With the NBA season being put on hold, we're taking this week to look ahead at some of the biggest X-Factors in the league.
That is, we're putting the microscope on players that might represent a playoff team's tertiary or fourth option but is ultimately a key piece in allowing that team to reach the height of its potential.
After a look at Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby, we're taking today to focus on Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo, another player that was sidelined for the entirety of the 2019 postseason
Falling just two wins shy of the 2019 NBA Finals, the Milwaukee Bucks brought back the majority of the roster that led them to their first 60-win season in 30 years.
Losing Malcolm Brogdon in a luxury tax squeeze, the Bucks attempted to plug the significant hole in their roster with veterans, Wesley Matthews and Kyle Korver, while also adding Brook Lopez's twin brother, Robin, to bolster the big man stocks.
While many were quick to assume the Milwaukee roster had taken a talent hit, those assumptions were in all likelihood overlooking second-year guard out of Villanova, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Donte DiVincenzo.
Appearing in just 27 games in his rookie season, DiVincenzo was not a victim of a tightened championship contender roster, it was instead health that limited his ability to see the floor.
While the Bucks charged through the Eastern Conference playoffs, DiVincenzo would be a mere afterthought, often seen getting up shots in the Bucks practice facility, honing his craft, biding his time.
The breakthrough moment
Despite entering the season healthy, DiVincenzo would register a DNP-CD in three of the Bucks' first four contests in 2019-20, while playing 2:13 of garbage time in the Bucks blowout win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at Fiserv Forum.
With the Bucks stumbling to a 2-2 start while surrendering leads of at least 19 points in losses to the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer seemed to be searching for a spark, an injection of energy, anything to kickstart his talented squad's season.
At the 2:13 mark of the first quarter in Orlando, Budenholzer inserted DiVincenzo into the game for his first meaningful minutes of the season.
In total, the second-year guard would see 17:22 of action in a 123-91 Milwaukee win, tallying 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while adding three rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block as the Bucks would outscore the Magic by a staggering 34 points in his time on the floor.
As the Bucks filed out of the visitor's locker room and onto the team bus that night, DiVincenzo had made an impact, an impact that would see him entrenched in the Budenholzer's rotation from that moment onwards.
The unrecordable impact
Not many players have it, but DiVincenzo most certainly does.
The ability to tilt the scales of a contest in the favour of his team without the results necessarily showing up on the box score. The ability to dive on the floor and secure a critical loose ball. The ability to sky for a rebound and tap the ball back to an open teammate.
Budenholzer agrees that this innate ability the 23-year-old possesses is not often seen, particularly this early in a professional career.
"I would say very rare and I think it's a great observation of how he impacts the game," Budenholzer said at a recent practice.
"We've been saying it since he got here, he's a winner. I'm sure somewhere back in his childhood he got it put into him and all through high school and then we give Villanova a ton of credit and Jay Wright does a great job, he's just all about winning and I think he understands at a very young age at a very high level what's important to winning."
Budenholzer's comments came just days after Milwaukee exorcised some of its playoff demons at Scotiabank Arena in a 108-97 win over the Toronto Raptors.
On this night, DiVincenzo would score just five points on 1-for-6 shooting and yet his fingerprints were all over the game in a critical third-quarter stretch that propelled the Bucks to an impressive victory.
"He's extremely tough, extremely tough, we saw that last year but we've seen it even more this year," Giannis Antetokounmpo said of DiVincenzo.
"There was a play in Toronto that he came in for a rebound at the back of [Pascal] Siakam and maybe [Fred] VanVleet and he just grabbed the ball and I was like, "man". He's young, it's his second year, he's extremely tough, he gets in passing lanes, he dives for the ball, he doesn't back down from nobody."
While Antetokounmpo's recollection of the players involved was a little off, the play was indeed an eye catching one, as DiVincenzo skied for an offensive rebound in front of Siakam and in amongst two other Raptors players, attempted to finish a lay-up, missed, then once again secured the offensive board.
On the resulting third chance opportunity, DiVincenzo would fight off attempts from both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to wrestle the ball from his grip, before finding an open George Hill in the corner for a triple to give the Bucks 95-82 with 6:21 left in the game.
This sequence of play was no fluke, in fact, it's become expected.
Per Cleaning the Glass, DiVincenzo's 14.9 percent defensive rebound percentage on opposition missed field goals places him in the 98th percentile for his position, while his 4.3 percent offensive rebound percentage on Bucks missed field goal places him in the 92nd percentile - DiVincenzo's nose for finding the ball off the rim elite for his position.
"I believe in basketball karma, I think we all do," DiVincenzo said after the Bucks win over the Indiana Pacers on March 4.
"If you do the right thing out on the court you'll get rewarded. I go and bust my butt to get the rebound, Giannis gets it and he rewards me with a three in the corner. Everybody wants to see everybody succeed and when you have a team full of unselfish guys it's easy to do that."
The flourishing scorer
If you haven't watched a lot of DiVincenzo to this point in his career, you might be picking up that he is a little rough around the edges, far from afraid to match physicality with the opposition.
With that in mind, it's certainly fair to say that offensive refinement has been a work in progress through year two, though, prior to the stoppage, a clear growth curve was on display.
Averaging 9.4 points per game on the season, scoring has been far from the primary role for the spark plug guard to this point in his career, but that average spiked to 15.7 points over his last four appearances, as the game had appeared to slow down significantly.
"I just think he's scoring in different ways, he's getting to the basket and finishing and when he starts making threes it adds up," Budenholzer said of the uptick in scoring.
"I think he's getting more comfortable, he's seeing the court, seeing opportunities but we need him to be aggressive, we need him to be a guy that's attacking but more of it is just his growth, his maturation, his comfort level with everything in his second year."
In the Bucks' recent 113-103 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, DiVincenzo delivered the most impressive scoring burst of his NBA career in front of a rapid Los Angeles crowd and under the regular season's biggest spotlight to date in the battle of the two No. 1 seeds.
Exiting the locker room for the start of the third period all square at 48, the Lakers ambushed the Bucks with a scintillating 12 minutes of basketball, outscoring Milwaukee 39-28.
With the game seemingly collapsing around them, DiVincenzo was the coolest head in a green jersey, scoring 12 points over the final 5:26 of the quarter to just keep the Bucks head above water.
The eye-catching part of the scoring burst was a couple of nifty finishes in the restricted area.
On this play, DiVincenzo is guarded by an excellent perimeter defender in Avery Bradley. Without hesitation, DiVincenzo dribbles into the lane with his left hand before initiating a lighting quick spin move to his right allowing a nifty finish for two.
Then, on a give-and-go with Marvin Williams, DiVincenzo cleverly combines the use of the rim for protection and the high glass finish to avoid Dwight Howard --one of the league's best rim protectors-- for the reverse.
A 34.5 percent shooter from 3-point range, DiVincenzo's desire to let it fly has never been an issue, but it's the above examples that flash the potential of an incrreasingly well rounded offensive weaponary.
According to Cleaning the Glass, DiVincenzo's shot frequency at the rim has spiked from 29 percent to 42 percent from year one-to-two, while, as the table below shows, his percentages have also displayed an encouraging trend.
Field Goal Statistics within 5-feet by month (via nba.com/stats)
Outside of a slight dip during the All-Star weekend interrupted February, DiVincenzo's efficiency at the basket has steadily climbed throughout the season.
"I'm getting more comfortable out there, but also when I get out there and I'm starting to force the issue a little bit [my teammates] come and reel me in, teach me as I'm progressing. They are doing an amazing job of staying on top of me and I'm just going out there and playing as hard as I can," DiVincenzo said.
The playoff X-factor?
While the immediate future of the 2020 NBA postseason remains in flux, there is no doubt that DiVincenzo has moved from an interesting prospect to an integral part of the Bucks immediate plans on an assault on the NBA Championship.
While there are far too many factors at play to draw any firm conclusions on where his stock would lie if the Bucks had decided to bring Brogdon back to Milwaukee, it would be fair to say the optimism from the Bucks brass has transformed into genuine faith and reliance in the player they call 'The Big Ragu'.
A proven performer on the big stage, DiVincenzo dropped 31 points off the bench in the 2018 NCAA National Championship game win over Michigan.
With that marquee performance and those pivotal performances against the Raptors and Lakers in recent memory, who knows, perhaps DiVincenzo will be at his best when the lights are at their brightest.
One thing is for certain, whenever the NBA season resumes, DiVincenzo will be a core piece in the Bucks makeup, and as All-Star teammate Khris Middleton revealed, the bar has been raised and the expectations have been set.
"We expect that every night now, even though it's tough to be in your second year doing this, but we need that from him."
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