Liberty wasn’t on Bryson Spell’s radar during his initial recruitment out of Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach.
In fact, Flames men’s basketball coach Ritchie McKay hadn’t seen the 6-foot-9 forward play in person. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out Spell’s opportunity a little more than a year ago to play in two of the bigger showcases for high schoolers on the East Coast — the Boo Williams Invitational in Hampton and the Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina — and it prevented McKay and his staff from getting a look at the lanky forward.
McKay, though, had an inside man who dished out an assist when Spell announced earlier this month he was decommitting from Cincinnati and looking for a new college to call home: former Virginia standout and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Devon Hall.
“I’m really close with Devon Hall. He played at UVa, and he’s actually my head coach’s son at Cape Henry [Mark Hall], and we hit it off over COVID,” Spell said Friday in a phone interview. “We probably worked out every day for about three months before he went back to the bubble with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He spoke so highly of Coach McKay.”
Hall’s high praise for McKay and the Flames’ recruitment of Spell in the days following his decommitment from Cincinnati gave Spell the confidence to announce his commitment to Liberty last week. He said he officially signed his National Letter of Intent on Thursday and is the fourth and final member of the 2021 recruiting class that includes guards Brody Peebles, Joseph Venzant and DJ Moore.
“I just believe in Coach McKay, and he put his belief in me without even getting to really meet him in person,” Spell said. “I’m super stoked just to get up there here soon and just start working with him.”
Spell said McKay envisions using him as a point-forward with his ball-handling skills and 3-point shooting. Spell averaged 20.4 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in the 2019-20 season, and led Cape Henry to an 11-0 mark and Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Invitational state championship in the recent pandemic-shortened season.
Spell waited until the conclusion of his senior season to announce his college commitment. He selected Cincinnati on March 19 over offers from Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, Elon and George Washington, and intended to sign during the April 14 through Aug. 1 signing period.
However, Cincinnati announced one week after Spell’s verbal commitment it had launched an investigation amid reports of a rift between coach John Brannen and players that led to six players, including four members of the 2020 freshmen class, entering the transfer portal.
Brannen was fired April 9, and Spell decommitted from Cincinnati that day.
“It really caught me off guard because some of the stuff the kids were saying about Coach Brannen was just not true to his character,” Spell said. “... It definitely caught me and my family off guard for sure.”
McKay didn’t hesitate to reach out to Ken Spell, Bryson’s father, on Easter Sunday. His message was simple: If Bryson ends up decommitting, Liberty wanted the first crack at the forward.
Spell and McKay chatted on Zoom the next day and steadily built a bona fide relationship that led Spell to sign with Liberty before North Carolina elected to extend an offer to him.
Not long after Herbert Davis was announced as Roy Williams’ successor as the Tar Heels’ head coach, UNC assistant Brad Frederick reached out to Spell and wanted to gauge the forward’s interest in signing with the ACC program.
Spell spoke multiple times with Frederick and Davis but didn’t feel like the Tar Heels had the same interest as Liberty.
“Coach McKay made me feel wanted and needed in ultimately a short amount of time,” Spell said. “I could have waited for UNC to pull the trigger on an offer, but I felt so drawn to Coach McKay and Liberty that I wanted to go.”
Spell and his family made the trip from Virginia Beach to Lynchburg for an unofficial visit. He toured the campus and saw the basketball facilities. During his visit, he chatted with several players and watched them play a pickup game inside Liberty Arena.
Spell couldn’t communicate with the coaching staff during the visit because of the recruiting dead period, so interactions with players helped sell the program.