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Donte Has Feel For The Game
And the Bucks might lead the league in feel, which should not be confused with feels, which, I am not sure if people on the internet still use that phrase, and the Bucks might lead the league in that too, but that is not what we are talking about today (or ever).
Anyway: Donte DiVincenzo has feel for the game. There is not a quantitative way to measure feel for the game, just as there is not a way to add up if a player is a natural or has a high basketball I.Q., or has, most importantly, it.
If you watched Giannis in his first couple years, you could see that he had each of these things.
Way before Giannis had the MVP numbers, or really any numbers at all, when I chatted with former Director of Scouting Billy McKinney back in June 2013 after the Bucks picked Giannis at #15 in the draft, the first thing he told me was that Giannis had “a very high basketball I.Q.” He went on to say that Giannis had a “really good feel for the game.” (McKinney also volunteered in that interview that Giannis — and keep in mind this was before he had played a minute in the NBA — reminded him of Kevin Durant and Magic Johnson.)
Although he averaged just 6.8 points on 41.4% shooting as a rookie, it took no more than 167 regular season minutes to see that Giannis was on to something.
A few years ago, a few years after Giannis was drafted, the Bucks were on the come-up, and I wrote a story about how the team always seemed to play better when Jason Terry was on the court, despite relatively modest stats from a hooper pushing 40. Terry, who seven years earlier had gotten a tattoo of the Larry O’Brien Trophy on his bicep before the start of the 2010–11 regular season, and then went out and beat LeBron’s Heat in the Finals, was a basketball natural, no matter his age. He had feel for the game, a high basketball I.Q., and it.
Giannis and Terry are two of my three favorite Bucks players ever, with Toni Kukoc being the other, and not coincidentally, they might be the three Bucks with the most feel that I have seen.
So how do you know if a player has feel for the game? Feel is inherently intangible, but you can see it on television, and you can see it even more clearly in person, which is one of the lovelier parts of going to a game.
There are a number of common traits associated with a player who has feel for the game (Luka Doncic being a prime exemplar at the moment, to use a non-Bucks example). Some of these have veered into cliché due to overuse, but they are also legitimate signals.
- Good sense of timing
- Good passer
- Plays a step or two ahead
- Good awareness and self-awareness
- Good anticipation and finds the right place to be
- Makes the game look easy
- Makes others better
- Understands and uses angles
Giannis, Terry, and Kukoc each have or had all of these qualities. Players at various levels can have feel, and it doesn’t correlate directly to success or stardom. But it is aesthetically pleasing, and helps.
DiVincenzo burst into passing lanes, and onto the feel map on both sides of the ball this season, initially glowing as part of one of the best benches in the NBA. After joining the starting lineup a few weeks into the season (and then again more recently), he quickly rose toward the top of defensive stat leaderboards by emerging as one of the league’s most aware players.
In limited minutes as a rookie, DiVincenzo posted the best Defensive Rating in the NBA. Now in Year 2 (and six weeks after first writing about his defensive prowess), he once again has the best Defensive Rating in the league. This is not to imply that he is the best defensive player in the world. But literally topping the leaderboard two straight years is not going to happen by virtue of good luck.
He also ranks in the top ten in steals per minute and deflections per minute, ever-anticipatory on both both ends, leading to steals…
...and to breaking up plays, and to quick, accurate, pretty, push-ahead passes.
Underhanded passes are strong indicators of feel.
So are routine, functional, effortless, no-look passes.
Those last three are from the same game, which is the thing: He is like this every game, any game, because this is who he is. The kind of player who will make the right pass, immediately move to the right place, decisively make a move toward the basket, and then as the defense closes in, feint a massive dunk and bring it back for a little finger-roll.
Here, after missing a shot, he stays alert, anticipates an early pass, and almost draws a charge against LeBron.
But he is a thinker, a natural, and you can see the Bucks were up 49–28 there, and no one in the league has a better point differential while on the court, and if there was a number for feel he would be toward the top too.