Russell White remembers the moment he knew De’Anthony Melton had a chance.
It was a winter night in Encino, California, four years ago when White’s Crespi Carmelite varsity team faced off against local rival Harvard-Westlake. Up a score with only seconds left in the game, Crespi needed a stop. Melton, then just a freshman, was told to guard Derick Newton, Westlake’s best player.
At just 15 years old and halfway through his freshman season, Melton had played in every game, but stood out in none. He had won his spot on the team more due to his work in practice than his play come game time. Yet Melton had earned White’s trust. Especially on defense. As the mature, 6-foot-5, 225-pound Newton took his shot in the waning seconds of the game, Melton trampolined off the hardwood to block it. His timing was perfect. In the present, all eyes were on the little freshman who’d just won the game for Crespi, but White’s mind was already racing toward the future. “Wow,” he thought. “This kid has a shot.”
Usually a block like would register as an aberration, a blip on a nice high school career for a local kid at a private Catholic school. Instead, it would serve as an outline for what would become one of Melton’s signature moves. The freshman who stamped a defining moment early in his basketball career would go on to become the team’s best player, building a collection of breathtaking plays. Melton led the Celts to back-to-back state titles during his final two years at Crespi. His junior year, he single-handedly won the championship on — you guessed it — a game-winning block with just seconds left.
In his freshman year at USC, Melton has come to show those same flashes and eye-opening plays that made White first believe. Within months, he has transformed from a fresh recruit to the X factor on a Trojans team fighting to make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
Melton is averaging 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. But for a USC team that won 24 games during the season and needed every one of them to make the tournament, the freshman’s quick development as a reliable ball handler and staunch defender has been essential.
“We knew he was gonna be really good, but as a freshman, doing what he’s done has been special,” USC’s director of scouting, Martin Bahar, says. Bahar remembers sitting in a room watching tape of Melton for the first time and seeing his potential jump off the screen. The one glaring advantage Melton had on everyone else: his length. “I call him Mr. Fantastic.”
Listed at 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, Melton featured the physique of a tall, strong point guard who can handle the ball — a combination of traits that has become a telling trend for guards in the NBA. He’s also a dead ringer for former USC legend Jeff Trepagnier, a freakishly explosive player with the same build and the same 6-foot-8 wingspan. That length has allowed him to make defense his calling card. At the college level, and whatever lies beyond, it is his biggest asset as a basketball player.
Through the end of January, Melton was the only player in the nation averaging at least five assists, 1.5 blocks, and 2.5 steals per 40 minutes. His 99.5 defensive rating at season’s end was tops on his own team among players with at least 500 minutes, and especially impressive considering the team has an overall defensive rating of 103.2, which ranks 192nd in the nation. He also finished the season with the Pac-12’s best steal percentage, 18th in the nation, and as the only qualified player in all of college basketball to average two steals and one block per game. “He has an ability to contribute without having to score the basketball,” Bahar says. “Which a lot of players struggle with.”
The summer after his freshman year of high school, following the block heard round the San Fernando Valley, Melton walked into a meeting with his coaches not knowing what to expect. Until that day, he was a two-sport athlete, playing both football and basketball. Football was his father’s sport in college; basketball was his mother’s. The tug-of-war between sports was all but decided when White and Melton’s other coaches relayed the message that had been born out of his impressive freshman season: You can make a career out of this. It was the first time he’d ever heard that.
“I fell in love with winning,” Melton says, sitting on the railing near the stands at USC’s Galen Center. It’s late January, and the team’s practice finished over 40 minutes ago, but Melton has just wrapped up his extra shooting session. “If I wanted to be known for closing out games, then I knew I had to play harder, play smarter, and stay in front of my defender. I knew I had to specialize in something that most people wouldn’t want or like to do.”
From day one of Melton’s high school playing career, Russell White made his message clear: If you don’t play defense, you won’t play. “I like to think we made him appreciate the defensive side of the ball,” White says. “But the good Lord blessed him with long arms and incredible instincts.” Melton is as aware as anyone that his measurements don’t necessarily fit the typical mold of a guard. His height is one thing, but his 6-foot-8 wingspan is an atypical trait that allows Melton to swat a shot as easily as he can swipe a pass.
It’s no secret that as an up-and-coming prospect, scoring stretches your national reach for miles while strong defense only somewhat increases your prominence. As a recruit, Melton flew under the radar, gathering offers only from mid-major teams; he didn’t make 247Sports’ top-100 composite rankings. Melton’s shy and soft-spoken demeanor could have also been a factor. Described as quiet and unassuming by his coaches, Melton says he sometimes dreaded having to speak to coaches who recruited him over the phone. “It was overwhelming,” he recalls. “I’m not a talkative kid.”
Despite all that, Jason Hart — an assistant at USC who recruited Melton — saw in him the same special traits that new USC coach Andy Enfield had established as his type, dating back to his “Dunk City” glory days at Florida Gulf Coast: long, athletic, defensive-minded, and team-oriented. The same size advantage that had allowed Melton to play in the frontcourt during high school was what Enfield wanted to use when he played Melton in the backcourt at USC.
But in March last year, six months after Melton committed, USC’s landscape shifted: The Trojans’ two best players in 2016 declared for the NBA draft, and three other players transferred. Ready or not, Melton had come into some unexpected playing time before he even laced up.
“When you bring freshmen, you never know who’s gonna play how many minutes,” Enfield says of Melton. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised. … He’s done everything.” Throughout his freshman campaign at USC, Melton, fueled by his defensive prowess, has already posted absurd stat lines and showcased his athleticism with the same kind of ridiculous plays he’d made the norm back in high school.
When the Trojans traveled to Washington and hosted UCLA earlier this season, Melton was tasked with intermittently guarding top draft picks Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Against his highly regarded contemporaries, Melton put up his best performances of the season. Between the two contests, he averaged 14.5 points, 8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game. He also held Fultz and Ball to a combined 11-for-26 shooting. USC won both games by eight points.
In the second round of the Pac-12 tournament, Melton was part of a 14-point comeback that brought USC within one possession of beating UCLA for the second time this season. As the game tightened up in the final minutes, Ball carried the ball into the half court slowly. Melton pushed up on him immediately, arms flailing in both directions, confusing and rattling Ball into dribbling in circles. Melton didn’t swipe the ball, but stayed in front. The pressure flummoxed the prospective top draft pick just enough without fouling him. Ball turned the ball over within five seconds. The Trojans would go on to lose, 76–74, but Melton’s effort on Ball undoubtedly made an impression on NBA scouts looking for the next premier perimeter defender.
Melton says he models his game after Avery Bradley, the Boston Celtics’ own defensive weapon. Bradley was a one-and-done talent at Texas, drafted 19th in the 2010 draft. Melton hasn’t shown the offensive acumen to even consider leaving this season (he’s shot 44 percent from the field, and only 28.6 percent from 3), but he hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the span of two months, he’s risen from projected late second-round pick in the 2018 draft by Draft Express to a mid-first-rounder, around the same range Bradley was drafted seven years ago. For his part, Melton hasn’t begun to care or notice whether he’s being talked about enough. “As long as I know my talent, I know my worth; that’s all that matters.”
That mentality has allowed Melton to play against Ball or Fultz with the same intensity he would a walk-on. Against Providence on Wednesday night, Melton scored only two points, but led the team with four assists, had three rebounds and, of course, a block. USC is now set to face SMU in Tulsa on Friday night; the Trojans already beat the Mustangs this season, in a November game where Melton filled up the box score with 15 points, six rebounds, five assists, one block, and a steal.
Melton will undoubtedly be assigned to guard SMU’s best player. It’s not what he expected when he first signed up to play for Enfield’s team, but it’s an assignment he’s earned and one he’s been preparing for since that first highlight-worthy block back in high school.
So, watch Melton. Watch him on the ball and watch him off the ball. Watch him defend the perimeter as well as the paint. Watch him guard the other team’s best player but insert himself into passing lanes for steals, his long arms reaching places other guards can’t. Watch him time his block and complete it. Maybe you’ll see what White saw on that fateful night four years ago.