Born in 1991, Nicolo Melli isn’t old enough to have witnessed in real time the careers of several NBA players who greatly influenced him, but as a youngster in Italy, he had the next-best thing: Video cassette tapes featuring the highlights of all-time greats such as Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As he watched “Dr. J” soar through the air for a dunk, or Magic throw a no-look pass, or “Larry Legend” swish a dagger three-pointer, Melli immediately knew what he wanted to do in life.
After a dozen years playing professionally in Europe, this fall the 28-year-old will perform in the same cities and arenas where his idols once starred, launching his NBA career as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s had opportunities to come to the world’s premier hoops league in the recent past, but decided this summer that the timing was ideal to fulfill a lifelong objective.
“I was watching the NBA on VHS at age 5,” Melli remembered. “(Basketball) was love at first sight. It’s every kid’s dream to play in the NBA, but also for me playing 10 years in Euroleague. This summer, when (I had) certain vibes (from New Orleans pursuing him), I felt like it was the right decision. It was like the kid’s dream came back.”
On a New Orleans roster filled with young talent and offensive potential, Melli’s all-around skill set was attractive for several reasons. It may not be immediately evident on paper why an NBA franchise pursued an international veteran who averaged a modest 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in ’18-19, but Melli is a highly-valued glue guy. His teams win a lot of games (Fenerbahce went 28-8 last season in Euroleague).
“That’s the appeal of scouting internationally, that it’s all about team and winning,” New Orleans General Manager Trajan Langdon said. “There are really no individualistic things that go on in Europe. When there is credit due, it’s to people who have won. A lot of times when people look at stat sheets and see a guy averaged nine points and three rebounds, (they say) why is he is the MVP of a game or a league? It’s because it’s not only about the stats; it’s what he brings to his team, whether it’s the defensive side of the floor, passing, screening.
“A guy like Nicolo, you can look at his stat line and be like, ‘I don’t understand the intrigue from the NBA for the last three years.’ But it’s what he brings – he’s a team-first guy, a winner. He’s highly motivated and a competitor. Those are the kind of people we want here, to be a part of the Pelicans organization. He’s another guy who’s going to make people better, on and off the court.”
Langdon and Darius Miller – a two-year teammate of Melli’s in Germany for the club Brose Bamberg – both describe the 6-foot-9 power forward as an excellent passer and screener, valuable skills in New Orleans’ attack that also may not translate to a box score (he averaged 1.6 assists for Fenerbahce).
“His IQ is huge, especially at his position,” Miller said. “There is a lot of decision-making at the four with the way we play in the open court (or) at the top of the key. His decision-making is great, and his ability to spread the court could possibly be good for Zion (Williamson) and Jrue (Holiday), giving some space for all of those guys who like to get to the rim, giving them a lot of space to work.
“He’s an amazing teammate. He can shoot the ball really well, plays extremely hard, gives you 110 percent in every game. Very intelligent player. I think he’ll be a great fit here.”
“He’s a stretch four who can play some small-ball five in different lineups,” Langdon said. “Really high basketball IQ, with his ability to pass and handle on the perimeter, with dribble hand-offs with guys like JJ Redick. He can read when guys are coming off screens and when they’re back-cutting, (create) different screening angles, on or off the ball. He’s a physical player, a winner and big-time competitor.”
Melli, whose father is Italian but mother is an American and Nebraska native, is also excited about living in the United States for the first time. It’s difficult for him to pinpoint exactly why, but based on phone conversations with New Orleans’ front office and Alvin Gentry, he believes the Pelicans were the best fit for him to launch his NBA career.
“It’s hard to explain,” Melli said. “Talking on the phone with management and the coach, the vibes were amazing. So I felt like it was the right decision.”
Next month Melli will fulfill the ultimate goal of aspiring basketball players throughout the world. He’s never wavered from his love of the game, only briefly dabbling in other sports, such as playing beach volleyball one summer. He’s always known the hardwood was where he wanted to be.
“When I was growing up, basketball was my life. (I knew) immediately,” he said of his vision to someday want to play in the NBA. “Not because I knew I was good, but because I knew it was my dream, what I wanted to do. I gave everything to make that possible.”