Taking Charge: Fab Melo and the Art of Playing Defense

Volumes of prose have been written about what Fabricio de Melo means to the Syracuse Orange, and that was no more evident than when he sat out three games last month for academic reasons. His presence changes the team’s dynamic on both ends of the floor, and he has made vast improvements to his game since his freshman season. Hell, if Melo’s weight loss alone was part of an announcer cliché drinking game, we’d all be stupid by halftime. This, we know to be a fact.

But there are two particular parts of Fab’s game that truly impress me, and both come on the defensive end of the court. In addition to his vastly increased shot-blocking acumen – he leads the team with 3.1 per game – Fab has earned every penny of his scholarship this season by heading up the Orange in one unsung category – taking charges.

The fact that he leads the team in both shots blocked and charges drawn is not lost on this humble observer.

Let’s face it: taking charges is a thankless task. You have to anticipate your opponent’s move, hustle your ass off, sacrifice your body… and for what? Charges aren’t even an official statistic. Big time scorers get all the headlines, interviews, and retweet requests, while charge-takers spend most of their time trying not to get kicked in the crotch. Even leading rebounders and shot-blockers, also typically considered ‘energy’ and ‘hustle’ players, get more hero love than your lowly charge-taker. For Fab to lead the team in both blocks and charges is a notable feat, and one that deserves some publicity.

So how does he do it?

Taking charges is an art. It involves more than just standing around and hoping to get plowed over. Like I said before, you need to be able to foresee where the ballhandler is headed, then beat him to the spot and set up to take the fall. We know that the offense has the advantage in most of these types of collisions, so the defender really needs to have good technique and be able to pick his spots in order to make sure he doesn’t end up on the bench in foul trouble.

But what exactly is the most fundamentally sound way to take a charge?

First, the defender needs to be able to make a snap decision on the right time and place to try to draw an offensive foul. Most charges happen when a dribbler gets up a head of steam on his way to the basket, either on a fast break or a drive from the perimeter. The player attempting to take the charge is usually the help defender, so he often has an element of surprise on his side. The ballhandler can be so focused on beating his man to the basket that he doesn’t see the help coming until it’s too late.

Once the defender decides to try to take the charge, it’s up to him to get there in time. That takes an incredible amount of foot speed and hustle, because a split second delay can be the difference between a charge and a blocking foul. Once the defender arrives, he must set his feet outside of the arc and remain relatively still, or else the call will most likely not go his way. At the risk of getting you all hammered, this is where Fab’s improved conditioning and athleticism comes in handy. If he’s too slow to react, he’ll pick up a personal foul. That sends the offensive player to the free throw line and him to the bench. Because we all know how patient Boeheim can be when his big men make avoidable mistakes…

Finally, the defender must sell the charge. This is where Fab really excels. Generally speaking, there aren’t too many college basketball players who can knock a 7 foot tall, 255 pound man to the floor. So Fab has to play it up a bit, which typically involves rocking back on his heels ever so slightly in order to get his momentum moving backward and making it easier to be bowled over. Teams will actually work on this in practice to get players in the habit of falling properly. That’s where the selflessness and dedication come into play. I don’t know too many people who like to fall down. I know even fewer who like to fall down and have someone else land on top of them. But there’s Melo, doing it each and every game – even though he’s one of the premier shot-blockers in the conference and could just as easily try to swat the ball away. He needs to be recognized for that. The crazy part is, he really seems to enjoy doing it.

“I like to take a charge,” Melo told the Post-Standard's Donna Ditota. “They get a foul and we get the ball. Whatever gets the stop is great.”

Fab echoes his head coach's message, which seems to have sunk in.

"I tell Fab all the time, a charge is really better than a blocked shot," Jim Boeheim told Sports Illustrated earlier this month. "We get the ball, they get a foul, and it keeps them from driving hard at the basket."

So on Saturday, when you’re watching the SU-UConn game, take note when Fab hits the floor and the ball goes to the Orange. Ask yourself if you would rather take a charge or block a shot, and appreciate the sacrifice he makes for the good of the team. Then take a swig when Schulman or Vitale tells you that Melo lost 30 pounds in the offseason. The way the Orange have been eeking out victories this season, you’re probably going to need it.

Jeremy Ryan is a writer/editor for CNYcentral.com in Syracuse. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyRyan44.

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