Omari Spellman was the third of three first round picks for the Atlanta Hawks in the 2018 NBA draft, selected with the 30th and final selection of the first round. Expectations for the 6’9 big man’s rookie season were very hard to project. After averaging 17.5 minutes while playing in 46 games, perhaps there are still as many questions about Spellman’s NBA future as there were at the start of the season.
As the Hawks opened the season on the road at Madison Square Garden, Spellman displayed flashes of just why the Hawks drafted him. In a little more than eight minutes of action, Spellman recorded seven points, three rebounds and a blocked shot. He was very active in the few minutes he played, though it was a low leverage situation playing a team that would go on to lose a league worst 65 games.
While Spellman did not profile as a complete player entering the NBA, he did have three clear skills that could possibly translate to today’s NBA game: he can shoot, rebound and block shots. During that opening night game versus the Knicks, he certainly played a game that had its flaws but also demonstrated those three important skills, though his season-long performance don’t indicate that his rebounding and shot-blocking have translated quite yet. On the other hand, Spellman did flash more ball handling and passing skills that would make him more of an all-around offensive big man.
October 17, 2018 — Spellman hits his first NBA three on opening night on the road versus the Knicks
As the Hawks unsurprisingly struggled to be competitive in the early months of the season, the team, and Spellman, would consistently find themselves playing in low leverage situations. While the Hawks won just five of their first 24 games, Spellman at least managed to play rotational minutes (18.2 minutes per game, appearing in 22 of those 24 games) though much of the opportunity could be attributed to a John Collins injury, which limited the Hawks’ breakout big man to just nine games over that same stretch.
It was during these early months when Spellman demonstrated that the flashes he showed on opening night were offset by aspects of his game that were not NBA ready. Over his first 22 games, he averaged 6.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting just 38.6% from the field and 31.7% from the three point line. However, he registered the lowest offensive rating and worst net rating on the team among Hawks’ rotational players.
To be fair, he was playing on a struggling team that was not expected to be competitive in any way. A player like Spellman, who is not an initiator on offense, relies on the other players on the floor to challenge the defense and create scoring opportunities teammates. In Trae Young, Spellman was playing with a rookie point guard who was working through his own early season struggles. Those struggles certainly impacted the team as a whole, including Spellman. Still, the early results from Spellman cast a shadow of doubt as to whether the Hawks made the right selection with the 30th pick in the draft.
On November 7, again facing the Knicks, Spellman did turn in once of his best performances of the season. He scored a season-high 18 points and season-high ten rebounds in that game while blocking three shots.
November 7, 2018 — Spellman gets a chase down block of Emmanuel Mudiay.
November 7, 2018 - Spellman works hard on the offensive glass and earns a trip to the free throw line.
Two nights later, Spellman turned in what looked like another decent rookie performance versus the Pistons with 14 points and ten rebounds in 26 minutes of action. But stat lines can be deceiving. He struggled mightily in defensive match-ups versus Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond a registered a -16 in the box score, his second-worst mark in that category of the season. In this game, some of the conditioning issues that plagued Spellman throughout his rookie season were very apparent.
November 9, 2018 — Spellman is late getting down the floor in the first minute of the game allowing the Pistons to get an easy bucket while playing 5-on-4.
November 9, 2018 — After an ineffective effort to trap the point guard, Spellman is again late getting down the floor resulting in another 5-on-4 bucket for the Pistons.
By early December, Spellman was struggling with a nagging hip injury. From December 5 to January 9, Spellman appeared in just two of the Hawks’ 17 games and played sparingly in the two games he did play. While the absence was the result of an injury it was clear that pace and grind of an NBA season was a challenge for Spellman. The Hawks hoped he would be able to be in a better position to keep up once he returned from the injury.
Spellman returned on January 11 but played just under three minutes in a two point win in Philadelphia. Two nights later, the Hawks, playing without Dewayne Dedmon, leaned on Spellman who started and played 30 minutes. It was a 19-point blowout loss to the Bucks but he at least showed he could sustain starters’ minutes against a team that plays a very fast pace.
After his return from the hip injury, Spellman played in 22 consecutive games, three of those as a starter. This stretch was an opportunity for the rookie to show if his game and conditioning had escalated. He averaged about the same amount of minutes, 17.9 per game, as he had during the earlier stretch in the season. His numbers were not all that different (5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds per game) although his shooting did improve to 42.1% from the field and 36.4% from the three point line.
However, the team performed much better offensively when he was on the floor as evidenced by an offensive rating that was almost nine points higher than earlier in the season. It is no coincidence that by this point in the season the Hawks, especially Young, had found their stride on offense.
Defensively, the results were about the same as earlier in season but the improved offensive rating resulted in a much improved net rating. The Hawks were still a worse team when Spellman was on the floor than when he was off the floor, but the gap had shrunk considerably since his early season struggles.
One February 4, playing on the road in Washington, Spellman turned in one of his better performances of the season. In 30 minutes of action, he scored 16 points and collected ten rebounds while shooting 4/6 from the three point line and posting a +15 in the box score.
February 4, 2019 — It may not look like much, but Spellman is one of the first players down the floor and settles in the corner, where Young finds him for an open three.
On March 1, while playing at home versus the Bulls, Spellman suffered a high ankle sprain. His expected recovery time exceeded the balance of the season meaning his rookie season was over at that point.
In reflecting on his rookie season, Spellman used the term “roller coaster” to describe it, saying “[I] had a lot of ups and downs, a lot of learning experiences and growing pains I will definitely take into my sophomore season.”
A recurring theme that seemed to arise during his rookie season came up again in a post-season interview.
“We have a plan in place schedule-wise,” Spellman said when asked about his plan to work on this aspect of the game. “I’ll be back here in Atlanta working. We haven’t set a weight goal or anything like that, I think the main focus is progression.”
With Spellman’s rookie season in the rear view mirror, it is still difficult to project what his NBA future may hold. He has shown that he has those three skills that certainly translate to the NBA game. Spellman also has shown that he has significant gains to make in his ability to work effectively both as an on-the-ball defender and a help defender. He will also have to show he can play at the NBA pace across an 82-game season without fatigue impacting his performance on the court or his ability to stay on the court.
Spellman has demonstrated that he is the type of player that can thrive when he is on the floor with offensive initiators who can break down the defense and create offensive opportunities for shooters around the perimeter to score, but he has also shown that he can be very effective running the floor and crashing the offensive boards, finding scoring opportunities of his own through energy and effort.
As the Hawks look ahead to next season, like every team in the NBA, they will be making some changes to the roster. With the potential of five draft picks in the 2019 draft, including the potential of two top ten picks, Spellman could have challenges to his playing time from newcomers to the team for the 2019-20 season.
If Spellman can put together a strong summer of work, including a solid performance in the Las Vegas Summer League, he could enter next season with an expectation of solid rotational minutes on a team that will likely be expected to take a step forward in the win-loss column. But, if he returns for second season with questions about health, conditioning and the ability to be effective on the defensive end of the floor, his playing time could get squeezed.
The 2019-20 season will be a very important one for Spellman, as players in their second year are expected to be more prepared for the season and more capable of making an impact on the floor. Tolerance for youthful mistakes and learning curves are lower while expectations are higher. It could be a sink or swim season for Spellman, but the Hawks certainly hope he will be a markedly improved player and contributor on the floor.