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‘Nova Knicks: The numbers and themes driving New York’s Villanova-flavored resurgence

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The story of the NBA playoffs so far — arguably, especially to those in Minnesota — has been Jalen Brunson and the Villanova … er, New York Knicks.

Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, and Josh Hart bullied the Sixers out of the playoffs and are two wins away from sending the Knicks to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2000.

They do it a little unconventionally in the modern NBA, which, in a way, is perfectly appropriate since their college coach, Jay Wright, did things a little unconventionally himself at Villanova.

Here’s a look at some of the numbers and themes driving the ‘Nova Knicks in these playoffs.

No lottery, no problem

The NBA is a league of stars, and most stars are selected early in the draft, especially within the 14 picks that make up the NBA draft lottery (the 14 teams that did not make the playoffs).

Hart was drafted 30th overall by the Jazz in 2017, DiVincenzo was selected 17th by the Bucks a year later, and Brunson was picked 33rd by the Mavericks in 2018.

The Knicks do have a lottery pick, Julius Randle, but Randle has not and will not play in the playoffs, a reality that makes these Knicks unique. If they do indeed advance to the conference finals, they’d be the first team since Toronto in 2019 to get that far without a lottery pick making key contributions. That Raptors team, Sixers fans need no reminder, was led by Kawhi Leonard, the 15th pick in 2011.

» READ MORE: Tim Delaney arrived at ‘Nova with Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo. After a hip replacement, he aims to play again.

Brunson burner

Wright said on a podcast with CBS Sports last week that even he didn’t see this coming from Brunson. How could he? How could anyone?

The 33rd pick in the NBA draft isn’t expected to do much. Here are the five previous 33rd overall picks in the years before Dallas picked Brunson in 2018: Wes Iwundu, who now plays in Germany; Cheick Diallo, who now plays in Japan; Jordan Mickey, who now plays in Italy; Joe Harris, who developed into an elite NBA shooter; and Carrick Felix, who played in seven NBA games before mostly playing in the G League and overseas.

But Brunson is producing now like a first overall pick. Brunson ranked sixth in the league this season in Value over Replacement Player, behind Nikola Jokić, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Domantas Sabonis.

He’s doing it with an old-man game, too, another who-could-see-this-coming part of it all. In the modern NBA where guards shoot mostly from deep, Brunson is a throwback. Brunson, ESPN pointed out in a late-April story, attempted 330 floaters this season, 124 more than the next player on the list. He converted 86 shots that he was fouled on, second behind only Antetokounmpo.

» READ MORE: What makes Knicks star Jalen Brunson so special? ‘The magic is in the work.’

Sure, Brunson’s foul baiting has drawn criticism, similar to Trae Young’s annoyingly effective performance vs. the Sixers in 2021, but it takes a certain level of ability to get into those spots.

And unlike Young, Brunson is actually an efficient three-point shooter. On a career-high 6.8 attempts per game this season, Brunson made 40.1%. Young is a career 35.5% shooter from deep.

Donte’s Peak?

Speaking of three-point shooting, it’s hard to fathom the kind of shooter DiVincenzo, a Delaware native, has become. Maybe not if you’re Wright, who watched DiVincenzo connect on 40.1% of his 5.3 attempts per game from beyond the arc during the 2017-18 season, which ended with DiVincenzo going 5-for-7 from deep and scoring a game-high 31 points in Villanova’s NCAA championship win over Michigan.

Milwaukee drafted DiVincenzo three months later, but smooth shooting didn’t follow. DiVincenzo shot 26.5% from three-point range during his rookie season, and 33.6%, 37.9%, and 33.9% in the three years that followed. The Bucks traded him to Sacramento during the 2021-22 season, and then DiVincenzo made a decision that may have changed his career trajectory.

DiVincenzo, listening to a pitch from Steph Curry, joined the Golden State Warriors and flourished, shooting 39.7% on 5.3 three-point attempts per game.

» READ MORE: Q&A: Jay Wright talks about life after coaching, watching the ‘Nova Knicks, and more

DiVincenzo signed with the Knicks for four years and $50 million last offseason, joining his college teammates back east. The shooting followed. DiVincenzo shot 40.1% from deep this season on 8.7 attempts per game. Only Curry, Dončić, and Klay Thompson attempted more, and of those three, only Curry made a higher percentage (40.8).

DiVincenzo has been even better in the postseason, converting on 42.9% of his three-point shots. It was especially prevalent before New York’s Mother’s Day dud. DiVincenzo entered that game on a tear, having made 23 of 43 in the four previous games, a stretch that started with a 5-for-9 outing in a put-away Game 6 Knicks win in Philadelphia.

From far and wide

Brunson’s a bona fide star, DiVincenzo is suddenly one of the best shooters in basketball, and Hart is coming up clutch during key playoff games.

But Wright might be most proud of this: the stamina.

No one has traveled more distance in the postseason than Hart, and Brunson is second on the list.

On top of that, Hart, at 6-foot-4, was third in the NBA in offensive rebounds during the 2024 playoffs entering Monday night’s action. Hart, meanwhile, was at the top of the list in minutes played (441.4), with Brunson right on his heels (407.8).

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