Year in Sports : Hyperbole?: Melo struggles to adjust, but coaches, scouts still see reason for hype
Year in Sports: Part 3 of 9
Inside Madison Square Garden, the crowd roared for Fab Melo. Teammates encircled, mobbing him with chest-bumps and high-fives.
Moments earlier, it was perhaps Syracuse’s most unlikely of heroes who made brilliant play after brilliant play down the stretch to secure the win over St. John’s in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. When it was all over, Melo immediately darted toward the Syracuse student section and released months of pent-up frustration in one big exhale.
He pumped his fist and hollered. This was finally his moment.
‘That’s just a little taste of what people are going to see in the future,’ sophomore guard Brandon Triche said afterward. ‘All next year, it’s going to be just like that. He was big for us. He was a presence.’
Coming into the season, this is what was widely expected of the 7-foot freshman from Brazil. Big East coaches voted the former McDonald’s All-American the preseason Rookie of the Year. Scouts expected him to be an immediate NBA lottery pick.
So this made sense.
It was a stark contrast from the rest of the season, when minutes were scarce. Conditioning became an issue. The grind of the long season and eventual run through the Big East gauntlet became more of a learning experience than a simply overturned obstacle. It was evident — this was going to take some time.
Yet that never changed the opinion of his teammates and coaches. Each day in practice, they saw the effort, the drive to learn and reach his potential. To them, his performance against the Red Storm wasn’t an aberration, but a sign of what he could become.
‘He’s capable of doing a lot of things,’ assistant coach Bernie Fine said in a recent phone interview. ‘He can score, he can defend, he can block shots and rebound. He can do all those things, and we feel he’s going to be a very, very good player for us.’
With each and every jaw-dropping dunk, the legend of Fab Melo seemed to gain momentum. It didn’t take long for Melo to become a household name among college coaches, most of whom flocked to Florida to see a kid who had yet to play a single high school game.
Melo transferred to Sagemont High School in Weston, Fla., prior to his junior year, but was forced to sit out a year due to a Florida high school rule regarding international transfers. But a YouTube video left Division I coaches salivating, and a breakthrough performance at the King James Classic AAU event validated the hype.
‘His potential is limitless,’ former AAU coach Matt Ramker said prior to Melo’s freshman season. ‘If he works hard at college, he has the chance to be as good as any player in the country.’
Despite not yet playing in a single high school game, Melo was already receiving scholarship offers from Division I powerhouse programs as a junior and being compared to Los Angeles Lakers 7-foot center Andrew Bynum. The kid with ‘limitless potential,’ said his high school coach Adam Ross, suddenly became the next big thing.
After just one season playing high school basketball, Scout.com had Melo ranked as the fourth-best center in the 2010 class — and the No. 13 player overall. He started in the McDonald’s All-American game, alongside Kentucky recruits Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, as well as North Carolina signee Harrison Barnes.
When he ultimately chose to play college ball at Syracuse, the hype took on a life of its own. After all, three of the last four Syracuse recruits to play in the McDonald’s All-American game — Carmelo Anthony, Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn — were in the NBA within two years of their arrival on campus.
For a young player with such little experience, the expectations were virtually impossible to meet.
‘People kept putting him up there, saying, ‘One and done, one and done, one and done,” said Fine, who works primarily with the SU big men. ‘Everybody kept telling him that, and it just wasn’t the case.
‘He had only played one year of high school ball, and people were already talking as though he’d be gone after just a year of college.’
The expectations were far beyond the typical transition from high school to college. Melo was also expected to make a seamless transition into one of the elite players in the best conference in America.
Brian Snow, a Scout.com recruiting analyst, said a player’s ranking is sometimes based on the belief that they can be an immediate difference-maker. With others, he said, it comes down to how good they could be down the road.
In Melo’s case, Snow said it would take some time for him to adapt to the rigors of the Big East because of the unique transition he’d be making.
‘That’s a big jump,’ Snow said. ‘And it’s impossible to know how a kid can make that kind of adjustment.’
Dose of reality
Toward the end of SU’s Big East slate, culminating on Feb. 19 at home against Rutgers, the hype had already diminished. Melo played for just four seconds against the Scarlet Knights in a game that was preceded by two in which he did not see action. And questions about whether or not Melo would help the Orange this year were answered.
Battling the league’s veteran big men proved to be much more difficult than dominating undersized high school students. Reality began to sink in.
‘With the confidence that people had for me, I thought it would be easier,’ Melo said after the Big East tournament win over St. John’s. Melo declined to be interviewed for this story. ‘So I got it in my head a little bit. I never lost my confidence. Never. No. It went low, but I never lost it.
‘Now I’m getting used to things. I expect better games for me.’
After all, the Brazilian who grew up playing soccer hadn’t even begun to play organized basketball until high school. His one year playing in the United States wasn’t going to immediately catapult him into the upper echelon of the Big East. These were things Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and his staff knew.
Yet outside expectations made it difficult to go through the growing pains of a typical freshman season. Even an Achilles injury during the regular season did little to soften the public perception that Melo’s freshman season was turning into a huge disappointment.
‘When he gets his conditioning there, I think he can be the kind of player he can be,’ Boeheim said. ‘He hasn’t played basketball. He has played one year of basketball, really. You just can’t make that adjustment to college basketball when you haven’t played.’
The adjustment period hit its lowest point at Louisville on Feb. 12, when Melo did not play because of a missed practice. He also did not play against West Virginia on Feb. 14, and he became something of an afterthought. Melo was among the first to exit the locker room after the win over WVU.
Amid Syracuse’s roughest stretch of the season, which included six losses in eight games, Melo’s play was inconsequential. He got little playing time, and his on-court production was barely noticeable. When he did play, Melo only stayed on the court for a few minutes at a time because of his conditioning. His minutes were handed to fellow freshman center Baye Moussa Keita.
‘When you get pulled for every little mistake, that’s tough,’ Syracuse forward Kris Joseph said following the Rutgers game. ‘I know all about it. When I was a freshman, I didn’t play as much. And neither did Rick (Jackson). But we’ve both panned out all right. You know, we’ve all been through it, and Fab is going to have to work through this, too.’
Melo’s struggles were only amplified during a stretch in which Syracuse went from a top five ranking to nearly finding its way outside of the Top 25. Without Melo being effective in the middle of the 2-3 zone, Jackson was forced to play large stretches in his place. Syracuse often struggled on the boards as a result of the small lineup. Melo played in double-figure minutes in just one of SU’s six regular-season losses.
After more than a year of hype, every move he made was no longer under the microscope. He finished the season playing fewer than 10 minutes a game, scoring just 2.3 points and grabbing a mere 1.9 rebounds.
‘As a player, you come in and you think you know what to expect,’ Fine said. ‘But until you’re playing every day in practice and playing in games against Big East players, you have no idea what to expect. You may think you do, but you don’t.’
In a little more than two weeks, Melo went from a non-factor to what Boeheim described as an X-factor.
In two games late in the season, the enigmatic freshman showed flashes of what he could become.
‘He took a charge, he blocked a shot, he changed shots, and he finished layups and made a great pass to Rick,’ SU point guard Scoop Jardine said after Melo scored 12 points against St. John’s in the Big East tournament. ‘Stuff like that, that’s when he’s just out there playing.’
A game earlier, Melo scored 10 points and grabbed six boards in just 16 minutes of action against DePaul. But that was DePaul. This time, it was against a much better opponent, in a much bigger setting and a much greater stage.
A week later in Cleveland, Boeheim was asked about Melo in a press conference prior to SU’s second-round NCAA Tournament game against Indiana State. Boeheim didn’t shy away from tabbing the freshman big man as a potential X-factor for the Orange.
Despite Melo’s no-show against subsequent national champion Connecticut following the win over St. John’s, he showed flashes in those two games of what was expected from the season’s outset. Something to build on.
It was a sign that, after months of frustration, he was starting to put it all together.
‘People criticize him,’ Jackson said. ‘But as a big guy, it takes a lot of work to just come in and be a big threat.’
Living up to the hype
Even after a tumultuous freshman season in Syracuse, those who know him best realize it all means very little. They say he still has the size and skills to eventually be a dominant player. That one season hasn’t diminished the once-lofty perception.
‘Not in my mind,’ Snow said. ‘He’s still 7 feet tall. He’s still runs the floor really well, and he still has that natural ability to do so many things. Might he be slightly further off than we thought? Yeah, that’s possible. But I still think he’s going to be an excellent basketball player.’
Fine maintains the same disposition. He said aside from Melo’s size and natural ability, he does two things that should expedite the learning process: he listens and he works.
Prior to a midseason matchup at Marquette, Melo was among the first on the practice floor at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center. Two hours later, he was one of the last to leave.
Fine still believes expectations placed on Melo were overblown. But with the initial adjustment period behind him and a year in the program under his belt, Fine said there is still reason for optimism.
‘We haven’t changed our opinion on him. With some kids, it just takes a little longer,’ Fine said. ‘I think Fab is going to be fine. People are going to be shocked at his improvement next season.’
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