Saying Nicoló Melli came out of nowhere would be reductive, but basketball fans — and writers — can all be forgiven for their confusion only 14 minutes into the NBA season when he hit a three on Tuesday.
To place the onus inward, Basketball Insiders’ New Orleans Pelicans season preview didn’t mention Melli even once. That could be forgiven if that 26-footer was his only bucket, but Melli preceded to connect on two more from deep in the second quarter alone. Such a quick shooting display, part of going 4-of-5 from beyond the arc in the Pelicans’ 130-122 overtime loss, would make Melli a possible breakout candidate.
Let it be known that yours truly did not even for a moment even consider Melli when writing up potential breakout players in the Southwest Division.
But let’s rectify these oversights and take a look at Melli. Who is he, and where in the world did he come from? Could he score 14 points with five rebounds and two assists consistently?
The question of who may not have mattered as much if not for one of the most concerning developments of the NBA preseason: Zion Williamson’s knee injury. With the No. 1 draft pick sidelined for up to two months, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry needed to find another forward to lean on in his rotation, giving Derrick Favors and Brandon Ingram a chance to rest. While Melli’s skill set doesn’t exactly overlap with Williamson’s, if at all, he is a seasoned international veteran, unlike the No. 8 overall pick from April, Jaxson Hayes.
Thus, Melli got 20 minutes of run while Hayes received a DNP-CD.
“I tried to get what the game gave me,” Melli said. “If the next game doesn’t go as well, I will try to help the team in another way.”
At 28, Melli has been playing professionally for 13 years. In many respects, his NBA debut was ho-hum. He even made the point that Toronto’s crowd was “polite” compared to those he is accustomed to. Still, it is somewhat shocking for a player to jump from a decade putting up modest stats in Italy to pouring in his first five NBA field goals. In his nine seasons tracked by Basketball-Reference, against upper-level European competition, Melli never even averaged five field goals per game in a season.
To be clear, he may not this season, either. But Tuesday’s output was notable and unexpected, all the same. At least, it was from the outside.
“I think we knew that as a team,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said. “[He is] somebody who can space the floor, someone who builds chemistry, being able to get guys in rhythm, if it’s getting a guy a shot or him setting screens, him popping, just making plays. Playing with him, he makes the game very, very easy.”
Though his numbers as a whole never genuinely ticked upward, Melli has experienced a bit of a shooting surge across the last five seasons. In both 2013-14 and 2014-15, Melli shot 33.3 percent from deep; that figure later rose to 45.3 percent in 2015-16. That was his peak, but Melli maintained a strong percentage from beyond the arc in subsequent seasons and finished last year at 38.5 percent.
That outside proficiency is why New Orleans sought him as their replacement for the since traded Nikola Mirotić. Sweet-shooting 6-foot-9 forwards are hard to come by, but ideal to have around in the modern NBA. In an offseason of upheaval, the necessity for that player archetype did not change for the Pelicans, and at $8 million over two seasons, Melli fits a team need and does so at a discount.
Toda tu vida esperando para debutar en la #NBA, y Nicolo Melli lo hizo a lo grande
📽️ ¡Qué exhibición en dos minutos! pic.twitter.com/C7X4ZkkkHA
— Gigantes del Basket (@GIGANTESbasket) October 23, 2019
That should have been more apparent in the build-up to Tuesday. With or without Williamson, Melli brings the skillset that the entirety of the NBA desperately seeks for in 2019. On a young team — only JJ Redick has more professional experience than Melli on the New Orleans roster — Melli’s nine seasons worth of experience chasing EuroLeague titles could also bring a different, more mature perspective. The disappointing Williamson injury may have given him more of an opportunity early in the season, but by no means was Melli expected to be a permanent resident of the Pelicans’ bench this year.
Melli flew beneath the radar during the FIBA World Cup because, well, he didn’t play while he recovered from knee surgery. His preseason averages of 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 18 minutes per game didn’t exactly jump off the page, either. Melli also did himself few favors by shooting 32 percent from deep (8-of-25).
But, Tuesday, he wasted no time getting noticed. Opening your NBA career going 5-of-5 will do that. Even one of his two misses was more a symptom of overtime desperation than of poor marksmanship. Come Friday, Melli will get another chance to impress a national audience on ESPN against the Dallas Mavericks.
Now, though, we will at least have an idea of who the Italian is.
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