It takes a special kind of humility to handle the NBA’s fraught equilibrium of being necessary while also constantly remembering that you are disposable. It’s why some players prefer easier situations or less pressure. Donte DiVincenzo has handled his career completely opposite of that.
After nearly being traded to Sacramento over the offseason and being thrust into a starting role for a Milwaukee Bucks team with championship aspirations, DiVincenzo has put together a career-best season while staying grounded and deriving confidence from his teammates and coaches rather than the business or media circus of the NBA. With the playoffs approaching, the third-year guard is likely to be an important piece for a squad with title aspirations. Despite being a relatively unproven (at the NBA level, at least) and hungry youngster, DiVincenzo’s performance in big moments could determine whether the Bucks can finally win a championship.
Led by reigning back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and standouts Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee has a clear pecking order. DiVincenzo isn’t this team’s primary option for much of anything. Instead, he is deployed to take advantage of the attention paid elsewhere on the floor.
“What they love and value that I can bring is no matter what, I’ll go get rebounds, I’ll go get the loose ball, go get the steals,” he tells Dime in the lead-up to back-to-back wins over Brooklyn this week. “(Teammates) know if the shot’s not falling, they can rely on me to do that stuff and continue to win games.”
This mentality has earned him the respect of his veteran teammates, including the Greek Freak himself.
“He’s so competitive, so competitive,” Antetokounmpo recently said. “Goes out there and gives 100 percent every single night. Now he’s going to make mistakes, but always, we know that he’s going to give 100 percent and he’s going to try to make the right play.”
Added Middleton: “He’s a guy that continues to find a way to get better, try to take advantage of his opportunities and get better. You can see that his confidence is growing.”
DiVincenzo is increasingly taking on playmaking responsibilities in his third year. The 2018 Final Four Most Outstanding Player had to wait a while to get more touches and join the starting lineup, but now that he’s there, he knows the best way to stay is to make the stars better.
“I take a lot of joy into getting those guys easy shots,” he says. “Giannis has the ball in his hands a lot, he takes a lot of beating from other teams, so if I can get downhill, get him easy dunks in transition just to get him 8-10 points real quick in a game and get him feeling good, or get Jrue or Khris open threes or slashes, that’s where I think I’ve grown this year is getting those guys shots where they want the ball.”
This mindset has led to a career-high assist rate as well as an uptick in three-point shooting volume and efficiency. Like many NBA players, the clarity over when his minutes will come, where his shots will come from, and his role has helped DiVincenzo become a better overall player — while it may seem unnatural that his three-point shooting has jumped more than three percentage points, he was a 38 percent shooter in three seasons at Villanova. That’s where he learned to impact the game without the ball in his hands and embrace the lesser-heralded plays that contribute to winning basketball.
DiVincenzo had to be quick on the uptake with the Wildcats and upon joining the Bucks. He joined winning situations where he was expected to contribute in specific ways or hit the bench. It was a humbling process, but one that’s familiar to any player who was part of Villanova’s program last decade.
“At Nova, Coach Wright just taught me how to be mentally tough, how to carry myself as a professional,” DiVincenzo explains. “We have way different games but we always go back to the same core values that we learned at Villanova, doing the little things for our team to win games.”
That learning curve hardened the bonds between DiVincenzo and his college teammates, many of whom can be found on winning teams — Dallas’ Jalen Brunson, Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges, Golden State’s Eric Paschall, New Orleans’ Josh Hart. The stubborn positivity with which DiVincenzo handles himself was in large part forged from the culture created by his teams. Villanova was a heck of a start, and the Bucks have embraced him in a similar way. Not only did Milwaukee’s culture help make DiVincenzo comfortable personally, it trickled into his development as a player, too.
“They give you simple tasks to focus on, to do every day, so that when you get onto the court, you’re not thinking about 7-8 different things, you’re thinking about one or two that I have to do to be impactful,” he explains. “Throughout the last couple years, it’s just grown and grown and grown for me.”
Still, this offseason threatened to light ablaze the entire relationship that had been built between DiVincenzo and leadership. As Antetokounmpo neared eligibility for a supermax extension, one he would ultimately sign, the Bucks readied deals for both Holiday and then-Kings wing Bogdan Bogdanovic in order to bolster their rotation. Holiday became a Buck, but a Bogdanovic-for-DiVincenzo trade fell through in spectacular fashion, resulting in an investigation from the NBA and both parties moving on.
It was the talk of the league for days. Bogdanovic would later sum up his response with an apt “What the f*ck?” With a few months’ distance, DiVincenzo believes the Bucks’ culture helped him and the front office move past it. Confidence from his teammates and coaches made him feel as if he could still be successful in Milwaukee.
“I truly never did think about it this year,” DiVincenzo says. “You see a lot of stuff about a Revenge Game and all that, I literally do not think about it. That’s all for the media. For me, it’s focusing on my coaching staff and my team and trying to give them everything I got every single night.
“While I’m here,” he continues, “I give my absolute all to the team I have, the organization that still has trust in me to be the starting 2-guard right now, and honestly the players on the team.”
It’s helped that he gained one heck of a teammate in Holiday, who has looked like an All-Star running the offense and hounding the opposing team’s best perimeter player on defense every night. For a player like DiVincenzo, Holiday has proved to be invaluable both on and off the court, a rising tide that has lifted all boats.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever talked about him in a negative way,” DiVincenzo says. “So I just strive to be that good of a teammate to other people and have that impact on other people, because it goes a long way. He may not realize it, but the confidence he puts in everybody on the team and me personally, is through the roof.”
Take for example the Bucks’ win over New Orleans on Feb. 25, a game in which DiVincenzo had the hot hand. While some teammates were chirping at DiVincenzo about what not to do — don’t stop shooting, don’t hesitate — Holiday stayed upbeat. The veteran reminded his young backcourt mate to stay aggressive and keep making the right play. The never-ending positive reinforcement led to DiVincenzo scoring a career-best 24 points.
A few weeks later in a frustrating loss to Houston that saw Kevin Porter Jr. light the Bucks up for 50, head coach Mike Budenholzer went to backup Bryn Forbes in DiVincenzo’s usual fourth quarter spot in the rotation. As disappointment bubbled up in him, DiVincenzo reminded himself of how supportive Holiday had been during his own big night and pushed Forbes to stay confident. Forbes would go on to score 30 in the game, including seven in the fourth quarter.
When DiVincenzo missed the next game against the Bulls, DiVincenzo stayed on Forbes to focus on rebounding, an area where DiVincenzo strives to make an impact (he’s up to a career-high 5.7 boards per game). In a 10-point win, Milwaukee narrowly out-rebounded Chicago in large part due to Forbes’ career-high 13 rebounds.
That contagious camaraderie has helped DiVincenzo and the Bucks excel all season, even as their winning percentage has taken a step back from the past two campaigns. Two big wins over Brooklyn has everyone looking at them again, but Milwaukee is facing far less pressure and expectation than they did in last year’s NBA Bubble.
“When the target’s not on our back, I think we play the best,” DiVincenzo says. “We like to just focus on ourselves, stay in house and focus on how to get better in terms of our team.”
Despite nearly being traded and then leaping into the starting lineup, DiVincenzo has excelled. A humble mentality and consistent approach have helped him put together a career-best season, one that could lead to more responsibility and dazzling plays in the postseason.
In order to win four consecutive series and avoid the mistakes that have cost them in the past, the Bucks will need a release valve and committed warrior like DiVincenzo. The team already knows it.
“He is the heart of this team,” Antetokoumpo said in March, “Hopefully he can keep it up.”