Last time we checked in on Fab Melo
we noted that it often takes centers longer to develop than prospects at other positions. The Brazilian center has been a prime example of that adage this season, taking an enormous step forward in a number of facets of the game for the second-ranked Orange as a sophomore after a largely undistinguished freshman campaign.
The biggest factor in Melo's improvement this season has been his conditioning. Coming into the season in significantly better shape than he did as a freshman, Melo has been able to exploit his 7-foot frame more frequently thanks to improved quickness, leaping ability, and stamina. He still has plenty of room to add muscle to his frame and refine his physique, but he's taken the steps to put himself in position to succeed at the college level with his work this past offseason, a key reason he's playing 15 more minutes per-game as a sophomore.
Melo's development as a byproduct of his improved physical tools has been most clear on the defensive end, where he's been the anchor of Syracuse's zone as he was expected to be as a recruit. Ranking 6th in the NCAA in blocks per-40 minutes pace adjusted
, Melo's ability to step out to the high-post and rotate over to the weakside more quickly has allowed him to intimidate shooters with his 7'3 wingspan.
Not only has Melo been a better shot blocker, but he's been a better defensive player across the board as a second-year player. Still losing contact with offensive players on the weakside leading to an occasional easy putback for the opposition, Melo is much more well-schooled at positioning himself on the defensive end than he was last year, doing a good job splitting the difference between offensive players when the ball gets driven into the paint, stepping in front of players attacking the rim to draw charges, and going straight up to challenge shots around the rim. Committing 2.6 fewer fouls per-40 minutes pace adjusted, Melo has shown dramatic improvement in the way he contests shots and protects the rim.
Melo's ability to be active and physical has helped him on the glass as well. Though Syracuse still struggles on the defensive boards as a unit at times, Melo remains a capable area rebounder and has become a more significant factor on the offensive glass thanks to his improved motor. Lacking a natural feel for the game and usually being more focused on taking charges or chasing blocked shots in Syracuse's zone, Melo is not a very prolific defensive rebounder, though he does have soft hands and is improving his fundamentals. It will be interesting to see how much he can improve on this skill once outside of Syracuse's zone, as he simply isn't always in position to make a play here.
Offensively, Melo remains a work in progress. His minutes may have expanded during his sophomore season, but his offensive role remained largely the same, with cuts and offensive rebounds comprising the majority of his touches according to Synergy Sports Technology. Often the fifth-option on the floor even as sophomore, Melo has continued to finish at an efficient 63% rate at the rim thanks to his size and length, showing good hands and finishing above the rim whenever possible. The young center has also improved his still questionable free throw percentage from 36% last year to 67% this year, though he remains limited as a shooter away from the rim.
In one-on-one situations, Melo shows some interesting signs, though he still has a long way to go to be an effective post-up threat. Flashing solid touch on some of the hook shots and turnaround jump shots he attempts on his occasional back-to-the-basket touches, Melo lacks consistency down low. He makes some solid passes out of the paint, but still has some major lapses in his decision-making too, not showing great instincts on this end and looking especially mechanical when creating his own shot at times.
With Syracuse's roster in flux as Scoop Jardine
and Kris Joseph
graduate, Melo could be due a significant increase in offensive usage as a junior, which would be a significant development in the trajectory of the big man's college career considering he's using under 11% of his team's possessions this season.
Having a veritable break out year for one of the NCAA's best teams, Fab Melo
has made significant strides on both ends of the floor that are clearly visible to NBA decision-makers, even if he is still raw in a number of facets of the game. Big men who can defend the rim are always at a premium, and Melo is starting to match his tremendous physical gifts with production on the floor, thanks in large part to his efforts to get into better shape. Melo's play in the tournament will be a key to Syracuse's success this postseason, and could give him a chance to play himself into the first round with a strong showing. Should he opt to stay in school, he'll be a focal point for the Orange as a junior in 2013 and could make a run at becoming a top-20 pick.