In a rare fit of honesty for an NBA executive two days before the draft, Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst outlined a change in philosophy for a team that has been building for the future since 2013.
Horst’s boiled-down message? The future is here.
After five years of drafting teenagers with length, athleticism and long-term growth potential with their first-round pick, the Bucks went into Thursday’s draft with a different approach in mind. As Horst revealed, they were looking for shooting, defensive toughness, rebounding and, most of all, a player who could impact the team immediately.
When it came time for the Bucks to exercise the 17th pick in the first round, Horst proved to be a man of his word. With the selection of Villanova shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo, the Bucks filled two of their biggest needs — outside shooting and perimeter defense — and landed a 21-year-old redshirt sophomore who should be able to contribute right away as a rookie.
In a draft swarming with wing shooters in the middle stages of the first round, the Bucks sorted through the group and found exactly what they needed. DiVincenzo, the sixth man for the national champion Wildcats and the most outstanding player in the NCAA Final Four after a 31-point outburst in the championship game, is an athletic, tough, 6-foot-5 guard who shot 40.1 percent from 3-point range.
The only question now is whether the Bucks picked the right wing shooter. They are convinced they did.
“Donte was our guy,” Horst said. “If you were up there and saw the elation in our room when he got there — we were worried about it. We thought he was going to go a bit before us. But for us to be able to get him and (for him to be) a guy that has positional size, that can shoot, pass, dribble, defend at a high level, compete and win at a high level — he’s proven he can do that — we’re very excited to have him.”
The way the first round played out, the Bucks, who also have a crying need for a physical big man, had options. Robert Williams, Texas A&M’s athletic center, was still on the board. So was UCLA point guard Aaron Holiday. The top wing players still available were DiVincenzo, Kevin Huerter of Maryland and Lonnie Walker of Miami (Fla.).
In addition to the skill set he brings to the court, DiVincenzo won over the Bucks when they sat down with him on his predraft visit to Milwaukee.
“Donte really surfaced as an elite competitor, a really genuine, high-character person and someone that has a high intellect on the court and off the court,” Horst said. “I think a lot of guys in that group have similar skill sets and similar abilities, but his ability to compete with the game — and he’s proven to be part of winning at a high level — it’s really important to us. We think that gives him a chance to possibly help us this year, and more importantly, going forward.”
Forget about the future, the Bucks need DiVincenzo to contribute now. Their building project lost its momentum last season, when they changed coaches during the season and failed to reach their stated goal of earning home-court advantage in the playoffs. They were so desperate for outside shooting that they had to play 40-year-old Jason Terry 20 minutes in their Game 7 loss to Boston in the playoffs, so desperate they had to use second-round draft pick Sterling Brown throughout the season.
Owner of a 42-inch vertical jump, DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on a team that had four players taken in the first 33 picks in the draft. Though he was Villanova’s sixth man, he averaged nearly 30 minutes per game. He can catch and shoot or score off the dribble. He can defend multiple positions, which is important in today’s game. More important, he rose to the occasion in big games, especially during the NCAA tournament run.
DiVincenzo is more mature than many of the other first-round picks, having redshirted as a freshman after breaking his foot eight games into the season, then playing the next two. The Bucks view his sixth-man status as a plus, not a minus.
“In doing our homework and talking to people not only in the Villanova organization but people that he played against and coaches that he played against, a lot of people would say that Donte, if not the best player on the team, was one of the top two or three players on the team,” Horst said. “And to watch him come off the bench the majority of the time and contribute and produce the way that he did shows that he really not only says that he wants to play a role in winning and will sacrifice and do whatever it takes to win, but he actually did it. And not only did he do it, he did it at a high level.”
But can he make an impact as a rookie on a team that needs to take a step up this season under new coach Mike Budenholzer?
“It’s a hard thing to do, particularly when you’re drafting at 17,” Horst said. “The things that we think give him a chance and an opportunity to do that are his physical toughness, the level at which he competes and the fact that he can shoot the basketball.”
Clearly, the Bucks found what they needed in the first round of the draft. We’ll have to wait to see if they found who they needed.
Nick Obot’s Draft Grade: A