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Fab Melo & the Celtics: The Unrealized Potential of the Syracuse Big Man

Fab Melo is one of the great enigmas in Syracuse history. I scouted him while I worked down in Florida, and got to know his coach well at Sagemont School in Weston. In a media-saturated era without secrets, Melo was the rare, unknown big man. He was another “Air Up There,” a raw 7-footer from a different country who barely spoke English and carried whispers of “have you seen this kid yet?”

Once college coaches learned about Fab, I watched the interest begin to skyrocket. I kept in close contact with his coach Adam Ross, and saw the consistent buzz building around the big man. Syracuse was just one of a number of powerhouses to offer Fab, and eventually Melo chose the Orange. Ross told me Fab was an urban kid, so he liked the proximity to New York and that Syracuse as a city was not a tiny, remote college town. I thought it would take Melo at least a year to adapt to the Big East, but that when he got it, he could dominate. 

His tenure at SU is well documented. It did take him a full season to adjust to life in the college game, but I’m not sure he ever dominated. That first year was met with obvious signs of immaturity and fish out of water moments. The Fizz reported on the dangerous encounters with his girlfriend at the time. There were rumors on campus that he was a total jerk. He seemed constantly dejected by his lack of success on the floor, and drowning in self-doubt the entire season.

I was at the Dome on Senior Day ’11 against DePaul, his coming out party. He hauled in alley-oops, ran the floor with abandon, and me and my buddy BZ looked at one another like, “who is that?” Then his sophomore campaign happened, and for most of it we were watching a different cat. He was confident, polished, knew his role and was most of all, happy. On some nights he was terrific, and many argued he was the team’s most indispensable player (how do you replace an agile 7-footer in the college game?). Buzz on the Hill was that he was social (sometimes too much so – he was allegedly a permanent fixture at Chuck’s even during his suspensions), and he seemed to have turned a corner.

But the academic nonsense happened, the university had to sweep up the mess, piece together the team’s morale for the NCAA tournament and a season of magic turned into one of “what if?” The question moving forward is one of commitment and discipline: Does Fab care enough to do what it takes to succeed? Even if there was an NCAA hawk’s eye on his academics, the fact is he shirked his responsibility to remain eligible.

So what’s his NBA future look like? Plenty of mock drafts have him going to the Celtics, who hold the 21st and 22nd picks. Personally, that seems like a near certainty at this point. The C’s have buckets of cash coming free as Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett’s contracts are up, but after his late season resurgence Danny Ainge is likely to resign KG if he still wants to play. The largest hole all season for Boston was a lack of center, and while Chris Kaman or another free agent pivot might be decent options, the C’s would rather a cost-effective player if they have to spend on Garnett and a swingman off the bench. 

Fab fits that description on a rookie contract. Plus, Melo would benefit from having solid coaching and no pressure to deliver immediately. Doc Rivers is notoriously hesitant on playing rookies, and the way he developed Avery Bradley from a late-first round pick to a starter by the end of his sophomore season is the perfect timeline for Fab. Doc is the league’s best button-pusher, and will know when to push or lift the youngster. If Melo could come in and simply help rebounding-wise, he’d be an immediate upgrade. Boston was one of the league’s worst teams on the glass. The scoring still falls on Rondo, Pierce, KG and others.

Some have plenty of questions about Melo. One NBA talent evaluator told the Boston Herald, “The kid has no offensive skill. I don’t think he has a high enough motor. I think he’s a high-risk pick.” And therein lies the rub. While Fab’s physical size is tantalizing, how much effort will he put forth? If he was discouraged playing against Marquette and USF, what about the Bulls and Heat? Does he have the necessary discipline to mold himself into an NBA center?

But if there’s any place he could succeed it would be Boston. Fab’s a mystery, but the Celtics are the best fit.

Posted: D.A.

The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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