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De'Anthony Melton: All-League Defender?
Examining Melton's DSI in 2022-23 and historically
At the end of last season if you gave a Philadelphia 76ers fan a blank slate paper and asked them to create a wishlist of what they want from their team this offseason, the phrase “turn Matisse Thybulle into a serviceable offensive player” would likely be high on that document.
Since he entered the league in 2019, Thybulle has been one of its premier defensive playmakers, earning two All-Defensive Second-Team nominations in his first three years. The drawback with Thybulle (or at least one of them) is that he struggles to stay on the floor in high-leverage situations because of his lack of offensive utility.
While the 76ers couldn’t grant this specific wish, they were able to acquire someone else capable of fulfilling their desires. De’Anthony Melton is a vastly superior offensive player to Thybulle, averaging 12.2 PPG on 40.6% three-point shooting in 30.4 MPG. And to this point, he looks like just as good of a defender as Thybulle.
But is he really as good of a defender as Thybulle? Or, to frame the question more pointedly, is Melton an All-League defender?
Melton versus Thybulle Statistically
As we alluded to earlier, what has made Thybulle such an impactful defender is his defensive playmaking. According to Cerebro’s Defensive Statistical Impact (DSI) metric, a statistic that measures defensive playmaking, Thybulle was in the 99th percentile in the league last season.
This year, our friend Melton has joined his ranks, placing in the 98th percentile in DSI this season. For reference on this kind of production on both ends of the floor, a look into similar seasons since 2000.
Cerebro Statistical Query: The only NBA Players between 6’2 and 6’5 to post a DSI and 3PE (3-Point Efficiency) over 82 from between 2000-2023 (minimum 30 games played)*
Before we get into how Melton has accumulated his elite standing, we need to understand why defensive playmaking is so important for perimeter defenders. Perimeter defenders, based on the nature of their position, typically contest shots around the perimeter. However, even the best defenders can really only do so much to force missed jumpers because the level of shot-making in today’s game is as high as it's ever been.
So, to avoid leaving their fate in the hands of the basketball gods, the best perimeter defenders avoid having shots collide with the hoop in the first place (via events like steals, blocks, and deflections).
Melton, like his counterpart Thybulle, is a master in all of these facets.
Defensive Playmaking Comparison (By Percentile)
And while Melton is trailing Thybulle by a hair in BLK% and deflections, he makes up for it by committing fewer fouls (3.8 per 100 possessions compared to 4.7 per 100 from Thybulle last year). Remember, more fouls mean more free throws for the opposition, which is not good because free throws are the most efficient in basketball.
What’s in Melton’s Defensive Bag?
Melton manages to create all these events by leaning on two tools: his wingspan and his knack for locating the basketball.
Melton only measures in at around 6’2 (approximately three inches shorter than Thybulle), but he makes up for it with his pterodactyl-esque 6’8.5 wingspan. This length enables him to generate steals/deflections both on-ball (via pickpockets) and off-ball (by disrupting the passing lanes).
He’s also got a natural feel for finding the basketball. This is what separates him from Thybulle. He’s not picking up petty fouls because he swiped at the ball and hit skin instead. All his attempts at the rock are accurate and devastating (that is, if you’re unfortunate enough to call him an adversary).
On this play, the possession ends in neither a block nor a steal, but it demonstrates how good Melton is at his craft. If he’s even a couple of inches off from his intended target, that’s probably a foul. But with his processing powers, he’s able to force a jump ball (that Philadelphia ultimately comes away with).
We’ve spent a ton of time talking about his defensive playmaking, but he’s also got the clamps bow in his quiver too.
As we said, in today’s game, you are gonna have a ton of pull-up jumpers drained in your face, but there are players who make said jumpers a little tougher than others. Melton is one of those players.
That wingspan we lauded enables Melton to level up and guard taller opponents. In this clip, he duels the 6’5 Devin Booker to a miss and, if you look closely, even manages to put his paw on the ball.
When matched up with offensive players of the same stature, he completely suffocates them. Here the 6’1 Terry Rozier scores (like we said happens sometimes), but there are few shots harder than the one Melton forced him to hoist on this possession.
The Limitations of Great Perimeter Defenders
Remember how we said that it is hard for even the best defenders to control the outcome of perimeter shots? Well, that isn’t the case when it comes to shots taken in the paint. This means that defensive impact is biased toward players that can provide rim protection.
Melton, to his credit, is a great rim protector for a guard (see chart above). Yet even he pales in comparison to the rim-protecting value provided by titans like Jarrett Allen, Jaren Jackson Jr., and his own teammate, Joel Embiid.
Another limitation of perimeter defenders is that can be avoided to a degree. For instance, it is a common practice for most teams to switch when the ballscreen involves like-sized defenders. Knowing this, on Wednesday, the Indiana Pacers wanted to get Melton off of their star guard Tyrese Haliburton, so they had like-sized teammates set screens for him to induce a switch. Like this:
So…is Melton an All-League Defender?
For all the reasons we outlined in the last section, it is hard to say Melton belongs in the top tier of the most impactful defenders in basketball. Still, the All-Defensive ballots include four spots for guards for a reason, and so far this year, Melton has proven deserving of one of those designations.
Outside of all of his individual skills, his contributions and intensity have had a team-wide impact on their defense. Last season, without Melton and with Thybulle playing more minutes, the 76ers had the 12th-best defense, with a defensive rating 1.8 points less than the league average (the lower, the better for defense). This year, with Melton and with Thybulle playing fewer minutes, they have the fourth-best defense, with a defensive rating 3.3 points lower than the league average.
There are a few other variables that could explain this improvement. Known stopper PJ Tucker was also brought in this offseason (although it is questionable how much he really moves the needle at 37). Embiid has looked sharper. Harden has been more engaged than ever.
But even with these other factors, Melton still remains the key ingredient. And being the catalyst that transforms a good defense into a great one usually means an All-Defensive Team nomination is soon to follow.