NBA summer league games are informal and unofficial, but it was hard to tell by watching Hawks rookie Omari Spellman during his debut Monday night.
Spellman pumped a fist and screamed after making his first 3-pointer. Later, point guard Trae Young attempted to calm Spellman when he appeared angry while walking back to the huddle following a poor defensive sequence. Afterward, Spellman seemed dejected while sitting at his locker and examining the box score from the 103-88 Grizzlies victory.
During Spellman’s one season at Villanova, the Wildcats lost only four games on the way to winning the national title with a victory over Michigan in the final. Spellman felt the sting of a defeat in his first game since then, even if the loss wasn’t official.
“I only know how to play hard,” Spellman said. “It’s hard for me to not play hard. It’s just frustrating. At Villanova, that really was the formula: you play hard, you win. It’s not the same (in the NBA). It’s an adjustment for me.”
Spellman’s debut was evidence of what Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and his teammates said during the team’s minicamp last weekend. Spellman’s competitive streak doesn’t subside just because the stakes are relatively low.
Spellman missed five of six 3-point attempts against the Grizzlies but scored 11 points with six rebounds and two blocked shots in 23 minutes. Spellman produced four dunks the first half, with each play highlighting his hustle and feel for the game.
In the first quarter, Spellman ran to the rim in transition and caught Young’s drop-off pass for a dunk. Later in the period Spellman executed a big to big pick-and-roll with John Collins for a dunk. In the second quarter Spellman dunked on fast-break pass from Jaylen Collins — Spellman followed that with an emphatic block of Grizzlies guard Jevon Carter’s driving shot at the other end — and then stole Deyonta Davis’ lackadaisical back court pass and cruised in for another dunk.
Those sequences were examples of Spellman’s fierceness producing positive results . But there were moments when Spellman showed what Pierce meant when he said during the minicamp that Spellman’s “energy and intensity kind of gets you in trouble” in the NBA if it’s not focused in the right way.
“His energy needs to be spent appropriately,” Pierce said after the Grizzlies game. “That’s just part of his learning and his growth. Figuring out how to defend, when to be aggressive and when to be just smart. He’ll be fine.”
Pierce said Spellman also “has to be able to balance his offensive game.” At Villanova, Spellman was an accomplished 3-point shooter, especially when popping out to the 3-point line on pick-and-rolls. Now Pierce wants Spellman to roll to the basket and create more scoring chances at the rim with his long wingspan (7-foot-2) and strong frame.
Spellman seemed irritated that he couldn’t make more of the open 3-point chances he had against the Grizzlies.
“I think I kind of got frustrated,” Spellman said. “I had passion (but) if I don’t use it in the correct way, that’s something I have to be real with myself about. That’s not something that is going to help this team, me getting frustrated.
“Even if I get frustrated I’ve got to keep playing hard, keep being the best teammate I can be and trying to get after it for the guys next to me. They are doing the same for me.”
Soon after the Hawks selected Spellman with the No. 30 overall pick, general manager Travis Schlenk predicted that “the city is going to fall in love with how hard he plays.” Spellman’s Hawks teammates say they already appreciate his competitiveness.
Spellman was the talk of the team last weekend after he (unofficially) set a team record in a conditioning drill known as a “beep test.” It came down to Spellman and Young in the end, with Spellman outlasting the slim point guard.
It was a surprising result because Spellman isn’t in top shape. At the combine last month Spellman weighed 254 pounds with 13.75 percent body fat, second-highest among the prospects there, and has said his goal is to get down to 240 pounds with 10 percent fat.
It turns out that the attention paid to his lack of conditioning motivated Spellman to attack the drill with vigor.
“You hear a lot of stuff like, ‘He’s out of shape, he’s not quick,’” Spellman said. “I wanted to prove a point.”
Said Young: “On the court he’s very competitive, will do whatever it takes to win, even in little drills. He’s a damn good competitor. That’s something I love about Omari. And off the court, he’s hilarious."
The potential downside to Spellman’s competitive spirit is that he can become too disheartened when he doesn’t win. Spellman didn’t lose much with Villanova, but the Hawks are projected to lose more than they win when the real games begin next season.
Brushing off summer league losses could be a good first step for Spellman in learning to deal with the inevitable adversity that comes along with being an NBA rookie on a rebuilding team.
“As a team, we had a rough night,” Spellman said. “People who have been in this business a lot longer than me have told me it happens. So, we’ve just got to go back to the drawing board. That’s really all there is to it.”