Over the course of the summer of 2017 the Nova Notebook, by Mike Sheridan, will offer a series of features on members of the 2017-18 Villanova Wildcats. Up first: forward Omari Spellman.
Omari Spellman’s gifts as a basketball player are no mystery. At 6-8, he established himself as one of the elite prospects in his class, a forward with the kind of perimeter skills that earned him a ranking as one of the nation’s top 2016 prospects. The St. Thomas More School product’s decision to sign a letter of intent to attend Villanova was big news and so too was the NCAA ruling last September that he would be an academic redshirt in 2016-17 due to a change of high schools made in ninth grade.
Even now, nearly a full calendar year after he first moved into a Villanova dormitory, the anticipation about how Spellman may impact the Wildcats, a 32-game winning BIG EAST championship unit that finished the regular season as the No. 1 team in America last season, is high. The glimpses Spellman displayed in last summer’s scrimmage prior to the team’s trip to Spain did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm.
Spellman too is eager to begin his Wildcats career.
Yet the 94 by 50 feet of the basketball court isn’t Spellman’s only canvas. The versatility that marks his play on the court can be found off it too. This is a literate young man with an old-school blend of interests that helped him embrace a potentially negative circumstance so that, in the end, it became a net plus.
In this case, the setback arrived just as Spellman and classmate Dylan Painter were preparing to depart for New York City to partake in the BIG EAST’s “Freshman Fundamentals”. The NCAA had completed a review of his high school path to college and it was announced on Sept. 23.that he would not be eligible to play in games in 2016-17, though he could practice with the squad. He retained four seasons of athletic eligibility.
It was a blow for both the Wildcats, who were anticipating that Spellman would play a large role in helping to replace 2016 NCAA national champion cornerstone Daniel Ochefu, and, above all, Spellman himself.
“While we don’t agree with the NCAA’s decision, we are members of the association and respect it,” stated VU head coach Jay Wright that day. “We understand why the NCAA felt it had to rule this way. We will make a positive out of this for Omari. He will concentrate on his academics and individual development this season. In the long run Omari will be a better student and player for this experience.” Spellman did all in his power to insure that his coach became a prophet on this subject. He poured his energy into strength training and practice. 4 p.m. game day workouts with assistant coaches Ashley Howard and Kyle Neptune were his chance to shine, albeit in obscurity. Off the court, he immersed himself in the culture of the Villanova community, establishing bonds of friendship across campus while completing a solid year of academic work.
“Not being able to compete at the highest level and showcase what I can do was the biggest challenge for me,” he states now, while seated in the Davis Center cinema. “But it was a great learning experience being around teammates like Kris (Jenkins), Josh (Hart) and Darryl (Reynolds) and the coaching staff.
“It was definitely hard.”
Asked to gauge his progress over the last 12 months, Spellman says: “I definitely understand more of what is to be expected. When you come in as a freshman you expect it to be one way. But there is definitely a big learning curve and adjustment. I think I’ve come to a pretty good understanding of what’s to be expected.”
The senior class of 2017 was particularly impactful in helping Spellman find his way through a redshirt season. Reynolds, who early in his career saw limited in-game action, was an important sounding board.
“They helped me a lot,” Spellman notes. “I had a lot of long talks with Darryl. Kris was always giving me snippets when he could. (With) Josh being the fierce competitor he is, I learned how to play hard by how he competes on a daily basis.”
The sessions in the weight room with strength coach John Shackleton were important too.
“I’m kind of ashamed to say this,” Spellman states with a smile, “but I could only go up from where I was when I got here. I never lifted in high school. It shocks you when you get here. If you shift your posture a little bit, you are working a completely different muscle than what you were trying to strengthen.
“It’s a lot of technique to take in. Coach Shack brought me up to speed.”
During home games, Spellman was dressed in a suit and tie near the end of the bench. He paid close attention.
“You see how serious games are and how critical every little detail is,” Spellman states. “Sometimes in high school, you could experiment, take shots you normally wouldn’t take. At this level, though, there is very little margin for error. The intensity of the game is one of the things I took away from (watching).”
One year into his Villanova experience, Spellman feels very much a part of the campus fabric.
“I made a lot of friends outside of the basketball team,” he states. “I’m a big fan of music so I’ve made friends with people who enjoy all different kinds of music. This is just a great place to be. I love Villanova.”
In the quieter months of summer, with a lighter class schedule, Spellman has a bit more time to engage in other interests. An English major, he is intrigued by the written word and continues to create poetry, an endeavor he became interested in around the age of 12.
“I started to take it more seriously as my thoughts matured,” he explains. “Some of my poetry is very simple, stuff that anyone could say. Now I just try to make it as unique to me as possible.
“I’m more of an emotional writer. If I feel something is wrong or needs to be spoken out on or if something is going on in my life, I can gain pretty quick inspiration for poetry. That’s usually how I like to write.”
And while he’s a willing participant in Madden video game competition with his teammates – he’s not off to a good start in the standings which presently list Mikal Bridges in first place – he has another downtime hobby. Nearly a decade ago he learned the game of chess at a church summer camp and has become an afcionado, often watching clips of legendary Bobby Fischer and current grandmaster Magnus Carlsen on YouTube.
“I definitely study the game,” he says.
In fact, this week he was in the midst of a game with Donte DiVincenzo waged via an app. (No winner had been decided as this is written).
Of course, there is an opportunity ahead in another game he is passionate about. And while eager to embrace the full experience of being a Villanova Basketball player, he has embraced the journey, even with its unforeseen detour.
It seems somehow fitting that when asked about his hopes for 2017-18, the answer does not begin with any mention of points, rebounds, or minutes. Instead, Spellman takes a longer view.
“I just want to be the best man I can be and continue to improve,” he states. “I know that I’m not going to be perfect. I just want to continue to grow, not only as a basketball player, but a young man, and to help our team be successful.”
A gifted basketball player? For sure. But also a man with a wide spectrum of interests who has enjoyed the opportunity to explore some of them at Villanova..