Nicolo Melli shoots a three-pointer at Houston

Nicolo Melli providing Pelicans with another offensive weapon, leads NBA in three-point shooting since Jan. 1

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

SAN FRANCISCO – In at least one way, Nicolo Melli is a basketball coach’s dream. While some players must be encouraged to curtail their tunnel vision and pass the ball to teammates more, Melli has often had the opposite problem during his NBA debut season.

“We’re going to keep on screaming to him to shoot the ball,” New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday said of Melli’s occasional reluctance to fire.

Indeed, despite being one of the league’s most accurate shooters – Melli leads the NBA in three-point percentage (49.3) since Jan. 1, minimum 50 attempts – it can be difficult for him to shake the pass-first mentality he developed over a lengthy pro career in Europe. According to Basketball Reference, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward averaged a mere 6.5 points per game over his combined nine seasons in Italy, Germany and Turkey. As a result, he’s seemed more wired to set a physical screen or make an extra pass than to be a high-volume shooter.

That partly explains why Pelicans teammates were thrilled to see Melli erupt for 6/7 three-point shooting in a 115-101 win Sunday at Golden State. The NBA rookie helped completely change the momentum in favor of New Orleans in the second half, giving the Pelicans another offensive weapon, along with talents such as All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, fast-starting rookie Zion Williamson and Holiday.

In his first 26 appearances with New Orleans, Melli did not even average one made three-pointer per game (sank 23), but in his 19 games since the calendar flipped to 2020, he’s drained 35 treys in 71 attempts. His minutes per game have increased from 14.2 in the first three months to 18.6 in January and February.

“He shoots the basketball so well that we want him to shoot the ball every time he catches it,” Ingram said Sunday, “which is probably not right, but we like to see him shoot because he shoots it so well.”

“He’s one of our best shooters,” guard Lonzo Ball said. “We tell him no matter how many shots you take, if they’re open, keep shooting. I think he’s been doing that.”

As a smiling Alvin Gentry put it after Sunday’s win, “We need to teach him the American way.”

Melli’s transition to the NBA from Europe has featured countless adjustments and learning experiences as he adapts to a new culture – including basketball-wise. For example, after a postgame radio interview Sunday in which Melli was asked about his second-half “heat check” vs. the Warriors, Melli needed an explanation for what the English phrase “heat check” actually means. Apparently, there is nothing similar used in Italian to describe when a basketball player is on a roll offensively and wants to test the limits of exactly how hot he is shooting-wise.

“It’s a big change for me,” Melli said of trying to be more aggressive in looking for his own offense. “But my teammates are going to keep passing me the ball, so I have to convert their trust into shots and possibly baskets.

“(The NBA) was a completely new environment for me, a new world, a totally different system, different philosophy, different team. It was a matter of adapting to the system, the team, the league. Step by step, I’m getting there.”

New Orleans (25-32, but 19-10 since Dec. 18) has benefited from Melli’s larger contributions, including going 10-3 when he registers double-digit points. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – when he scores just two points or less, the Pelicans are 3-10. As the season has progressed, Melli has begun to grasp to a greater degree how much being more “selfish” about shooting will help his team.

“When we watch videos with my development coaches, it makes me even more mad when I turn down shots, because I see the team trusting me,” Melli said of recent film sessions. “It’s something I’m working on, not only on the court but also off the court, analyzing (it). Hopefully I will get there.”

Sunday’s performance at Chase Center was one of the most encouraging signs yet in that category, with Melli setting a personal high for three-pointers made and nearly tying his most attempts in a game.

“We want him shooting high-volume threes,” said guard JJ Redick, NOLA’s most accurate and prolific gunner at 45.2 percent on 6.6 attempts per game. “For him, (his improvement this season) was just finding a rhythm and getting consistent playing time. Since that happened, he’s been great.”

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