On Saturday afternoon, the Hawks opened the 2019 NBA Summer League with an 89-83 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. A shorthanded Atlanta team looked to second-year player Omari Spellman to lead his team to a win, but neither Spellman nor the Hawks could duplicate a strong first half performance. After leading by twelve at the half, they were outscored 48-30 after the break and were unable to muster a comeback in the final minutes of the game.
Bonzie Colson led the Bucks with 18 points, while Jock Landale and Rayjon Tucker added 13 and 12 points, respectively. Jordan Sibert led the Hawks with 22 points, doing most of his damage at the free throw line, where he made all ten of his attempts.
The Hawks were about as shorthanded as a team can be to open summer league play. None of the team’s three draft picks were available to compete. De’Andre Hunter and Bruno Fernando were awaiting official completion of trades (which finally arrived on Saturday evening) that landed them with the Hawks before they could take the floor, while Cam Reddish recovers from surgery. The Hawks also played without second-year guard Jaylen Adams (toe), as well as Charlie Brown, Jr. (hip), whom the team recently signed to a Two-Way contract.
Early in the game, the Hawks dominated play on both ends of the floor, jumping out to a 9-0 lead. By halftime they led 53-41, a strong offensive performance given the ten minute quarters that are played in summer league.
The Hawks made 7-of-15 attempts from behind the three-point line in the first half and converted 14-of-16 attempts from the free throw line. Meanwhile, they held the Bucks to 38.5% shooting and just nine free throw attempts.
In the second half, the Bucks found their rhythm. Colson opened the second half personally outscoring the Hawks 8-2 in the opening minutes. A 7-0 run by the Bucks later in the period closed the gap to 66-62 with just under a minute to play in the third quarter.
The Bucks took their first lead with 6:56 to play when Colson’s three-point play gave the Bucks a 73-70 lead. The Hawks managed to tie the game a couple of minutes later but could never completely wrestle the lead from the Bucks.
Down the stretch, playing without Adams, the Hawks used a point guard by committee approach. They were not able to generate enough offense as the team shot 3-for-19 from the field and just 1-for-10 from the three-point line in the fourth quarter,
Regardless of the result, Hawks’ summer league coach Greg Foster was pleased. After the game, he expressed appreciation for the effort his team gave: “I’m really happy for those guys. I’m really happy for them. There’s a lot of guys, undrafted guys...they gave the effort, that’s all I can ask for.”
Without a doubt, the spotlight in this game was on Spellman. Not only would the Hawks need a strong performance from him to have a chance to win, but Summer League is an opportunity for him to show that he has grown since a rookie season that showed promise but was also hindered by injuries and questions about his physical readiness to compete at the NBA level.
Though Spellman had some fine moments versus the Bucks, his play did little to answer questions surrounding him as Summer League begins. He did lead the team with eight rebounds and three blocks, but scored just eight points on 3-for-13 shooting from the field. In the second half, he was 1-for-7, with his lone bucket coming on a jump hook midway through the third quarter.
Takeaways after just one game in July should certainly be muted. Foster expressed no concerns about Spellman saying, “Omari’s going to be just fine.” He added, “He’s going to get a lot of action while we are out here. We’re going to play him into [finding his rhythm}, so he’s going to be just fine.”
After the game, Spellman acknowledged rust was a factor saying, “This is the first time I’ve played in a game in like three months.” He also expressed some frustration with not quite being back to mid-season form, “Knowing what you are capable of, not quite being capable of that right now, I know what I can do on the basketball court...it’s frustrating when you don’t do that.”
He did find some upside in his performance: “Being able to be out there for as long as I was out there, was good for me. It felt good. Shots didn’t fall. Shots didn’t go my way. But that stuff, if I keep playing, it’ll come.”
Spellman looked very comfortable in his role as a rebounder and shot blocker. On the defensive glass, he boxed out and got off the floor for rebounds. His two offensive rebounds led to three of his eight points.
In contrast, Spellman seemed to labor just a bit getting up and down the floor in transition. After making a three pointer in the first quarter, his jump shot consistently came up short.
The Hawks’ best player on Saturday was Tahjere McCall. The 6’4 guard finished with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and collected seven rebounds. He did his best work on the defensive end, playing tough on-ball defense as well as working very well as an off-ball and help defender. He registered three steals and was a disruptive force, contributing to 17 Bucks’ turnovers.
Foster appreciated McCall’s efforts. “I love that kid,” Foster said. “He plays with nothing but heart. He’s truly a junkyard dog. I hope there’s a spot for him.”
McCall understands his primary role is to be a defensive stopper. When asked about his role, he explained: “Make the other team’s best player life hard...it’s a challenge for me to guard the other team’s best player and do my best.”
McCall primarily defended the Bucks’ best player, third-year guard Sterling Brown. After playing 112 games for the Bucks over the past two NBA seasons, Brown should be a standout player in Las Vegas. McCall held Brown to just nine points in 30 minutes of action. Brown shot 3-of-11 from the field and committed four turnovers.
McCall is a third-year guard out of Tennessee State, where he was the two-time Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He has played two seasons for the G-League’s Long Island Nets and appeared in one NBA game last season while on a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
There are no clear indications as to McCall’s chances to stick with the team into training camp and potentially the regular season, but his performance against the Bucks certainly puts him on the radar as a player to watch closely as the Hawks continue play in Las Vegas.
The Hawks return to action on Sunday when they take on the Timberwolves at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. Adams and Brown could possibly be available. Certainly, the Hawks are looking forward to seeing Hunter and Fernando take the floor as well, but it is not yet clear when that will be a possibility, even with both trades consummated on Saturday evening.