ORLANDO -- The potential is undeniable and, at times, tantalizing. It might be a single reach-back block on a lottery pick at summer league, or 14 similar swats while setting a Development League single-game record. There's NBA-caliber talent inside the 7-foot frame of 23-year-old Fab Melo, but watching his inconsistent play in Orlando this week, you wonder if the Boston Celtics have the patience to pry it out.
It's fascinating to hone in on Melo because he's a walking roller-coaster ride. The Brazilian center is genuinely committed to talking on defense, his bassy, accented voice booming as he shouts instructions from the back line. He tries in vain to shuffle a body that seems to be fighting him at times. And while the effort is clear, he far too often gets caught out of position, gets pushed around too easily for his size and fails to box out, which leaves him unable to make a consistent impact on the glass.
During Wednesday's summer league tilt with the Houston Rockets, Melo logged just 10 underwhelming minutes that included one point, one block, and a Mark Blount-like zero rebounds. Asked about the diminished playing time -- at an event that's supposed to be a showcase for younger players like Melo -- Celtics summer coach Jay Larranaga said only, "We have 12 guys on the team, we're trying to get everyone a look. So it's just kind of how the rotation goes in summer league."
There's some truth in that. But Boston actually had only 10 other active players, as Darius Johnson-Odom departed for summer league in Vegas and Nolan Smith is injured. A fatigued Boston bunch needed every serviceable player, yet Melo couldn't stay on the floor even when the Celtics ran with big-heavy lineups in the second half.
The Celtics knew Melo was incredibly raw when they drafted him last summer. After watching Jared Sullinger slide from a high lottery pick into their lap at No. 21, there was a sense that Boston -- not overly lusting over what remained on the board -- could roll the dice at No. 22 while using a first-round pick obtained from the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the Jeff Green-Kendrick Perkins swap.
Boston stashed Melo with the Maine Red Claws of the D-League last season and made sure to keep him there, even when their frontcourt was depleted -- so as not to stunt his development. Melo actually seemed to be breaking through in late December (putting up some gaudy numbers, including that 14-block outing) until his season derailed when he concussed himself walking into a doorframe.
It's the quintessential "Fab being Fab" moment. Even his closest friends tease him about being aloof. It's actually part of his charm.
Melo's teammates and coaches genuinely seem to like him, and many went out of their way to monitor his development from afar last season. When a Red Claws assistant would pop in for a practice or game, players would flock to that person and invariably start with, "How's Fab?"
Even here at summer league this week, his teammates roared with delight as Melo humorously exulted while taking three charges during a game at the start of the week. They likewise cringed when he'd get stuffed at the rim or air ball a short hook shot. They're rooting for him to find his way.
Melo is trying damn hard, but there's still a long road ahead.
Even as Boston heads in a younger direction, it could be in Melo's best interest to continue getting game reps in the D-League. Alas, that left him feeling detached from the varsity squad last season.
"I want to be part of the team [this season], I want to help on the defensive end and with running the floor," Melo said.
When asked whether he felt like he was part of the team last season, Melo showed honesty while replying, "No, it didn't. It didn't. I just wasn't playing [in Boston]. You can't be part of the team like that."
Melo knew full well he'd likely be divorced from the Celtics in his rookie campaign and tried to use it as motivation to improve. He felt like he made strides defensively, learning Boston's system after playing zone at Syracuse. But, a latecomer to the sport, he's also fully aware of his deficiencies. Melo acknowledges a desire to get in better shape in order to run the floor like the team desires, and he absolutely must improve his fundamentals as a rebounder.
Melo lost one of his closest friends when the Celtics cut his former Syracuse teammate Kris Joseph in early January before the second-round draft pick's contract could become guaranteed. He latched back on with Maine in the aftermath, only to be traded to Springfield of the D-League, and worked his way back to the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets.
Now Joseph is set to rejoin Boston as early as Friday, when a blockbuster swap between the Celtics and Nets can finally be consummated. He's kept close tabs on Melo.
"I followed up with guys in Boston and guys in Maine when I was traded," Joseph said. "I think he progressed. I think the biggest thing with Fab is just probably consistency. That's what everyone wants to see. And I think he was able to do that throughout the course of the year, with his effort and his defensive and offensive abilities. He did do that, and did grow as a player."
Melo averaged 9.8 points, 6 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks over 33 appearances for Maine last season. For a Boston front office that hoped to see Melo dominate at that level, his stat lines didn't quite meet expectations.
Melo still landed a spot on the D-League's All-Rookie and All-Defensive first teams. But there's still more growing to do. Larranaga, who worked extensively with Boston's bigs last season, noted earlier this week, "I don't know if we have expectations for [Melo], other than to work hard and continue to improve."
That's the bottom line with Melo: more practice, more reps, more development. But no one knows for sure how long it will take and how the finished product will look.
In the NBA, patience rarely exists. Although Melo is on a cost-efficient rookie deal (he'll make $1.3 million next season), the Celtics hold team options for each of the following two seasons and will have to determine whether they are committed to his development. Boston needs size and center help, but it has also drafted four big men over the past two drafts, making Melo's quest a bit more daunting.
Larranaga might have summed up Melo's status best after a solid summer showing at the start of the week in Orlando.
"He's like all of us," Larranaga said, "a work in progress."