Donte’s Peak

Sallies and Nova careers behind him, ‘Delaware’s Michael Jordan’ continues his ascent

It’s hard to believe, but just three years ago Donte DiVincenzo was leading his Salesianum High School team to its second straight state championship while being named Player of the Year by the Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association.

Since then, he’s been a member of two Villanova National Championship teams, earned the Most Outstanding Player award in this year’s NCAA tournament, and entered the June NBA draft, where he was the first-round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks.

DiVincenzo has been called “the Michael Jordan of Delaware” and anointed “The Big Ragu” (Italian, red hair—get it?) by Fox announcer Gus Johnson. Heady stuff for a 21-year-old who was only the sixth man on Nova’s national champs.

But in early July, on the phone from Las Vegas, site of the two-week NBA Summer League, the Newark native comes across as modest and well-mannered—the product of two Catholic schools and a loving family. He is quick with “thank you” and “thank you very much” when complimented on his scintillating, 31-point performance in the NCAA championship game and his ascent to No. 17 in the draft, and he calls back twice when the connection is lost.

DiVincenzo says he will bring the same head-down, grind-it-out attitude to the Bucks that propelled his steady improvement during his college career. “I just want to bring a lot of energy and try to learn and be open-minded,” he says from Vegas. “I want to build confidence in me with all the dudes I’m playing with.”

DiVincenzo steadily improved while at Villanova. Photo Bowstring for Villanova Athletics

Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer has called the rookie “an elite competitor,” adding that “he needs to play defense if he wants to get on the floor, and he knows that.”

DiVincenzo is already immersed in all things Milwaukee. He has thrown out the first pitch (a strike) at a Brewers’ game, met several of his teammates, shopped for an apartment, and acquired a variety of “Fear the Deer” gear.

Nova, Delaware Connections

But he maintains his Villanova and Delaware ties. Two of his Wildcat teammates were picked in the first round, Mikal Bridges at 10 and Omari Spellman at 30, and Wildcat point guard Jalen Brunson was chosen early in the second round. “We stay in touch (through texting and phone calls), and we all had dinner together last night,” says DiVincenzo.

He’s also been in contact with Delaware’s other professional hoopster, Elena Delle Donne. “Elena reached out to me a couple times during my last college year,” says DiVincenzo. “And since the draft we’ve been in touch now and then.”

He and Delle Donne, who plays for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, share a basketball tutor—John Noonan, head coach at Ursuline Academy. “I train with John every opportunity I get,” DiVincenzo says. “He’s been working with me since high school.”

He’s also still in touch with Sallies Coach Brendan Haley. Says Haley: “I can’t believe what Donte has been able to accomplish over these last five years. His work ethic and his singular focus on reaching this goal have never wavered from the first day we talked. It’s an incredibly cool time for all of us at Salesianum.”

DiVincenzo credits Haley with much of his improvement during his four years on the Sallies varsity, noting that he and the coach were close “on and off the court.”

Learning to Play D

A shooter and scorer in high school, he admits that he was not a strong defender when he arrived at Villanova. But under the tutelage of  Coach Jay Wright and his staff, his D gradually got better. “It was a learning experience, a progression, a process, and I improved every year,” he says.

By last season, he had grown into an offensive spark plug (he was the Big East’s Sixth Man of the Year) and one of the Wildcats’ best defenders, a skill he demonstrated in the championship game, where he blocked two shots, one a two-handed stuff at the rim on a taller Michigan player.

DiVincenzo had two years of eligibility left when he decided to hire an agent, a step that prohibits him from playing any more at the college level. He says he and Wright “had a mutual understanding” that he would return to school if it looked like he wouldn’t be picked in the first round. But after a strong performance in May’s NBA Combine, a multi-day showcase that includes interviews, drills, athletic and medical tests and five-on-five competition, it became obvious that the Delawarean was destined for Round 1. He stood out on both ends of the floor, and his 42-inch vertical leap demonstrated the athleticism that NBA scouts covet.

DiVincenzo says teams told him he wouldn’t be evaluated strictly on his performance in the Final Four or at the combine. “They all told me it was my whole body of work that they would look at,” he says.

While at least one draft guru had him going as high as No. 10, Milwaukee was one of the favorites to grab him at 17, and they did. And that suited DiVincenzo. He says he enjoyed his visit to Wisconsin’s largest city (595,000) prior to the draft, calling it “a great atmosphere.” And coincidentally, his father, John, who grew up in Elsmere, was a Bucks fan because his father had been a fan. (John F. and Kathie DiVincenzo, who live in the Prices Corner area, have an older son, John A.)

Our conversation took place just after the Summer League started, and DiVincenzo was nursing a groin injury that he hoped would only keep him out of the opening game. His days, he says, have been spent getting treatment for the injury followed by practice and weight lifting sessions. He’s 6-5 and a solid 203 pounds, but he would like to add six or seven pounds before the season starts.

The Bucks have been quiet in what has been a flurry of summer signings in the NBA, but DiVincenzo indicated they may soon become active in the free agent market. He’s hoping to help the team improve on last season’s first-round elimination. Says the player who has been on four championship teams: “I’m hungry to win.”

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