After the final buzzer rang to commemorate Villanova’s second National Championship in three seasons, only one question remained on that fateful April evening: Would any of the Wildcats’ stars return to college? At the time, Jalen Brunson, the team’s steady leading presence and reigning College Player of the Year winner, was going pro no matter what, while Mikal Bridges was projected as a potential top-10 pick — that much was certain. But in the cases of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, their next move wasn’t always so clear.
DiVincenzo, the darling star of Villanova’s tournament run and eventual NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player selectee, went from second-round probability to lottery possibility. And Spellman, who had just finished up his redshirt freshman year as Big East Rookie of the Year, could’ve returned as a true focal point in an outstanding Jay Wright-led rotation. Both DiVincenzo and Spellman, eventually lured by the potential of earning first round money, took the leap — four months later, the quartet of Wildcats’ transitions to NBA-level basketball has gotten off to a strong start.
Bridges (No. 10), DiVincenzo (No. 17) and Spellman (No. 30) all went in the first round, while Brunson went shortly after at No. 33 overall. And although each player is dealing with different roles, changing nightly based on their opponent, injuries and franchise outlook, there’s reason to believe that this fearsome class of collegiate stars will be here long into the future.
The Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks, in all likelihood, have their eyes set on seasons beyond 2018-19, and their current records reflect that. At 1-7 and 2-6, these two presumed basement dwellers will have a load of reasons to lean on Bridges and Spellman, respectively, as the year drags on. For Mikal Bridges, the most potential-laden prospect Villanova has offered up in some time, has progressively earned more on-court opportunities, even playing 20-plus minutes in four of his last five games. In a massive 30-point defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Halloween, Bridges put in his best shift yet: 16 points, three assists, two steals and a three-pointer on 6-for-9 from the field.
Head coach Igor Kokoškov has already deemed Bridges an important future cog and he projects an ideal 3-and-D two-way athlete. With the hard-nosed, defensive-minded Trevor Ariza to lean on, Bridges finds himself in a beneficial long-term situation thanks to the guidance, experience and opportunity ahead of him. If the Suns continue their plummet to the bottom, there’s almost an expectation that the seasoned, ready-made Bridges will break out in a big way before the campaign concludes this spring.
In Omari Spellman’s case, it’s been an up-and-down process, as expected, but the Hawks have only played two competitive games all season thus far. Often tossed out there with the result in hand, Spellman has had four efforts finish with a double-digit negative plus-minus — but his crown jewel performance so far, 17 points on 4-for-5 from deep, offers a glimpse at a bright career moving forward. Spellman, 21, boasts the profile of a versatile two-way big, a 6-foot-9 power forward that gobbled up eight or more rebounds in 22 of Villanova’s 40 games last season. In the Final Four, Spellman helped lead the way over the similarly-No. 1-seeded Kansas with 15 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. Even better, the former Wildcat averaged 1.6 three-pointers per game at a 43.4 percent in his single collegiate season — so far, he’s worked hard to continue that success from behind the arc as well (1.0, 38.9 percent).
Spellman may not look like the unicorn stretch four-prototype the league has fallen in love with in recent seasons, but his game certainly does more than enough talking. With John Collins still on the shelf, Spellman can continue to build on his positive, surprise start to his hard-working professional career.
Two-time NCAA champion, Consensus National College Player of the Year, First-Team All-American, Bob Cousey Award winner and Big East Player of the Year. If that looks like a list of fantasy achievements, well, that’d be wrong, because those are the plaudits and accolades that Jalen Brunson hauled home as a dominant force at Villanova. In that championship-winning junior year campaign, Brunson averaged 18.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. His reward was slipping into the second round at No. 33 overall — his an age a factor, undoubtedly, but it was certainly to the Dallas Mavericks’ ultimate gain.
Brunson’s line may be the least eye-popping of the group to this point, but he’s playing important backup minutes for a team with true postseason aspirations. When Dennis Smith Jr. was out injured last week, Brunson earned his first-ever start against Kyle Lowry and the excellent Toronto Raptors. That night, Brunson held his own over 30 minutes with eights points and four assists — distinct early signs that the best is yet to come. On top of that, head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best modern-age coaches in professional basketball, recently said that he believes Brunson should’ve been a top-15 pick back in June.
He’ll continue to split time with veterans J.J. Barea and Devin Harris once the latter returns from injury, but Brunson’s careful and experienced hands will come in handy if Dallas wants to reach their lofty postseason goals. Brunson has just five turnovers through nine games, moves the ball well and plays within his role — and ultimately, that’s just the Villanova way.
The last stop on the Wildcat Express is Donte DiVincenzo, that late leaper turned lottery-bound shoo-in. When the Bucks selected him some four months ago, they viewed the guard as a key piece in a rotation set to challenge the conference greats. Now, if they figured that DiVincenzo would be the 7-1 Bucks’ second-leading scorer off the bench this early on — that might be a tad more unbelievable, but here we are nonetheless. Quickly, DiVincenzo and his two-way abilities (have we sensed a theme yet?) have earned the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer.
Here are some fun tidbits on DiVincenzo in rapid succession: He’s finished with a negative plus-minus in just two of his eight contests; in four of their six victories his plus-minus was plus-15 or higher. Last week, DiVincenzo finished with 15 points in 18 minutes and a stellar plus-17 in the boxscore. DiVincenzo, who hit 2.1 three-pointers per game at a 40.1 percent conversion rate at Villanova in 2017-18, has failed to make at least one from deep on just a single occasion to start his NBA journey.
If there was any question of his current confidence level, the Bucks are already comfortable just letting DiVincenzo iso with the clock running down and letting the talented youngster pick his spots. As of Friday, DiVincenzo ranked 13th in points (8.3), seventh in field goal percentage (47.1 percent), fourth in made three-pointers (nine) and eighth in rebounds (4.1) for all qualified rookies. Just within the confines of Milwaukee’s roster, DiVincenzo’s offensive rating is fifth-best (113.3) and his defensive rating is fourth-best (95.5); while his plus-61 total plus-minus tops all rookies, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trailing far, far behind at plus-31.
For a prospect that looked destined to return for his senior year until that tournament coming out party, DiVincenzo has passed the eye test with flying colors already.
The short end of it is likely this: Sure, this talented Villanova quartet won’t steal the headlines from Trae Young, Luka Dončić or Deandre Ayton, but they’re well-practiced prospects with a place in the NBA. Whether it’s a heavy helping of praise from a coach — both new and old — or the steady trust of a league-leading franchise, these Wildcats have made their presence known through the first month of the season. All products from one of the most successful collegiate programs of the last decade, these proven winners often provide valuable contributions, even if those things don’t always show up in the box score.
And although these four franchises might be heading in completely different directions, one thing is for certain: Bridges, Spellman, Brunson and DiVincenzo are here to stay.