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Examining Omari Spellman’s work in the G League

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Spellman has spent some time in Erie lately. What has he shown with the Bayhawks that might translate to his NBA career?

Detroit Pistons v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Early in his rookie year, Omari Spellman was a significant piece in the rotation for the Atlanta Hawks. Through injury to starting power forward John Collins, Spellman was called upon to play in Collins’ spot in addition to backup center minutes, picking up a string of starts in the first part of November.

Collins’ return pushed Spellman back to the bench, but he was eventually sidelined with his own injury, a bad hip that kept him out about three weeks. Since his return, the former Villanova star has found himself not just out of the Hawks’ rotation but off the team entirely; Spellman has spent the last week with the Erie Bayhawks in the G League as he works on his conditioning and gets more consistent playing time than the Hawks can offer him at this point.

At the outset, it should be noted that Spellman’s path from rotation piece to the G League (and, presumably, back into the rotation in the near future, now that he’s been recalled from Erie) isn’t entirely uncommon among players chosen with the No. 30 overall pick. Despite having all the shine of a first-round pick, the hit rate on players taken in his range isn’t fantastic. For every Jimmy Butler (taken No. 30 by the Bulls in 2011), there’s a Lazar Hayward or Christian Eyenga (who were taken No. 30 in 2010 and 2009, respectively, and played a total of 123 NBA games between them). Time will tell where Spellman falls, but it shouldn’t be a cause for concern that the club has opted to stick him in the G League for a stint during his maiden professional voyage.

These games in Erie are also useful when it comes to evaluating his skill level and whether or not he’s capable of contributing for the Hawks this season. Spellman will get opportunities to play a more impactful role with the Bayhawks than he does in Atlanta, as he’s one of the better players on the floor whenever he suits up in the G League. Especially on the offensive end, Erie has made a point to keep him involved — he’s pushing the ball in transition, posting up, and letting fly from the three-point line whenever he’s even halfway open. Not all of these opportunities equate what he’ll see when he returns to the big team, but for developmental and evaluation purposes, the club is letting him loose to essentially do whatever he wants in an attempt to see what he can do.

The results have been decidedly mixed thus far, as he’s posted solid counting stats on some not-so-solid efficiency through three games. His counting numbers — 16.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game on nearly 33 minutes per game — would indicate that he’s back up to speed with his conditioning and is ready to return to the Hawks, should they need him, but the 40 percent shooting from the field and 30 percent shooting from beyond the three-point line says that he still needs some time to get his legs back under him. The actual answer skews much more toward the former than the latter — all in all, Spellman has looked about as expected.

Offensively, the coaching staff mostly gave him free rein to do as he pleases, which led to a handful of wild shots. In his debut against the Maine Red Claws, Spellman was clearly the Bayhawks’ best offensive option and was involved in most everything they did on that end of the floor on his way to 28 points on 9-for-20 shooting from the field and 5-for-12 from beyond the three-point line.

Among those 11 missed shots were a few ill-advised attempts that he would never be allowed to take at the NBA level, but when he took good shots in the flow of the offense, he looked entirely comfortable from just about everywhere on the floor. Maine executed a more traditional drop coverage in pick-and-roll and generally favored helping into the paint heavily, which opened him up for the type of standstill and pick-and-pop jumpers that should be his bread and butter in the big leagues:

In particular, the final shot in the above clip is impressive — the pass was slightly off target, he was on the move, and he was still able to get his feet set and knock down the three-pointer.

When the Red Claws played out on him or he saw an opening to drive, he was equally adept there, putting the ball on the floor for a few nice finishes:

Spellman is quite skilled for his position, though he’ll likely have to be a center long-term to fully unlock everything he can do offensively. Atlanta’s vision for him has to be as a playmaker through whom the offense can operate, a role which would allow him to use his passing vision, ability to put the ball on the floor, and shooting to put significant pressure on opposing big men.

In the latter two games, Long Island and Windy City were playing a more progressive switching system defensively, which allowed Spellman to work on his inside game. His combination of size and skill should give him an advantage against guards on the block or in pick-and-roll, where he can ward them off and finish with either hand around the basket:

The other end of the floor is an entirely different story. Even in the G League, where Spellman should see fewer explosive athletes and fewer complex set plays, he struggled mightily to defend basic pick-and-roll actions. While the center position is likely his long-term home offensively, he’ll have to make world-changing strides on defense in order to reach that goal.

The upside is that the Hawks have a long while to teach him the ins and outs of pick-and-roll defense; the downside is that he’s got such a long way to go that it’s unlikely he’ll ever get there. However, if he ever got to be even below average defensively, rather than the adventure he currently is, then Spellman’s offensive skills would take over and he could be a key cog on a future contender.

In particular, he didn’t seem to respect the ball enough, choosing instead to jump back toward his own man rolling to the rim before he had stopped the initial penetration. Rim protection is mostly non-existent for Spellman at this point, though he did have a nice rotation in the third quarter against Maine:

Other times, his rotations were closer to this play against Long Island, where he was immensely late to tag Mitch Creek and got dunked on as a result:

Spellman, despite his rather rotund current build for an NBA player, has enough athleticism and gives more than enough effort to make things happen defensively, he’s just at the stage in his career where his defensive IQ isn’t where it needs to be. Of the three major problems with defensive players (doesn’t want to, can’t, and doesn’t know how), not knowing how to defend is perhaps the easiest to correct, but it will still take a ton of time in the gym and film room working with Atlanta’s player development staff.

For the most part, Spellman’s G League stint reaffirmed most of what we already know about him. He flashes a lot more skill with the ball in his hands than the average NBA center and has the long-term ceiling of an offensive fulcrum, but his defensive weaknesses will be what hold him back from reaching that ceiling for a contender. Spellman’s offensive skill set is much more useful at the 5 than at the 4, but at this point, he either has to be paired with a player who can play the 5 defensively or be played slightly out of position offensively, where his abilities are more muted.

How the No. 30 overall pick develops on the defensive end will go a long way toward clarifying what type of player he is in the future and whether or not the Hawks will be able to count on him once the club turns the corner in their rebuild.