We know a few things about the Celtics first round draft pick, Fab Melo. Most obvious is that he is from Brazil. Melo did not start playing competitive basketball until the ninth grade. After high school, which he attended in the United States, he enrolled at Syracuse and started 24 games his freshman year. Melo wasn't prepared for how fast and physical college basketball was. He was overweight and out of shape and often could be seen gasping for air as he struggled to keep up with his teammates on the court. He averaged just 2.3 points and 1.9 rebounds with only 25 blocks in his rookie season.
After his rookie season, Melo played with Brazil's National Team in the 2011 World University Games held in China. Brazil finished 5-3 in the event and Melo started seven of the eight games and averaged 8.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. Melo returned to Syracuse 30 pounds lighter and in great shape.
In his sophomore season, he no longer had conditioning problems and he averaged 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and blocked 88 shots. He routinely made opponents alter their shots and became very good at taking charges. His defensive presence in Syracuse's zone defense helped lead the team to a number 1 ranking in the nation. Melo earned Big East defensive player of the year honors.
When SU ruled him academically ineligible to compete in last year’s NCAA Tournament, the vitriol about Melo rose to unprecedented levels. He was chastised on fan chat boards and denounced as lazy, selfish and intellectually dim.
“That period was very difficult,” he said. “I was very upset for what happened. I was upset for my teammates. Really, we had a shot to win a championship. That was a very hard time for me. But now, I just have to leave that behind. I’m focusing on getting better as a Celtic.”
And he has left that behind and is starting anew with the Celtics. So far, the results have been positive. He has played sparingly so far, but the Celtics didn't draft him to come in and play big minutes this season. They will need Melo to be a very good center 2 or 3 years down the road. Just like Danny drafted Perk right out of high school and was willing to let him mature with the Celtics, I believe he will do the same thing with Fab, who may spend time with the Red Claws to be able to get more playing time. This season, the Celtics have taken over the Red Claws basketball operations and so players playing there will be running many of the same plays as the Celtics parent team runs.
“He’s just young. He’s gonna struggle,” Rivers said after Melo played eight uneventful minutes against the Knicks. “You just throw him out there. He gets down on himself. He wants to do well. Has a good attitude about it. It’s frustrating for us, too, at times to watch. But then we have to remind ourselves that he’s young and he’s growing and it’s just a long path for him.
“He hasn’t been playing basketball his whole life. He’s learning in the NBA. That’s not the best place to learn how to play. He’s going to have to do that.”
A key to his success as a Celtic is the fact that KG has praised his work ethic. If KG likes a big man, chances are very good that he will succeed. He is working hard and learning the game. Having played zone defense at Syracuse, his biggest challenge may be to learn the man to man defense that is a staple in the NBA. He also needs to get used to the speed at which the NBA game is played.
“They tell me I need to be able to defend right now. That’s the main thing,” Melo said. “It’s different to know how to defend in the zone and now defend in the man. That’s one thing that’s been hard for me to adjust. But I have been getting better.
“My offense game is coming. They see I have a touch. There’s a lot of room to get better. I’ve been working on all these things. And I’m very patient. They tell me to do things and I have no problems. I’m working hard for them.”
The Celtics other first round pick, Jared Sullinger, is expected to contribute this season and plays against Melo every day in practice. He sees improvement in the Brazilian big man.
“He’s working hard every day, asking a lot of questions,” Sullinger said. “He wants to do well. And I think sometimes that’s why people see him mess up. He’s playing so freaking hard to the point where, you know, sometimes it messes him up.”
So much for the Syracuse fans who thought him lazy and selfish. He has a couple of things going for him on the Celtics that may help him make it through the first season there. The Celtics drafted his Syracuse teammate, Kris Joseph, in the second round and having Kris around has helped him adjust to his new situation. Melo does not drive, so Joseph drives him to and from practice each day. The two also play video games together and their two-year college friendship which has continued into the pros brings both of them some measure of comfort. The Celtics also just signed Melo's fellow Brazilian, Leandro Barbosa, which had Melo excited when he heard the news.
Doc has said that Melo will need to learn how to be an NBA player and what that takes: the professionalism, the toughness, the practice habit and the mental toughness. With KG as his mentor, he certainly has that covered. We can see the potential and with a solid work ethic, the sky's the limit.