‘Little things’ add up for Jefferson’s Keith Spellman

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Keith Spellman has changed.

It isn’t easy to decipher at first glance. He still has the sweet jumpshot – perfect rotation, soft touch, pretty release. The aggressiveness remains – hard to the hole, never backing down. And his handle hasn’t left him, a crossover so quick and with such force he leaves defenders ankles crossed.

No, his offensive game has not changed. But that never really needed fine-tuning. He had that as a freshman, when he led Jefferson to the playoffs, averaging 19.9 points per game.

To see how the Orange Wave’s senior guard is different one had to focus on the other end of the court, where he rarely exerted himself previously.

Now, he isn’t unwilling to take charges – in fact, he had two in the first quarter Sunday against Bishop Loughlin, standing in front of Jayvaughn Pinkston, the Lions’ 6-foot-7 mound of muscle. He noticed Pinkston’s tendencies watching game film, how he usually lowers his shoulder once he got into the lane.

“If our best player is doing that, we can’t slack off,” sophomore point guard Davontay Grace said. “We got to do the same thing.”

He cheats less, not playing the passing lane nearly as much as his man, helping on others, not always looking to be the first man leading the break. And he is hitting the glass with a fervor. Spellman grabbed 12 rebounds Sunday and has averaged nine per game, along with seven assists, in four league games, in addition to 21 points.

“He realizes,” talent evaluator Tom Konchalski said, “the game isn’t on one end of the floor.”

The transformation began in the offseason, when coach Lawrence Pollard was made aware of an Internet ranking on a local basketball website that listed several players he felt were vastly inferior to Spellman. He taped it on the team’s bulletin board for all to see.

“I told him, ‘You got to do more things than score,’” the coach recalled. “I want him to prove he’s one of the best players in the city.”

“The only way you’re going to get better is if you can do different things,” Spellman said.

But perhaps the biggest difference isn’t any steal or 3-pointer. It is what he is doing on and off the court. For the first time in Spellman’s four years at Jefferson, he is a leader.

Spellman, for all his talent, used to fall apart in tense moments, the pressure getting to him, the criticism building. He would crumble, lose his composure and his temper, letting it out on other members of the Orange Wave. On Sunday, guard Austin Corwin committed an intentional foul late, nearly letting Loughlin get back in the game. Instead of berating the youngster, Spellman put his arm around him, explained the situation and how it could’ve been handled differently.

“It’s a perfect example,” Pollard said, “of his maturity.”

There were times last winter when everyone stood around and watched Spellman eat up the shot clock with his mesmerizing, although at times extraneous, dribble. He didn’t trust his teammates, Grace said, and was all too happy to take on two and sometimes three defenders at once.

Pollard blamed himself for last season, even though it wasn’t a completely lost year, the Orange Wave making it to the PSAL Class AA semifinals and nearly upsetting three-time defending city champion Lincoln. He didn’t make it clear to his star he needed more than just scoring. Spellman’s first two years there wasn’t enough help around him; Jefferson needed him to score as much as possible just to make the playoffs. 

With Grace and junior forward Joel (Air Jamaica) Wright surrounding him, the urgency for him to put up at least 20 was lessened. Yet, he didn’t realize it. Instead, Spellman pressed for points. It wasn’t a complete negative, however, because Pollard said, it helped for this year.

Spellman heard all about his deficiencies, his selfishness, his unwillingness to play defense, his lack of leadership, over the summer, from Pollard, from teammates, from the media. He took it all in. 

“I used this summer to work on the little things,” said the 6-foot-2 guard who is looking at George Mason, St. John’s and Virginia Tech. “The little things win championsh­ips.”

“He realizes he has to be a leader,” Konchalski said. “He has to live up to expectatio­ns.”

So far, Spellman is certainly leading Jefferson in the right direction. They have already knocked off Boys & Girls and held off Bishop Loughlin, the team many feel is the favorite to win the CHSAA city championship. Spellman wasn’t the star against Boys, allowing Wright to shine. He carried the load against Loughlin. It is another sign of his maturity. He doesn’t have to be the man every night. There are more important things to him.

“He knows it’s either win or go home,” Grace said. “He’s trying to do everything he can for us to reach our goals.”

Added Pollard: “He’s ready to take us where we need to go – and that’s a championsh­ip.”


Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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