Donte DiVincenzo is taking steps (literally) toward adapting to new teammates

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MINNEAPOLIS — One of the New York Knicks’ favorite fads seemed as if it would continue forever.

On Monday, someone would drive to the paint. The Minnesota Timberwolves, owners of a top-notch defense, would cover up the holes. The dribbler, with nowhere to go, would kick the ball to a perimeter-lined teammate, who would field the pass and either put up a 3 or penetrate into the lane himself.

The Knicks love the 3-point shot, but they also know most open jumpers occur because they forced the ball down a defense’s throat first. If this team doesn’t create a good look the first time it infiltrates the paint, it will try again, and then again. If there were no shot clock and the Knicks were facing the perfect defense, drive and kicks would play on a loop for 48 minutes.

We saw that trait stand out Monday against the Timberwolves, when the Knicks collapsed in the third quarter, made less than a quarter of their 3s and lost 117-100. But this was the final stop of a four-game road trip, their sixth game in nine days. And it came against the squad that owns the best record in the Western Conference.

The Knicks don’t have to make excuses for one drubbing. Reality does it for them. So instead of zeroing in on the defeat, let’s follow another trend that has formed because of all these drive-and-kicks: Donte DiVincenzo, in his quest to adapt after signing with the Knicks this past summer, is trying something new.

Watch DiVincenzo with any of his three previous teams — the Golden State Warriors last year, the Sacramento Kings before that or the Milwaukee Bucks, where he began his career — and you’ll notice he rarely stood right at the 3-point arc. Instead, he’d space far beyond it, a step or two or three behind.

But when role players arrive at new destinations, tiny quirks about them change. One of DiVincenzo’s tweaks has involved where he stands when he doesn’t have the basketball, closer to the arc than ever — and he’s doing it for good reason.

DiVincenzo has always been notorious for his deep 3-pointers, a habit that dated back to his collegiate days at Villanova. The Bucks only encouraged those heaves after they drafted him in 2018. Spacing not just to the 3-point arc but beyond it creates even more room for drivers in the middle. And when you’re in Milwaukee, your job is to create gaps for a two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Bucks, under then-coach Mike Budenholzer, obsessed over the proper spacing to maximize Antetokounmpo. They drew five blue boxes on their practice court to encourage optimal positioning: one under the basket, one on each wing and one in each corner. The boxes on the wings, where DiVincenzo often settled, were steps behind the arc.

But spacing, even if it is jammed into the brain of any perimeter-oriented player who steps into the league these days, is not the reason DiVincenzo began to chuck 3s from so far away.

He has a habit of missing short more than long. Taking a step back, he thought, would remind him to use his legs, as if the distance were a doughnut on a baseball bat.

“I don’t like my short misses. I don’t like straight-line misses,” DiVincenzo said. “Sometimes, they’ll go in and it still doesn’t feel good, but I’ll take the good misses, if you will, in rhythm and everything.”

He called that cushy area a couple strides back “the line within the line,” his target when he hustled back on offense and spaced not just to the 3-point arc we mortals can see but to the one a step or two behind it that he’d hallucinated for years.

At one point last season, DiVincenzo actually looked at the advanced numbers and saw that they backed up his hypothesis. By the end of the year, his accuracy on deep 3s was only a smidgen different from his accuracy on ones inches off the line. And if the deeper ones mean generating driving lanes, why not take that leap backward?

But nowadays, DiVincenzo is breezing through the line within the line. And it’s because of those drive-and-kicks that work so well in New York.

“I’m feeling out where I’m finding my spots,” DiVincenzo said. “Being on the (3-point arc) is a little bit different in terms of being ready to catch and make a play going downhill. Last year (with the Warriors) was more of: You’re spacing out wide (for two-time MVP Stephen Curry) so you’re gonna catch and shoot almost every time. This year, you might catch and drive it and then drive it again. … Being off the 3-point line gives the defense an advantage to get back in front, so sometimes I’ll just run into the catch when I’m at the 3-point line. It’s just a feel thing.”

Last season with the Warriors, 37 percent of DiVincenzo’s 3-pointers were from 27 feet or beyond, according to information tracked by Second Spectrum and supplied to The Athletic via a league source. In his most recent healthy season before that, 2020-21 with the Bucks, the rate was the same: 37 percent. But things have changed in New York, where a hair under 10 percent of his 3s are from 27-feet-plus through 14 games.

It’s a role player’s job to conform to the system, and that’s what the Knicks’ newest rotation piece is doing. It’s not like DiVincenzo’s legs have forgotten their use just because the 26-year-old is positioning himself a step closer to the hoop.

He went for a season-high 25 points on 7-of-10 long-range shooting Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets, though his hot streak did not continue into the Minnesota game, when he went just 1-of-6 from deep. Still, he’s up to 38 percent from 3-point land on the season.

Defenses clog up the lane against the Knicks’ starters, who stay afloat offensively with offensive rebounds, limited turnovers and tough shot making. Over the weekend, when injuries drove DiVincenzo into the first unit, the guard brought bits of the blue-box philosophy with him, finding ways to space and to drive. DiVincenzo mentions positioning himself so he can catch the basketball on the move, beginning to run before he even receives a pass, a move that other Knicks role players (such as Josh Hart) have mastered as well. But DiVincenzo has combined those two traits.

For example, look at this play against the Hornets, when Jalen Brunson runs a high pick-and-roll with his center, Mitchell Robinson. DiVincenzo understands that Brunson needs space, but he also discerns that if a pass comes to him, he must be ready to go. So he straddles both markers: his personal line within the line as well as the 3-point arc scribbled on the floor.

He spaces well beyond the arc, giving the left-handed Brunson room if he chooses to dart to his stronger side. And just as the pass is about to arrive, he takes off, timing it well enough to hop into a triple if the jumper is open. The shot may not go in, but this is one of the good misses DiVincenzo mentions: an on-balance, in-rhythm, strong-legged jumper that traveled just a morsel too long.

The play requires telepathy between all parties involved. DiVincenzo must sense when to go. Brunson must anticipate where he’s heading. On this action, Brunson senses how far DiVincenzo’s defender, Ish Smith, sags off, so he lures Smith to the middle, opening up a shot on the outside. Surely, it doesn’t hurt that the two played together in college. The Villanova crew has natural chemistry, which DiVincenzo hopes to build with the rest of the group.

“I’m the new guy here, so I’m just trying to get comfortable with everything,” DiVincenzo said. “I wanna be an easy plug-in with this team. I don’t wanna be somewhere that they have to adjust to me. And I think that’s what I pride myself on, playing for multiple teams in multiple years, is being able to adapt.”

Now, the 3s are starting to fall, and those drives are working for him too. Nearly half of DiVincenzo’s assists have led to 3-pointers, many of which have occurred on the exact scenario he describes: One of his teammates attacks the hoop, then flicks the basketball to him on the wing, and he is in ideal position to drive and make a play for someone else.

“I’ve only been here — what is it? 13, 14 games?” DiVincenzo said. “It’s a process. I’m not getting too high, not getting too low. Just enjoying these guys and trying to learn everything about how they get their shots.”

(Photo of Donte DiVincenzo: Brian Babineau / NBAE via Getty Images)

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