On the court, he got stronger, improved his work ethic and emerged as one of the nation’s premier defenders. Off the court, he changed his lifestyle, tried to become more professional and figured out how to deal with adversity — some of it by his own making.
The Big East Defensive Player of the Year is traveling around the country, working out in front of NBA scouts and trying to answer one question: Why should a team spend a high draft pick on a player who couldn’t finish last season because of academic problems?
”It was academic,” Melo said Tuesday after working out for the Pacers in Indianapolis. ”They ask, I explain (what) happened — that I came from another country and until four years ago didn’t even speak English.”
Pacers officials do not take questions from reporters following the workouts.
Poor academics caused the Brazilian to be suspended twice during his sophomore season, first for three games and in March for the NCAA tournament.
Without the 7-foot, 255-pound center, the Orange fell short of their postseason expectations, losing to Ohio State in the regional finals. Syracuse had been ranked No. 1 for six weeks during the regular season and was No. 2, behind eventual national champion Kentucky in the final poll.
Melo had to deal with his own emotional roller-coaster as he watched the games on television back in Syracuse, N.Y.
”It was very difficult not to be able to play,” he said. ”But that’s something I couldn’t do anything about.”
Melo’s problems were only part of a challenging season that began with sex-abuse allegations against assistant coach Bernie Fine. Melo’s academic troubles created additional cause for concern. Then came an admission from school officials that the university had self-reported possible violations of its internal drug policy by former members of the team more than a year earlier. The school said the NCAA was investigating and that no players on last season’s roster were involved.
Despite the distractions, coach Jim Boeheim and his team managed to win 34 games.
”It was a tough season, but coach Boeheim did a great job of keeping us focused,” Melo said.
Now Melo is off to what most presume to be a big NBA payday. Projections have Melo going anywhere from the middle of the first round to late in the first round.
On Tuesday, Melo said he can make a defensive impact in the NBA next season, and with only six years of basketball experience, his offensive game has plenty room to improve. He averaged 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and shot 56.6 percent from the field last season.
Will Melo’s upside and his answers to the big questions be enough to convince NBA scouts to take him?
”I think they’re comfortable with it (the answers),” Melo said. ”And I’m still new to the game.”