheng contributed to this article with reporting from Syracuse.