New Orleans made a slew of roster moves during a busy 2019 offseason, most of which generated headlines. The Pelicans added three first-round picks, proven NBA veterans JJ Redick and Derrick Favors, as well as three former Lakers, one of whom quickly developed into a 2020 All-Star. The franchise was also enthusiastic about the less-publicized June addition of Nicolo Melli, a versatile Italian forward who had competed for a dozen years overseas.
In his official NBA debut Oct. 22 at Toronto, Melli appeared more than ready to perform in a new league, shooting 4/5 from three-point range, as the Pelicans nearly spoiled the defending champion Raptors’ ring night. Unfortunately for the 6-foot-9, 236-pounder, he shot just 1/14 from deep over New Orleans’ next 10 games, resulting in some DNPs by coach’s decision.
As it turns out, the adjustment to the world’s biggest basketball stage was not as smooth as it initially appeared it might be. On Monday, Alvin Gentry noted that it also required some time for the New Orleans coaching staff to determine the best way to deploy Melli and his unique shooting and passing skills.
“It took me a while to understand exactly what he can give to our team,” Gentry said. “But he’s made some great contributions and when we’ve needed shooting, we’ve put him in the game and he’s done well.”
Indeed, Melli seemed to gain confidence as the season progressed, shooting 52 percent on threes in January and 46 percent in February. He emerged as an excellent complement to Zion Williamson, shooting 39 percent on treys after the rookie’s Jan. 22 debut, but 33 percent prior to that.
“It appears to me that he and Zion are a pretty good combination to have on the floor together in our frontcourt, in certain situations,” Gentry said.
Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday believes some of Melli’s in-season improvement stemmed from gaining a better understanding of the timing and speed of the NBA.
“Probably coming from Euroleague where he played and it being a different type of game, coming here, some of those open shots he would get there, they are different here,” Holiday said. “The shots that he gets (now) – and even if guys are closing out on him pretty fast – we want him to take those shots, because he’s that good of a shooter. I feel like once he got that rhythm down and knew that mentally, he started to excel, like we knew he could.”
“I definitely saw it click during the season,” said fellow NBA rookie Jaxson Hayes, albeit one nine years younger than Melli. “Nico at first was just getting used to playing in the NBA, but obviously now you can tell that he’s been in the pros for 13 years. You can tell he’s an older guy who knows what he’s doing, now that he has a feel for the NBA.”
Nine months after his memorable 14-point Pelicans debut in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, Melli is hopeful that the relaunch of his rookie NBA season will feature fewer ups and downs than it did in the fall. The Pelicans likely will need him to continue to knock down threes and set up teammates (41 assists in NOLA’s last 26 games) in order to continue playing past mid-August.
“I hope experience is on my side now,” Melli said of resuming the season. “There is something that I don’t have to learn from the beginning. I hope I can bring back that on the court.”
Team-wise, New Orleans is 12-5 when Melli contributes 10-plus points (16-31 in all other games), 12-6 when he makes multiple threes and 8-2 when he hands out three-plus assists, making him a potential X-factor off the bench.
“We are a young team, an ambitious team,” Melli said July 1, when asked about the Pelicans’ attitude as a whole. “We are in a good position to do something good. So why not? It’s a great opportunity. It would be a waste to not use it.”
Seeding games to watch
Only three of New Orleans’ seven opponents in Orlando have gotten a lengthy look at Melli in person, because he was a DNP for one game apiece vs. Sacramento and Orlando, while barely playing vs. San Antonio (the Pelicans did not face Washington). Melli shot extremely well vs. Utah and Memphis, going a combined 8/14 from three-point range, averaging 12.5 points in two wins over the Grizzlies. He was 1/6 over three Clippers matchups, making him a combined 9/20 (or 45 percent) in matchups vs. teams the Pelicans will face in Central Florida.
“It’s going to be a unique situation, something that no one has experienced before,” Melli said July 1 of restarting the season after a four-month break. “I think the most important part right now is to get back in shape physically, then technically we’re going to find out a solution and put together something that will allow us to play (effectively as a team).”