Here's why Milwaukee Bucks star calls Delaware native Donte DiVincenzo 'the heart of this team'

Martin Frank
Delaware News Journal

After a turbulent offseason, everything seems to be falling into place for Donte DiVincenzo, the Salesianum and Villanova star in his third season for the Milwaukee Bucks.

DiVincenzo is a full-time starter for the first time in his career for one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer called DiVincenzo "a winner," and star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo called DiVincenzo "the heart of this team."

Just four months ago, before the season started, the Bucks had agreed to trade DiVincenzo, their first-round pick in 2018, to Sacramento in return for Bogdan Bogdanovic.

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But the trade fell through and DiVincenzo was back in Milwaukee. It's no wonder, then, that he was ecstatic to play against the 76ers on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center, not far from his family's Delaware home in Newark.

Sure, it was different in that only 3,100 fans were allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions. But DiVincenzo said Wednesday that both of his parents were among them.

DiVincenzo wasn't able to do much more than wave to his parents in the stands.

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, right, tries to pass the ball to Tobias Harris, bottom, as Milwaukee Bucks' Donte DiVincenzo defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

"Usually, when we come here, I’m able to come home and see my family," DiVincenzo said before the Bucks beat the Sixers 109-105 in overtime on Wednesday. "It’s a little different this year, but my energy is different. I think coming back home, close to Delaware, it just makes you feel happy, makes you feel ready to go."

That energy was how DiVincenzo was able to overcome the shock of being traded, then returning to the team that had agreed to trade him.

“Mentally I was fine,” DiVincenzo told reporters in December, a few weeks after the trade fell through. "I had great people in my corner checking in with me mentally every day ... My trust is still there. Nothing changes. (The Bucks) want the best for me. They want me to get better. I want to get better, so nothing has changed there."

Then DiVincenzo showed that in his play.

He came into the game Wednesday night averaging 10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 26.8 minutes per game, all career highs. Against the Sixers, DiVincenzo finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals.

"Donte is incredibly important for us," Budenholzer said. "Our feelings and belief and confidence in him has never been any different from the night we drafted him till today. He’s handled everything with an amazing amount of maturity, professionalism"

All of that was evident on Wednesday after a brutal first half in which the Bucks trailed 45-31, shot 26.7% and made just 1 of 17 shots from 3-point range. The Bucks then fell behind by 19 early in the third quarter.

DiVincenzo helped bring the Bucks back. His 3-pointer midway through the third quarter got the Bucks within 11. His assist to Pat Connaughton got Milwaukee to within seven.

And his behind-the-back pass to Antetokounmpo with 8:19 left gave the Bucks a two-point lead, their first since the opening minutes of the game.

DiVincenzo then hit a 3-pointer with 2:06 left to put the Bucks back in front by a point. Milwaukee's lead eventually grew to 7 with just under a minute left.

The Sixers tied it on Furkan Korkmaz's 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left after Korkmaz broke free from DiVincenzo, who went for the steal on the inbounds pass and came up empty, leaving Korkmaz open.

"Donte's making a competitive play, trying to keep the catch from happening," Budenholzer said, adding that the better decision would have been for DiVincenzo to contest the 3-point shot.

"But at the end of the day, (DiVincenzo) lays it all out there," Budenholzer said. "He's a big reason why we were able to win tonight. The competitive side of it, I just love what he does."

So do his teammates.

Antetokounmpo, who scored 28 of his game-high 32 points in the second half and overtime, called DiVincenzo "an unbelievable player."

"He's so freaking competitive," Antetokounmpo said. "He goes out there and gives 100% every single night. He's going to make mistakes, but always we know he's going to give 100% ... He had some big plays – plays that you saw and plays that went under the radar."

Antetokounmpo might have raised the ire of the Sixers and their fans by sitting down at midcourt after hitting a big shot in the final minute of overtime.

He said it wasn't a sign of disrespect. "Is there something wrong with having fun?"

DiVincenzo is having fun, too. The NBA trade deadline is next Thursday, but DiVincenzo likely isn't going anywhere. Not when he's playing an integral role on a team battling for the top spot in the East. 

The Bucks (26-14) have won 10 of their last 11 games, and they're 1 1/2 games behind the Sixers, who have the best record in the East.

They'll face the Sixers twice more in April, with both games in Milwaukee. Perhaps Sixers center Joel Embiid, who's out with a knee injury, will be back by then. The two teams could face each other in the playoffs, too.

Either way, the Bucks will be formidable, and DiVincenzo, who was technically traded four months ago, is a big reason why.

"My mind is in a good place," DiVincenzo said. "Even though we didn't play our best in the first half, coming into the locker room (at halftime), our mentality was to stay together, keep our spirits high and just go out there and compete."

DiVincenzo certainly did.

Contact Martin Frank at Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.