Midway through the fourth quarter against the Nets, Donte DiVincenzo, one the league’s savviest, most calculating thieves, extended his right arm and flicked his hand at exactly the right spot to swipe the basketball from an unsuspecting Seth Curry.
Curry, his pocket picked, sagged his shoulders, as DiVincenzo cruised in the other direction for two points. The strip-and-score sequence was the second in a three-minute span for the Kings’ defensive ace, who’d previously pirated a casually-tossed pass from LaMarcus Aldridge and finished the play with a high-arching lay-in.
DiVincenzo, a fourth-year guard, has made a habit of anticipating and disrupting passing lanes, deflecting careless dribbles and being in the right place at the right time to snatch up a loose ball mishandled by an opponent.
With a 6-foot-6 wingspan, a 42-inch vertical leap, quick hands and quicker instincts, Sacramento’s new No. 0 has all the attributes required of a detrimental defender and frisky larcenist.
He tirelessly fights through screens and he throws an opposing offense into chaos by dropping back like a free safety to intercept the ball. He flies across the floor to corral misses and he contests perimeter shots with his springs and reach.
Perhaps most importantly, he studies his target closely, and has a defensive philosophy that is constant and persistent, regardless of the player he’s guarding or what the box score may suggest.
“At the end of the day, it is just locking up and locking in on the defensive end, [recognizing] how to disrupt [opponents] offensively and how to make a difference for a team,” DiVincenzo said.
“I think there are so many tricks on the offensive end — trying to get fouls, trying to do this or trying to do that. But on the defensive end, if you’re playing with a lot of energy, you’re playing with discipline and attention to detail, you’re not going to stop somebody, but [you will] make it difficult on them and make them tired at the end of the game.”
DiVincenzo has a special regard for former Bucks teammate P.J. Tucker, who practically held a course on defensive technique after arriving midway through the season. The most important lesson manifested in the playoffs, when Tucker’s staunch, relentless defense on Kevin Durant, from denying him the ball to contesting every jumper, fatigued the Nets superstar.
“K.D. had 40, K.D. had 50, but he was exhausted by Game 7 of that series,” DiVincenzo said. “People will look and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, but he still had 40.’ But P.J. did a hell of a job throughout the whole season. So I took that, and every game, my approach is, just work the dude; whoever's a good scorer, just work him and make him earn his buckets.”
Defense wasn’t always the No. 1 priority for the Newark, Del. native; not in pickup games on playgrounds in his hometown, nor when he scored in bunches in high school (22.9 points per game as a senior) and wowed onlookers with his pogo-stick hops and thunderous dunks.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year at Villanova, DiVincenzo says, that he recognized his defense would distinguish him from droves of point-fixated wings always on the lookout for their next bucket.
When he first arrived on campus, fresh off consecutive high-school state championships, DiVincenzo was humbled by a touch of tough love from head coach Jay Wright, who facetiously nicknamed him ‘The Michael Jordan of Delaware’ to guard the brash newcomer against overconfidence.
“I had myself on a pedestal,” DiVincenzo said. “It was like a learning [experience] for me; not to be satisfied, not to be doing this or that, and how to get better.”
As a freshman, he was challenged even more during practices that proved tougher than many games, and worked harder than he ever had just to keep pace with five-star recruits and burly upperclassmen.
“‘Nova was never one of the teams [that had] one-and-done’s,” he said. “They’re grown men playing basketball up there, so it took a little while to get adjusted; just to the physical demand on your body and how to take care of your body every day. Once I got the hang of that, everything kind of clicked for me going into that second year.”
‘Everything’ isn’t an understatement.
After averaging 8.8 points per game as a redshirt freshman, DiVincenzo upped his nightly scoring output to 13.4 the next year, and added 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.1 steals to secure Big East Sixth Man of the Year.
Somewhere along the way, Fox Sports broadcaster Gus Johnson approached him before a game with an idea for another nickname — “The Big Ragu” – a play on the guard’s Italian heritage and red hair.
“We laughed about it, but it kind of went nowhere,” DiVincenzo recalled. “Then I had a game and I had like 20-something [points]. On the broadcast, [when] I got it going, he just said it out loud. Ever since then, he stuck with it, ‘Nova stuck with it and it kind of just blew up from there.
“If people enjoy it, it’s fine. It puts a smile on some people’s faces when they say it.”
DiVincenzo certainly had Wildcats fans grinning throughout the NCAA tournament, with averages of 23 points, 6.5 rebounds and three assists at the Final Four, and a transcendent performance in the national title game. On the biggest stage in college basketball, the sophomore star exploded for 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting (5-of-7 from three) to take home a championship ring and Most Outstanding Player trophy.
But though he proved he could be a major offensive threat, DiVincenzo, the 17th pick in the 2018 Draft, didn’t lose sight of the fact that his NBA calling card would be his ability to get stops rather than points.
“At the end of the day, when you join the NBA, everybody – all 450 guys in this league – can shoot the ball, can score the ball, can play-make. For me, it was like, how do I separate myself from other guys who I’m competing with in the Draft?
“I wanted to come into the NBA and play right away, and I knew offensively, that wasn’t the way to do it because I wasn’t a top-10 pick. I wasn’t a Lottery guy going to a [rebuilding] team. I ended up going to a championship-caliber team, so how do I impact the game? That’s where my mindset changed to like, just focus on defense and you’ll get on the court. And then once I got on the court, just everything started to build from it.”
By his second year, DiVincenzo was entrenched as a rotation regular and part-time starter, and as his role grew more significant, so did his defensive contributions. The counting stats (3.8 defensive rebounds, 1.3 steals) indicated he was boxing out and racking up rips, but the advanced metrics shined a light on his true impact to the league’s stingiest defense.
DiVincenzo, despite playing only 23 minutes per game, finished sixth in defensive box plus-minus (2.4), 10th in steal rate (2.6) and 15th in defensive win shares (3.2), according to basketball-reference.com. His 3.5 deflections per 36 minutes put him in the company of elite perimeter defenders, including Marcus Smart (3.6) and Jimmy Butler (3.6), while his 0.8 defensive loose balls recovered equaled Kawhi Leonard and Jrue Holiday. With DiVinzeno on the court, Milwaukee’s defense surrendered only 99.6 points per 100 possessions; overall, the championship-aspiring Bucks were 5.1 points per 100 better whenever he was on the floor.
Last season, DiVincenzo appeared in 66 regular-season games, starting all of them, and was once again a mainstay on the hustle-category leaderboards with a blend of guile, intelligence and timing on trailing blocks and sneaky robberies.
Offensively, he set career-bests in points (10.4) and assists (3.1), showing promise as an outside shooter (37.9 percent from three on 5.2 attempts) and secondary creator, while using his best skill – ever-present court awareness – to cut through defenses off the ball for easy scoring chances.
DiVincenzo was poised to extend his breakout season through Milwaukee’s march to the championship, but a torn ligament in his left foot parked him on the sidelines indefinitely. As happy as he was for his teammates in the end, and as much as he tried to provide them comfort and perspective as a pseudo-coach throughout the postseason, not being on the court was “tough,” he admits.
The lengthy physical rehabilitation process that followed, which hindered him for nearly seven months, was even harder. Determined to return by December, DiVincenzo grinded through a regimen of daily exercises and strength and conditioning drills, and made his season debut on Christmas Day, ahead of schedule, with three points, two rebounds and a plus-13 in 15 minutes.
Seven weeks later, he played his first game in a Kings jersey, and was instrumental in a second-half comeback in Washington. The Villanova product finished with seven points, five rebounds and a steal in 19 minutes, but he did far more than just accumulate statistics. DiVincenzo immediately added defensive ingredients – aggressiveness, versatility, constant communication – that were lacking in Sacramento.
“I think he has a good feel for the game,” said Kings interim head coach Alvin Gentry. “Obviously, he’s played on a championship team. I think there’s a toughness about him defensively that you can't teach.”
Through 11 games, Sacramento’s defense is 5.2 points per 100 possessions better with DiVincenzo on the court (111.0 defensive rating) compared to when he's on the bench (116.2), per NBA.com. The metrics at Cleaning the Glass also demonstrate he has one of the highest steal rates (2.7; 99th percentile) and defensive rebounding rates (15.4; 93rd) of any wing in the league, and that when he’s in the game, opponents are committing 2.1 percent more turnovers (89th).
His effort and frenetic energy have been contagious, and while the lineup sample size is still too small to draw conclusions, DiVincenzo envisions tremendous defensive potential when paired in the backcourt with impressive rookie Davion Mitchell.
“Davion is somebody I look at and I admire his game,” DiVincenzo said. “He’s going to be a hell of a player going forward. But also I see myself, on the defensive end, in what he does. Honestly, I try to feed off what he does … [When] that dude picks up full court, I’m going to pick up the next possession full court, and match his energy and match what he does.
“[Against the Wizards] I was like, ‘Just be aggressive. If you’re aggressive and you get beat, I’ll cover for you, and you just cover for me.’ That trust level built. Once you build that trust level with your teammates, it’s so much easier to play defense.”
DiVincenzo’s offense, in the meantime, has come along, too. He’s scored in double-figures in four of his last six games and has been a viable threat from the perimeter (40.6 percent from behind the arc on 5.3 attempts per night).
Because he brings so much to the table, DiVincenzo has closed nearly every game despite not starting any of them. Whenever he’s on the floor, in the first or the final minutes, his mission is to frustrate opponents and inspire his teammates in any way possible, whether that means sparking a rally or protecting a last-second lead.
“Night in and night out, I’m going to compete on the defensive end,” DiVincenzo said. “I can guard multiple positions. I’m going to scrap, I’m gonna claw, and I’m trying to get wins here. That’s my only focus.”