From the moment Omari Spellman’s name was shouted to the rafters by Ryan Cameron, the Atlanta Hawks had a different energy about them on Saturday night at State Farm Arena. Notorious for their slow starts this season, the Hawks were firing on all cylinders in the opening period of their Southeast division tilt against the Miami Heat, scoring 41 points in the first 12 minutes en route to a 123-118 victory, the Hawks’ third in their first nine games of the 2018-19 season.
Spellman entering the starting lineup was a surprise to just about everybody outside of head coach Lloyd Pierce, Spellman, and Vince Carter, whom the rookie big man out of Villanova replaced on the court to open the proceedings. Pierce was complimentary of both players after the game, specifically mentioning Carter’s willingness to come off the bench and still close the game at the power forward position, leaving a path for Spellman to get some time with the starting unit.
Beyond his offensive skill set, a big reason the Hawks reached down for Spellman with the 30th overall pick in the 2018 Draft was his toughness and seemingly unlimited energy — two hallmarks of John Collins’, with whom Atlanta obviously had a ton of success after drafting him in the first round in 2017. Spellman is not nearly the athlete Collins is but plays with the same fire and competitiveness that can ignite a team sleepwalking through the opening minutes of games, as the Hawks had been this season.
Spellman continues to find the vast majority of his minutes at the power forward spot as the Hawks mostly use Alex Len and Dewayne Dedmon as the center tandem, though there were a handful of possessions at the end of the first half when both teams went super small with Justise Winslow and Alex Poythress manning the middle for Miami and Atlanta, respectively. Len continues to hold down the starting spot he earned when Dedmon was out injured through the first few games of the year, but now that Dedmon is back at nearly full health, there will have to be a conversation about which man is right for the job.
While the general theme of the “Who Starts and Who Sits?” game is mostly fodder for early morning talk shows and can vary wildly based on how a team runs their rotations, this particular battle is made all the more interesting because of Dedmon’s contract situation. Dedmon is in the second year of a two-year contract signed in 2017 that allows him to earn up to $900,000 in extra money if he starts at least 41 games and hits certain statistical averages. He was able to achieve these numbers last season and opted in to his contract for 2018-19, presumably under the impression that he would be the starting center and would be able to hit those benchmarks once again. I asked him directly if he had had any conversations with management or the coaching staff about his starting spot and he didn’t give an indication one way or the other, but it would very much surprise me if we don’t see Dedmon out there with the starters in the near future.
Trae Young will grab the headlines with his 24 points and 15 assists, as well he should. Young commanded the offense from start to finish, getting everybody involved and finding his scoring touch when necessary. He continues to impress with his vision and passing, which set him apart from some of the players to whom he’s compared on a regular basis — none of Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, or Kemba Walker are on Young’s level as a passer.
Conversely, he’s nowhere the shooter those players are (at least for now), but he shows a bit more of his offensive ceiling with each passing contest as he continues to acclimate to the speed and strength of NBA defenders. No longer fully settling for floaters, as he was in the first few games of the season, Young’s ferocity attacking the rim and willingness to take contact inside has opened up a lot of the Hawks’ offense while he retains the reputation as an incredible off-the-dribble three-point shooter, which brings defensive big men way out of the paint to contain him. This defensive tactic creates open teammates on the weak side, which Young can pick out with pinpoint passes.
After four straight losses in which none of the games were particular close, merely being locked in a back-and-forth affair at the end of the game was a good experience for the young Atlanta team. Coming into Saturday’s game, the Hawks had only had one tight game, when they beat the Dallas Mavericks in their home opener more than a week ago.
The Heat are an extremely well-coached outfit and head coach Erik Spoelstra always has a creative tactic or two up his sleeve in to pull out in the last five minutes of a close game, but the Hawks were up for the challenge, grinding the Miami offense to a halt. The Heat scored just seven points in the last 6:41 of the fourth quarter, shooting 3-for-9 with four turnovers as Atlanta picked up their collective energy and were truly flying around defensively in a way we’ve very rarely seen this season. Atlanta’s offense wasn’t overly fantastic throughout the same period, but they were able to cobble together enough points to win the game.