Donte DiVincenzo is one year ahead of schedule. The Villanova redshirt sophomore had a star-making performance on Monday while leading his team to a national title, with 31 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals on 10-of-15 shooting. DiVincenzo, the no. 124 overall recruit in the Class of 2015, waited his turn the past three years, changing his body and developing his game under the watchful eye of Villanova head coach Jay Wright. He’s on the same path to the NBA that guys like Josh Hart, the no. 30 overall pick in last year’s draft, and Mikal Bridges, a likely lottery pick in this year’s draft, have taken. Wright has turned the Villanova program into a player development machine. It’s the type of environment and opportunity a prospect like DiVincenzo couldn’t get anywhere else.
DiVincenzo showed every aspect of his game while lighting up Michigan, one of the best defenses in the country. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he’s a combo guard with NBA-caliber size and athleticism and a beautiful-looking jumper (40.1 percent from 3 on 5.3 attempts a game this season). DiVincenzo, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, can put up points in a hurry: He’s a confident player with unlimited range who can rise up for a shot from anywhere on the court. He kept Villanova in the game with 18 points in the first half, and he threaded several passes through traffic when Michigan overplayed him in the second half. His best play of the night, though, came on defense, when he swallowed up Michigan sophomore Zavier Simpson for a volleyball-style two-handed block.
DiVincenzo fits the classic profile of a draft sleeper. He’s a younger player with coveted physical tools and a well-rounded skill set forced into a smaller role on an elite college team. Translate his stats over 40 minutes of playing time and he would be one of the most productive players in college basketball this season:
DiVincenzo Stats Per-Game and Per-40 Minutes
The 21-year-old, who has been called “the Michael Jordan of Delaware,” would be drafted if he declared after being named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. However, DiVincenzo could significantly boost his stock if he returns to school and posts big numbers after taking the reins from Bridges and Jalen Brunson, juniors almost certain to go pro. It’s not the typical position for a player in his situation. DiVincenzo doesn’t have to worry about being overexposed on a team that needs him to carry it. Everything he did in his first three years at Villanova was building toward next season, and he will have a balanced and experienced group around him that complements his game.
DiVincenzo didn’t look like a future NBA player when he first came to Philadelphia. At 6-foot-4 and 170 pounds, he was a scrawny teenager who still needed to grow into his body. A foot injury eight games into his freshman season forced him to redshirt, and it may have been the best thing that could have happened to him. He’s one of several key Villanova players, along with Bridges, junior Eric Paschall, and freshman Omari Spellman, who remade themselves physically after taking a redshirt season. Spellman was the only one of the four who was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and he weighed around 300 pounds when he arrived on campus.
Villanova isn’t Duke or Kentucky. The school occasionally lands McDonald’s All Americans like Spellman and Brunson, but it doesn’t fill out entire recruiting classes with such players. Wright and his coaching staff do most of their recruiting in the tier below: three- and four-star recruits who have a chance to play at the next level, but who need a lot of coaching and a little luck to get there. One of Wright’s most impressive accomplishments in 17 seasons at Villanova is just how many relatively marginal recruits he’s put on NBA rosters. While not all of these guys stuck in the league, their odds of even making it that far weren’t great. None were surefire pros coming out of high school:
Villanova Player Development
|Player||Recruiting Class||RSCI Ranking||Years in NBA|
|Player||Recruiting Class||RSCI Ranking||Years in NBA|
|Josh Hart||2013||No. 94||1 (current)|
|Ryan Arcidiciano||2012||No. 55||1 (current)|
|Daniel Ochefu||2012||No. 44||1|
|Darrun Hilliard||2011||Unranked||3 (current)|
|Maalik Wayns||2009||No. 23||2|
|Dante Cunningham||2006||Unranked||9 (current)|
|Kyle Lowry||2004||No. 29||12 (current)|
|Randy Foye||2002||No. 56||11|
|Allan Ray||2002||No. 39||1|
A coach who sends this many guys to the pros is doing more than just dropping a few bags, rolling the ball out on the court, and letting the players figure it. Wright is not only making his players better, he’s putting them in roles where they can maximize their skill sets and show what they do best. He turned Villanova around in the middle of the 2000s by going to a four-guard offense based on spreading the floor and shooting 3s. He was one of the first NCAA coaches to grasp the way the game was changing. His players are used to playing in space long before they get to the NBA.
Villanova’s offense has been rated in the top 10 nationally the past four seasons despite steady player turnover. Everyone gets their turn in Wright’s program. Hilliard was their leading scorer in 2014-15 before being drafted with the no. 38 overall pick. Ochefu and Arcidiacono went undrafted in 2016 after winning a national title as seniors, but both have found their way onto NBA rosters. Hart, their leading scorer in 2016-17, has already established himself as an NBA-caliber player as a rookie with the Lakers. They all played like the best versions of themselves in college because Wright surrounded them with 3-point shooters so defenses couldn’t overload to stop them.
Wright doesn’t get as much NBA talent as Coach K or John Calipari, but his job is easier in many ways because his work builds on itself. He doesn’t have to start over every season with a whole new crop of players. He establishes a pecking order and gradually moves players up over several years. No freshman is going to jump their place in line over accomplished players with years of experience in his program. Jahvon Quinerly, their top-rated recruit in the Class of 2018, is a McDonald’s All American, but he’s going to have to play off of DiVincenzo next season, in much the same way DiVincenzo played off of Brunson this season, and Brunson played off of Hart last season.
It’s easier to develop players when they aren’t asked to do too much early in their careers. Wright could afford to bench DiVincenzo when he forced up a bad shot, dribbled into traffic, or took plays off on defense. Offensive responsibility is earned, not given, at Villanova. DiVincenzo had to become a complete player first. It’s the opposite of the situation Trae Young had at Oklahoma. While the freshman sensation put up incredible numbers in his only season in college, he developed a lot of bad habits on defense because the Sooners couldn’t afford for him to get in foul trouble. He’s such a big star that he almost had to go pro, but he would have been better prepared for the NBA if he could have apprenticed under a player like Brunson and filled out over several years.
The margin for error at the next level is tiny. NBA teams have little patience for all but the most elite prospects, and few NBA coaches have the job security to let young players play through their mistakes. They expect fully-formed products who can knock down 3s and understand their defensive responsibilities. A player drafted in the second round might get only one chance to crack a rotation before he gets written off as yesterday’s news. There’s only so much a player can develop by watching from the bench, especially in the NBA, where teams rarely practice once the regular season gets underway. A player who gets sent to the G League may never make it back.
While it may make sense for an elite prospect like Darius Bazley, a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2018, to skip college for the G League, it’s hard to see that ever being realistic for an unheralded recruit like DiVincenzo. The G League is made up of grown men in their mid-20s fighting and clawing for a chance to play in the NBA. A 170-pound teenager would get eaten alive in that environment, where no one would have much incentive to develop him in the same way Wright has at Villanova. A G League coach can’t waste a roster spot on a guy who will need two-to-three years to get ready to compete with 25-year-olds, and he’s not going to restructure his offense so a 19-year-old can run thousands of pick-and-rolls over the course of multiple seasons.
Time with the ball in your hands is crucial for the development of any basketball player, and few professional teams can offer that to a teenager for very long. Emmanuel Mudiay is a prime example: The 2014 McDonald’s All American skipped college for an abbreviated stint in China before being taken with the no. 7 overall pick in the 2015 draft. The Nuggets gave him a little over two years of running their offense before losing patience with him, while the Knicks gave him only a month before benching him after they acquired him at the trade deadline. It’s hard to see how bouncing around three professional teams in two leagues over four seasons has been beneficial to his development.
It’s not even necessarily about playing in the NBA, either. Allan Ray, who went undrafted in 2006 after a storied career at Villanova and had a cup of coffee with the Celtics, has carved out a lucrative professional career for himself in Europe. European teams have even less patience for unrefined American players than NBA teams do. A player with a shaky jumper and a limited basketball IQ can find himself rapidly falling down the food chain of international basketball if he’s not careful, regardless of his athletic ability or recruiting pedigree.
While the NCAA’s financial model is exploitative, Wright’s players are getting a fair deal in their basketball education. They may not be true “student-athletes,” but they are legitimate apprentices. They are learning a trade from a respected figure in their industry, and developing skills that will be invaluable in their professional career, regardless of where it takes them. Lowry, a four-star recruit who has become a four-time All-Star, was in attendance at the title game on Monday, and he has donated more than $1 million to his alma mater. DiVincenzo could join him in the NBA next season, but he has more to gain by staying in school. The Villanova player development machine will keep churning out players either way. Wright would make an excellent NBA coach, but the league needs him exactly where he is.