Melo is a talented 7-footer who never received formal basketball training until high school, when he rocketed up the rankings of prospects due to his size and athleticism. At Syracuse, head coach Jim Boeheim molded Melo into a shot-blocking force perfectly suited to man the middle of the Orange's 2-3 zone defense.
Now Melo, still eager and able to learn, is Rivers' to mold. When he was introduced with Celtics top pick Jared Sullinger and second-rounder Kris Joseph on Monday, Melo sounded ready to do whatever he was asked.
"One thing I want to do is just help the team win," Melo said. "I'm willing to do what the coach wants me to do. If he wants me to run the floor, play defense, gets lots of rebounds, that's the thing that I'm here to do. Whatever he wants me to do, I'll do it."
Melo is often described as "raw," and the first time Joseph saw him, Melo was even less than that. Melo was a senior at Sagemont School in Weston, Fla., when he met Joseph on a visit to Syracuse. Joseph, then a sophomore, could not even converse with the recruit because Melo spoke hardly any English, but Joseph thought to himself, "He's a big boy."
"We went to play and you could see that he was raw, but you could see the potential in him," said Joseph, whom the Celtics took with the 51st overall pick in the draft. "Having just come to America and starting to play basketball, you could tell he was going to get way better. His freshman year, things were difficult for him. You had guys like [former Orange forward] Rick Jackson who were trying to teach him, but things were just difficult."
Melo's weight reportedly ballooned to more than 280 pounds and he was arraigned on a fourth-degree criminal mischief charge for breaking the turn signal switch on his girlfriend's car. He was declared academically ineligible twice as a sophomore, including right before the NCAA Tournament. His absence may have cost Syracuse an appearance in the national championship game.
Some of those issues are no longer relevant — there are no classes to attend for an NBA rookie, aside from get schooled in practice by Kevin Garnett — while others, such as his weight, appear to be in check. Melo appeared to be fit and slim at Monday's news conference after adjusting his diet and sleep schedule in his second year of college, according to Joseph.
"The adjustments he made, he learned so quick, from language to the game of basketball," Joseph said.
Melo is due for another set of adjustments with the Celtics. He said he already spoke with Garnett, so he should be aware that Garnett and the rest of Boston's veterans are not likely to suffer an out-of-shape loafer. Melo will need to maintain his dedication to fitness. He will need to relearn some defensive fundamentals, which differ somewhat in the Celtics' man-to-man, strong-side help defense from Syracuse's zone. He will also need to become just as strong on the defensive glass as he already is on the offensive glass.
"I'm a very coachable guy," Melo said. "They show me what to do, that's what I'll do. I think my reaction on defense is pretty good, and I can protect the basket. That's the thing I can do. I'm not worried about that. Just show me how to do it and I'll do it."
Melo is a project, but he is Rivers and assistant coach Mike Longabardi's project. Pure size is such an asset in the NBA, teams are willing to recycle big men who have failed to gain a hold at other locales in hopes that they can reform them into productive players. Ryan Hollins and Sean Williams were exhibits of this with the Celtics last season. Usually, it is too late.
In Melo, there are no bad habits to unlearn. As Melo himself said, he will do whatever they teach him to do. He is a block of uncut stone, and Rivers holds the chisel.
Photo via Twitter/FabpMelo