Sixers: Is De’Anthony Melton part of the Core Four?

De'Anthony Melton, Sixers (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
De'Anthony Melton, Sixers (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

The Sixers traded the No. 23 pick (David Roddy) and Danny Green to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for De’Anthony Melton on draft night. The general tone around the fandom was celebratory — Melton’s awesome. But frankly, the collective “we” might have underrated just how awesome Melton is.

After some early bumps in the road, Melton has fully come into his own as a critical part of Philadelphia’s rotation. The 24-year-old may ultimately start too many games to compete for Sixth Man of the Year, but that’s the kind of season Melton is on track for. He’s the perfect complement to Philly’s core players and undoubtedly the kind of player the Sixers should keep around long term.

A whirlwind defensive presence, prolific spot-up shooter, and mostly competent emergency ball-handler, Melton checks a ton of boxes that this team too often left unchecked in years past. I would endeavor to say that Melton, not Tobias Harris, is the fourth member of the Sixers’ co-called “Core Four.”

De’Anthony Melton is everything the Sixers could have hoped for

This is not meant as criticism of Tobias Harris. His sage wisdom in the locker room and willingness to ego-check in face of greater star power has been essential to the Sixers’ success. And he can still scale up and take over games, as proven by his gutsy 24-point performance in Tuesday’s impressive win over Brooklyn.

That being said, let’s just conceptually break down the idea of Core Four. Obviously Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey are locked into the group. And it might simply be more accurate to call them the Big Three and be done with it. But if there’s a fourth member of that group — a player who is truly essential to Philadelphia’s overarching pursuit of success — is it the misfit, overpaid veteran who’s spicing up the trade market, or is it the young two-way guard who is anchoring the perimeter defense and who is an even better perimeter shooter?

I don’t want to be too harsh on Harris. He has bought fully into the 3-and-D role the Sixers require of him. He’s quite efficient in that role too. That said, he will never been completely at home in such a role. He’s too used to ball-handling equity, too used to running pick-and-rolls or attacking downhill. The Sixers still need some of that from him, but not much.

Meanwhile, Harris simply isn’t half the defender that Melton is. He showed up big-time in the playoffs last season, but on the whole it’s best to consider Harris perfectly average on that side of the ball. He’s prone to some bone-headed mistakes, but his size and effort balance the scales.

As for Melton… he might just be better? Remove name and contract from the equation, and it’s hard to formulate a strong argument in Harris’ favor. Melton takes more 3s per-minute and does so quite successfully (40.8 percent on the season). While he lacks Harris’ ability to attack downhill and exploit size advantages in the post, Melton provides more juice as a passer. He’s better connective tissue when everyone’s available, and he’s also capable of scaling up in the face of injuries (22 points on 6-of-10 from deep in the win over Brooklyn). And there’s the defense. Melton is straight-up one of the best guard defenders in the NBA — a whirlpool of length and energy, using his 6-foot-8 wingspan to pick pockets or stuff ball-handlers at the point of attack.

If you factor team need into the equation, then it leans even stronger in Melton’s favor. His defense is absolutely essential to Philadelphia’s success, and it’s why he will close a lot of games this season — even once the stars are back. P.J. Tucker is great, but he’s best weaponized against bigger wings. Matisse Thybulle is great, but he’s borderline unplayable half the time because he can’t shoot. So, the burden of elite guard defense falls to Melton. And he continues to answer the call beautifully.

Maybe we should just call it the Fab Five or something. Truly, Harris does bring a lot to the table in spite of his many flaws and regrettable contract. But Melton is shining in his new home. The Sixers might have fleeced the desperately deep Grizzlies into giving up a real difference-maker on the cheap.

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