MILWAUKEE — It seems The Ghost of Mikal Bridges will haunt his hometown team for years, painfully, pointedly, and very close to home. That haunting continues in the form of a former college teammate.
Donte DiVincenzo and the Milwaukee Bucks will host the Sixers on Saturday in a referendum game: A first-place team with the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a surging, reconfigured club whose All-Star point guard, Ben Simmons, entered the break like a freight train and whose All Star center, Joel Embiid, exited the break like a rocket ship.
DiVincenzo’s 31 points in Villanova’s NCAA championship win in 2018 earned him the Most Outstanding Player award, but he isn’t the “Greek Freak”, and he isn’t “The Process.” But he’s the sort of player who ticks a lot of other boxes: a very good NBA defender and an emerging scorer whose athleticism and work habits will make many teams that passed him over regret doing so.
Teams such as the Sixers.
Their lack of bench depth left them scrambling last season and this. DiVincenzo, a 6-foot-5 combination guard with a 42-inch vertical leap, would fit better than, say, Zhaire Smith, who was taken 16th in the 2018 draft, one spot ahead of DiVincenzo, but who still can’t earn playing time. Or Raul Neto, who started Thursday because Simmons had an aching back, and who was awful. Or Shake Milton, whose cameos at backup point guard have been uninspiring. Or starting wing Josh Richardson, ill-suited to his role as Simmons’ understudy.
No, the redheaded firecracker known as “The Big Ragu,” the pride of Salesianum School in Wilmington, would be better than any of those options. And he would have been a Sixer today, backing up at the point and dunking in the Wells Fargo Center, if management — a year removed from trading up to take Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum — had not made a second consecutive draft-night mistake.
Wildcats coach Jay Wright knew DiVincenzo’s potential. Wright started DiVincenzo just 12 times in two-plus seasons, and not at all in the 11-game winning streak that brought the Wildcats the title, but Wright saw this coming.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Wright said Thursday. "As soon as he came in, you saw his intelligence. His commitment level. His coachability. Wasn’t a typical college kid. Didn’t go out. Wasn’t chasing girls.
“Every day, he was eating healthy. Working out. Improving his body. Working on his skills.”
That focus never wavered, even when an injury as a freshman forced him to redshirt.
“Even the year he broke his [right] foot, his work ethic and competitiveness was incredible. We saw that year he sat out how good he was going to be,” Wright said. “As soon as he was drafted, the approach was the same. They kind of ‘redshirted’ him last year, and he took that same approach.”
DiVincenzo played just 27 games as a rookie because of left-heel bursitis, but he has proven indispensable in 50 games this season, averaging 9.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals. Those are superb rebounding numbers for a backup guard, and those are astounding steal numbers for any reserve. Every other NBA player who averages at least 1.5 steals plays more than DiVincenzo’s 22.8 minutes.
Advanced metrics only enhance his profile. Among players who have played at least 40 games, DiVincenzo ranks 14th in defensive win shares, at 0.142. Antetokounmpo is first, at 0.195. Antetokounmpo also leads the league in defensive rating, at 97.6. DiVincenzo is second, at 97.8.
“I love him, like I loved him at Villanova,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown, who loves all things defensive, and who loves confident players, and who adores Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, a fellow Spurs alumnus. "There is a cocky side to [DiVincenzo’s] game that I get a lot of time for and I think like to be put in the system that he’s been put in coached by a good friend of mine.”
The offense has taken longer to evolve. but remember, DiVincenzo is just 77 games into his career in the NBA, whose season lasts 82 games. He played just 85 games in college. So he’s only about two NBA seasons removed from high school.
He’s getting comfortable. In his last 15 games, DiVincenzo is averaging 11.1 points, an increase of almost 2 points per game; shooting 50.4% from the field, having shot 43.7% in his first 35 games; and is hitting 41.9% of his three-pointers. He’d been at 30.8%.
So, how do DiVincenzo and the regrettable treatment of Bridges relate to the Sixers’ latest deficiencies?
Bridges, you will remember, is the Great Valley High School graduate who helped Villanova win two NCAA titles in his three seasons there. The Sixers employ Bridges’ mother, Tyneeha Rivers, as their human resources vice president, and when they drafted Bridges 10th overall in 2018, the serendipity of the moment spurred violins in crescendo.
The music died 45 minutes later. The Sixers’ collection of managers, replacing the departed and disgraced Bryan Colangelo, traded Bridges to the Phoenix Suns for a 2021 first-round pick owned by the Miami Heat and the 16th pick in the 2018 draft. This is not a criticism of the trade; the Heat pick helped land Tobias Harris, who will be the third leg of any success the Sixers have the next few seasons.
This is a criticism of what happened next:
The Sixers chose to take Smith. They didn’t pick DiVincenzo.
(He wasn’t the only mistake. They also didn’t pick Kevin “Red Velvet” Huerter, whom the Hawks took 19th, and who has become a foundational piece of that rebuilding franchise, hitting 39.1% of his three-pointers this season.)
It’s not as if the Sixers lack young talent. Third-year shooter Furkan Korkmaz is shooting 39.0% from three this season. Rookie swingman Matisse Thybulle might be a better defender than DiVincenzo, and he’s averaging 1.4 steals in just 20.2 minutes. But Thybulle doesn’t project as a legitimate scorer. Korkmaz is a defensive disaster. Nobody knows quite what to think of Smith, who has played in just seven games this season.
And none of them projects to be the sort of player DiVincenzo is becoming.