August 5, 2010

Syracuse ready for arrival of big man Melo

At one time or another, just about every parent warns a child about the perils of wasting too much time in front of the TV.

The message apparently didn't get through to Syracuse center Fab Melo. Of course, he also wasn't near his parents at the time.

Melo had only a rudimentary understanding of English when he left his family in Brazil a couple of years ago to stay with a host family in the United States. He credits TV for helping him learn the language well enough to have no trouble interacting with teammates or classmates.

"When he first came, his English was remedial at best," said Adam Ross, who coached Melo at The Sagemont School in Weston, Fla., a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. "Now he's totally fluent. It's actually quite amazing, the transformation he's made."

His transformation on the court has been equally impressive. Melo still was learning to play basketball at an age when most of his peers were learning how to drive a car, yet the 7-footer's game has matured so rapidly that he was the nation's No. 16 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.

Melo grew up in Brazil with the name Fabricio de Melo (he earned the nickname "Fab" after moving to the United States). Like just about any Brazilian kid, Melo spent his childhood playing soccer.

But he was bigger than most of his kids. A lot bigger. Melo grew so big that he eventually outgrew his favorite sport.

"I got too tall," Melo said. "I couldn't play soccer anymore. I was too slow for soccer, so I started playing basketball."

Melo didn't start playing competitive basketball until ninth grade, but his potential soon became evident. He clearly had the height to play at an elite level, and all those years of soccer also gave him the necessary footwork. He played for the Brazilian 17-and-under national team, and his upside seemed bright enough that Melo eventually moved to the United States two years ago for athletic and academic reasons. His family agreed this was the best decision for his future, even though he didn't like being separated from his parents.

"That was tough," said Melo, who kept in touch with his family through frequent phone calls and e-mails. "That was really tough."

As soon as he arrived in Florida, Melo got a crash course in basketball. Florida High School Athletic Association rules regarding international transfers prevented Melo from playing for Sagemont in his junior year, but he never was far from a basketball court.

"When I got here, I was playing a lot," Melo said. "In the summer, I'd play nine games a day. That was crazy."

He soon would become one of the hottest names on the recruiting scene. Melo's performance on the AAU circuit over the first half of 2009 helped him emerge as a five-star prospect. He developed into a relatively polished offensive player much more quickly than most big men his age.

"What you don't see very often in high school post players - only in the very good ones - is advanced footwork and low-post moves," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Fab has that."

He finally got the chance to play American high school basketball during his senior season and was selected as a McDonald's All-American. By that point, he already had decided to play his college basketball at Syracuse.

That move might require even more of an adjustment that Melo already has made. Melo said he has seen snow once, while playing in a tournament in Missouri, but he's never experienced anything quite like a winter in upstate New York.

"I need to get used to it," Melo said. "I'm going there because it's a great college, a great program. That it's cold, it doesn't matter."

Syracuse's weather might not suit Melo, but its style of play could represent an ideal fit.

"He's skilled enough now and in good enough shape that he'll go in and have an immediate impact," Ross said. "He's a tremendous shot-blocker and has a really great sense for the ball. He's going to be playing in that Syracuse 2-3 zone. He's going to have to rebound in that zone, and he does that well. Offensively, he can shoot the ball out to 15 feet, and he's got some pretty solid post moves with both hands."

Melo is trying to get his body ready for what he's going to face in the Big East.

After weighing as much as 272 pounds, Melo started cutting out fast food and trimmed down to the 240s. Melo said he wouldn't mind putting on some more weight, but only if he's adding muscle.

"If there's a raw area with him, it'd be with his basketball conditioning," Meyer said. "His weight and conditioning have fluctuated. When he's in shape, obviously he's very good. When he's not in shape, he's not quite as good. He doesn't have overwhelming athleticism or quickness, but as long as he's in good shape, he's quick enough."

Ross said he noticed a major change in Melo's mobility and conditioning after the weight loss. Melo wasn't struggling to get through two-hour workouts anymore. His footwork got better when his body got leaner.

The difference was evident during the McDonald's All-American Game practices. The change was particularly apparent when Melo played defense.

"I scouted him early on more as an offensive player, but I thought he looked good defensively during the McDonald's practices and game," Meyer said. "A lot of that was the conditioning factor. He was moving a lot better. He was jumping quicker. He has a chance to be very good on both ends. You don't find guys that big who are as skilled offensively as he is."

Melo is the centerpiece of a Syracuse recruiting class that ranks first in the Big East and seventh in the nation. The class also features 6-3 shooting guard Dion Waiters (the No. 29 prospect in the nation), 6-7 forward C.J. Fair (No. 94) and 6-10 center Baye Moussa Keita.

That class should help Syracuse remain a contender even as it attempts to replace All-America forward Wes Johnson, second-team All-Big East guard Andy Rautins and center Arinze Onuaku from last season's Big East championship team. Johnson went to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft, while the New York Knicks took Rautins in the second round.

"Our young guys are as talented as any young guys in the country," said Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine, who recently played for the USA Men's Select Team in Las Vegas. "I was training with them for two weeks before I left for [Las Vegas]. They worked hard every day. We had 6 a.m. workouts that usually kill freshmen, but they got up and we all got after it together. It showed me a lot."

This much is certain: Melo won't have a problem interacting with his new teammates. The kid who arrived in the U.S. struggling to learn the native language got the hang of things quickly enough.

"He was one of the more popular kids on campus from the first day of school," Ross said. "People figured out a way to communicate with him. He's such a big personality. He's also a big person. He stands out in the crowd."

Melo shouldn't encounter the typical freshman concerns about being away from home because he already has dealt with those issues. After leaving his native country to move to the United States, the move from south Florida to Syracuse shouldn't seem all that worrisome. And his personality ought to make him an immediate hit.

"I like to play around with my friends," Melo said. "I'm always striving to have fun and to smile on the court. That's when I play good, when I have fun."

Melo admits there are times that he still gets somewhat nervous when he talks in English, but he feels comfortable enough to participate in interviews. He shouldn't have any problem chatting with teammates and classmates.

He got plenty of practice from talking around campus. And the time he spent in front of the TV also paid plenty of dividends.

"You tell kids not to watch TV,'' Ross said. "In this case, it was the more TV, the better because he learned a lot of English through television."

(Yahoo! Sports writer Jason King contributed to this report).

Exclusive fraternity
Syracuse center Fab Melo is one of only two players in the 2010 Rivals 150 listed as 7 feet tall in the Rivals.com database. Here's a look at each player.
PlayerHeightSchoolRanking
Fab Melo7-0Syracuse16th
The buzz: Melo grew up as a soccer fan in Brazil and didn't play competitive basketball until he was in ninth grade. He moved to the United States two years ago and led The Sagemont School of Weston, Fla., to the Class 2A state semifinals in his lone season of high school basketball in the United States. He was selected as a McDonald's All-American.
Meyers Leonard7-0Illinois31st
The buzz: Leonard averaged 18.9 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.4 blocks and 3.8 assists per game as a senior to lead Robinson (Ill.) High to the Illinois Class 2A state championship. He was selected to the High School Academic All-American Classic this spring for top basketball players who also have excelled in the classroom and community, but a foot injury prevented him from playing.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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