Phoenix Suns: De’Anthony Melton must remain starting point guard

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images /

Even with new arrivals and Devin Booker returning, the Phoenix Suns need to keep De’Anthony Melton in the starting point guard role.

For the first time since Dec. 26-29, 2017, the Phoenix Suns have won consecutive games, but that’s not the only reason it feels like they’re close to being a routinely respectable basketball team again.

Devin Booker dropped 28 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in his return Saturday night, leading the Suns to their second straight victory in a 107-99 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and saying afterward it was the best he’s felt all season health-wise.

Trevor Ariza is gone. The best year of T.J. Warren‘s career has largely gone overlooked. The rotation is finally starting to fall into place with both Booker and Warren healthy, but one of the big catalysts over the past six or seven games has been an increased role for De’Anthony Melton, the new starting point guard.

With that being said, just when it feels like the Suns are on the verge of figuring things out with so many youngsters, so many rookies in the starting lineup and a first-year head coach trying to manage it all, there are internal and external threats that could change up the whole equation again.

The external threat is an upcoming five-game road trip. Though it features winnable games against teams like the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, that’s still five games, away from home, on a trip spanning nine days.

More importantly, there are new additions to integrate now. While Ariza was hardly playing his best basketball, Saturday’s agreed-upon trade with the Washington Wizards will bring two new players into head coach Igor Kokoskov’s system: Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers.

Oubre is an emerging wing prospect, and at 23 years old, could be a nice fit for his versatility on the defensive end. He could threaten Mikal Bridges‘ starting job, but whether he moves into the starting unit or continues to capitalize off the bench as he has with the Wizards, he’s a new piece to meld into the rotation.

The larger threat to this possible new stability, however, is Austin Rivers — not because he’s a bad player necessarily, but because he may challenge for Melton’s role as the team’s starting point guard.

Looking at the raw averages, it’s not quite easy to see where the problem lies. Melton is only averaging 7.1 points, 3.0 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game over his 13 appearances. He’s posting .402/.333/.833 shooting splits, and he’s spent a considerable amount of time in the G League.

His numbers might be more favorable than the 7.2 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game Rivers has put up in Washington to start the season, especially when his dismal .392/.311/.543 shooting splits are factored in, but he’s a six-year vet who was in a bad situation.

Furthermore, Rivers has experience as an NBA starting point guard, posting a career-best 15.1 points and 4.0 assists per game on .424/.378/.642 shooting splits in his 59 starts for the Los Angeles Clippers just last year. Surely a player like that would get the starting nod over a second round rookie, right?

Well, not exactly.

For starters, Melton’s raw averages don’t tell the whole story. Over the last seven games, when he actually became a regular part of the rotation and played more than 20 minutes in each contest, Melton has averaged 11.3 points, 4.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.

His 42.7 percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent conversion rate from 3 over that span aren’t stellar, but they’re promising enough for a 20-year-old who’s attempted 4.0 triples a game.

"“Personally I’m very pleased with everything,” Kokoskov said of Melton’s progress. “It’s not easy. He spent quite some time with the G League team, and for him to be with the G League team, coming back and not playing, and now we put him in the starting lineup … it’s a lot of pressure and expectations when it comes to a young player.”"

Over the last seven games, Melton’s +1.7 plus/minus is the best on the team (not counting Booker, who only played one of those games). The Suns have posted a +2.3 Net Rating with him on the court, and a dismal -24.7 Net Rating with him off it.

The reason his on/off numbers are so striking? Aside from Phoenix’s horrible lack of bench depth (which Rivers and Oubre/Bridges should help with), it’s what Melton brings to the table defensively.

On the season, the Suns’ defensive rating sits at an ugly 111.5, which ranks 26th in the association. Over these last seven games, however, it’s improved to 109.1, which ranks 18th. Since Melton moved into the starting lineup five games ago, it’s been a 107.4, ranking 13th.

Not all of that can be attributed to Melton, since guys like Bridges, Josh Jackson and Richaun Holmes appear to be rubbing off on the team’s notoriously weak defenders (one example was Deandre Ayton‘s turnaround against Karl-Anthony Towns after dealing with foul trouble in the first half, holding him to seven second half points, most of which came in garbage time).

However, the recent uptick in defensive commitment isn’t coincidental either, even when dealing with such small sample sizes.

Melton’s knack for sticking with opposing ball-handlers is especially important now that Devin Booker is back, and though there will be more of an emphasis on Melton knocking down the lower volume of 3-point looks he’ll see, that defensive ability the biggest reason he should remain with the starting group.

After all, Rivers is only a career 35.2 percent 3-point shooter and a below-average defender. The trade-off in 3-point shooting and defense isn’t significant enough to warrant a change to the starting lineup, especially since Rivers has been miscast as a lead ball-handler and facilitator for most of his career. Simply put, he’s not a point guard, nor is he a good fit next to Booker.

Where he’d be better served is coming off the bench, while Melton provides the defensive tenacity and length, using that all-encompassing wingspan to bottle up opposing point guards, rack up steals and make Booker’s life easier in general. That last part is the biggest case against going with “Point Book” lineups for too long.

"“We need somebody to put pressure on the ball and guard the point guards,” Kokoskov said. “Obviously one of our rookies has got to guard the ball and we want to do a better job picking up full-court, turning the ball over, pressuring the ball. Booker is obviously doing some other stuff for us and defensively he is involved, he’s engaged too, but I think [Melton] is gonna help us there.”"

It’s not like De’Anthony Melton is useless offensively either. In his first game crossing the 20-minute threshold, he notched a career-high 21 points and five assists, going 9-for-12 from the field, 3-for-4 from deep and finishing as a +24 in a 17-point loss to the Sacramento Kings.

"“I have confidence in my game, and as I get better and the more I work on [my shot], the more and more confident [I’ll become],” Melton said afterward. “So I was just shooting the open shot and my teammates were really there for me to encourage me and teach me.”"

Just three games ago, he racked up 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals while knocking down three of his seven 3-pointers. In his first game starting next to Booker Saturday night, he totaled nine points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals in 21 minutes.

And in that overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, though he only had 13 points and eight dimes, he supplied a clutch basket in isolation to force OT:

"“Obviously he’s one of our best defenders on the ball and he’s a smart kid,” Kokoskov said. “He runs the team well, he understands the tendencies when it comes to the offense and certain plays what the purpose of the play is, which tells me that he’s a very smart basketball player and I think he’s going to be in this league for many, many years.”"

The Suns will be hoping that’s the case with Melton but for now, with two expiring contracts set to join the team and Phoenix finally enjoying some semblance of stability in a constantly banged up and shifting rotation, it’s paramount Kokoskov keeps that momentum going and integrates the new arrivals properly.

What Oubre can bring to the table compared to Bridges is a debate for another day, but it’s inherently clear this team needs to leave De’Anthony Melton alongside Booker in the starting lineup — not only because he eases the pressure on giving heavy minutes to “Point Book” lineups, but also because of the defensive mindset this team needs to start winning games.

It’s no coincidence Saturday’s second straight victory also marked the first time the Suns had held their opponent below 100 points in back-to-back games since Jan. 3-5, 2017. It’s also no coincidence defense and deflections were the first things Kokoskov mentioned after the game.

"“I’m not saying searching or changing identity, but it’s just gotta start with the defense and defensive stops,” he said."

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If that’s the case, De’Anthony Melton should remain the starting point guard for the Phoenix Suns until a clear upgrade arrives on the trade market.