WHEN Justin Melton soared for an alley-oop dunk late in a game in the PBA Philippine Cup eliminations, fans were left in awe by the 5-foot-10 Fil-American guard's terrific leap.
Even more surprising to some fans was how Melton fast has locked up a place in San Mig's rotation in the playoffs by earning the trust of head coach Tim Cone.
But his former head coach in the Asean Basketball League, Ariel Vanguardia, is the least surprised by Melton’s rise. What was surprising for the Filipino coach was his former ward went down as the 14th pick overall in the last PBA rookie draft.
“Justin is the biggest steal (of the draft),” said Vanguardia in an online message from Malaysia. “I was more surprised that he was not picked in the first round.”
The high-flying guard out of Mt. Olive College tried out for a spot among the Gilas Pilipinas cadet before suiting up for Vanguardia’s Westports Malaysia Dragons where he had showed a glimpse of his abilities — including his high-wire act.
Vanguardia even tried to talk up Melton's value prior to the draft, saying his skills and talent were comparable to Talk 'N Text star Jason Castro's.
Still he found no takers until Cone grabbed him early in the second round.
Melton averaged 9.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 2.2 steals for the Dragons last year and became a fan favorite in Malaysia because of his dunks as well as his personality. His highlight dunk against Petron in the PBA was even posted on the ABL Facebook page.
“Close siya sa mga fans dito. Fan favorite dito kasi dunker. Mabait na bata,” said Vanguardia.
After a slow start to his PBA career owing to an injury, Melton has risen to the occasion for San Mig in the playoffs. In Game Three of the Mixers’ semifinal series against Barangay Ginebra, Melton teamed up with fellow guard Mark Barroca to score the killer blows in a 97-89 victory.
Vanguardia is even more impressed with how Melton has transformed himself from a kamikaze slasher into a jump shooter in the short time that he has spent under Cone's tutelage.
“I’ve seen all the PBA games online. I’m happy that he recovered from his early injury. He was really known to be a driver and very choosy with his jump shots,” Vanguardia said.
Vanguardia credits Melton’s improved play to Cone's guidance.
“Now, I can see that he is confident taking open shots within coach Tim’s triangle. I’m very happy for him (Justin),” said Vanguardia.