The New Orleans Pelicans’ newest signing won’t change the landscape of the NBA, but Nicolo Melli is about as good a fit with Zion Williamson as you could ask for.
Lost amid the craziness of the first night of free agency, the New Orleans Pelicans quietly added an interesting fit for their new-look roster. If you follow European basketball, you definitely know who Nicolo Melli is. If you don’t, you probably have never heard of him. The 28-year old Italian power forward has been a major contributor for Fenerbahce over the last two seasons, helping take them to back-to-back Euroleague Final Fours. Now, his new project is simple — help create space for Zion Williamson to do Zion Williamson Things.
The 6-foot-9 Melli will likely have a bench role for much of the season, but he should be able to provide immense value in minutes next to Williamson. His primary value will come from spacing, as he has been a 42.1 percent 3-point shooter over the past four years in Euroleague. An adept shooter from the corners and on pick-and-pops, Melli provides a great spacing threat that, with the gravity Williamson should command as a roll man, will help create a lot of space within the Pelicans’ offense on the types of actions you see below.
Williamson’s driving ability and elite finishing around the rim should be one of New Orleans’s primary offensive weapons, but he’s going to need spacing around him to fully weaponize that, and that’s going to be hard to come by next to Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Bringing back Darius Miller, a 38.8 percent shooter over the past two years, helps. Signing J.J. Redick obviously does as well. But Miller’s former Brose Bamberg teammate is going to be even more effective thanks to the shot diversity that he brings. In addition to stationary shooting, Melli has shown proficiency as an off-the-dribble shooter, attacking off two-dribble pull-ups when he’s run off the line, and he should be a player who can capitalize on a collapsed defense off Zion drives to the rim.
He also helps in other ways that will help make full use of Zion’s skill set. He’s an effective screen setter, technically skilled at springing guards to the rim and then relocating to the 3-point line. Horns sets with Melli and Zion should be lethal, using Melli’s shooting threat and Zion’s roll gravity to open up plenty of options on offense.
He also averaged 1.6 assists per game last season, and is an adept passer out of these types of looks, able to find cutters and dictate transition looks, a must for when Zion is playing in the dunker spot.
His cutting is also going to be a great asset. Melli has solid touch around the rim, and does a good job of using his body to wall off opponents to score inside the restricted area. He should be able to clean up on drives from Zion or Jrue Holiday from the 3-point line.
While Melli’s offensive fit is his primary value, his defense could be very useful next to Williamson as well. The Italian is not going to be an impact defender in the way other European wings like Royce O’Neale have been in recent years, but he’s a smart defender who can be useful on switches. Of particular utility to the Pelicans will be his post defense, which is phenomenal. With Zion, the Pelicans will want to keep him available to float for weak side blocks and to use his athleticism on the perimeter. Melli routinely kept Euroleague’s most feared post options at bay, and played the 5 to allow Jan Vesely, one of Euroleague’s feared weak side shot blockers, free to roam. Melli should be able to defend up a position against second units reliant on post creation, like Portland’s with Enes Kanter or Philadelphia’s with Al Horford, allowing this pairing to further thrive.
Melli isn’t a flashy creator like many of Euroleague’s NBA imports that come in for their offensive utility. He is good in a lot of areas, but outside of shooting, he isn’t going to be excellent in many areas. But for this Pelicans team, he’s pretty ideal. A big forward who can dribble and space the floor next to Williamson is going to be a necessity, and he’s going to allow their bench units to run some fairly sophisticated plays that stress opponents’ backup big men. The NBA adjustment could always be a bit of an issue, but he proved he could fade into the background when needed in two years at Fenerbahce after being a de facto go-to player for Bamberg. He’s a player with a skill set well suited to compliment an elite athletic talent, which Zion clearly is. And while the J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors deals are going to be what get the headlines for New Orleans, Melli’s fit with the team may be just as important.