MINNEAPOLIS — It began with a chance meeting in an airport. Donte DiVincenzo, already committed to his college plans, bound for Villanova, ran into Jalen Brunson and made a request — one that Brunson mimics with a smile.
“I remember he committed to Villanova like my junior year and I saw him in the airport and he was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to Villanova?’ ” Brunson said, imitating DiVincenzo. “I remember just laughing and saying no. And then fast- forward a year later, I’m committing.”
They would become roommates and teammates, then best friends and national champions. And now, years later, they find themselves in something that they could not have imagined when it began in that chance encounter — they're helping to guide the Knicks together.
Brunson signed on as the leader of the team a year ago and has been playing at an All-Star level. DiVincenzo joined him this past summer, already with a championship ring in his career, and quickly acclimated himself, the two flowing together as naturally as they did in college.
With Quentin Grimes sidelined Saturday night in Charlotte, the two got a chance to start together in the backcourt. Brunson had 32 points and eight assists and DiVincenzo, who moved up from his role with the second unit, added a career-high 25 points, connecting on a career-best seven three-point field goals. But more than the numbers, it was the easy fit together.
“Yeah, way back,” DiVincenzo said of their relationship’s beginning. “And ever since, we’ve been close. We’ve been best friends. And I think the beautiful thing about our relationship is that we don’t talk about basketball. We separate the basketball from our personal lives and it allows us to get the best out of each other on the court.”
A day earlier, when RJ Barrett was sidelined, Villanova teammate Josh Hart started beside them, too. Add in Ryan Arcidiacono, another college teammate, and it’s just an unlikely combination of pieces.
“It’s super-weird. Super-weird,” DiVincenzo said. “I think [Friday] when they’re announcing the starting lineup, it’s like, ‘From Villanova, from Villanova, from Villanova.' It was like Villanova going up against the Wizards.”
Brunson and Hart paired up last season after Hart arrived at the trade deadline in February. They became a comic duo, with the carefully scripted point guard joined by the say anything — and eat anything in postgame interviews — versatile piece. But in DiVincenzo, Brunson has been joined by his closest friend in the league.
While the Knicks have made little secret about their pursuit of star talent, they have a type they are seeking — a player who works beside Brunson, who defends, who can shoot — and DiVincenzo is all of those things.
There also is the matter of him knowing Brunson better than anyone. That means the hard-nosed guard has some habits that may be surprising.
“I got a lot of things,” DiVincenzo said. “Honestly, I’m more of the quiet one. So he busts the hell out of me. When I’m quiet, it doesn’t sit well with him. So he’s going to keep nagging me until I talk to him.”
DiVincenzo added: “He likes Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, all that stuff. He would play that loud as well. I’m the quiet one. I’m trying to play my video games and stuff like that. But it just worked. It worked for us.”
Knicks fans are more interested in what Brunson brings on the court, and he is playing at a level that has made him one of the most valuable players in the game and a clear leader in the locker room and practice. He's averaging 24.2 points and 5.0 assists in 35.2 minutes per game and is shooting 47.7% from three-point range.
"He's been doing this since Mac Irvin [his AAU team], at high school at Stevenson," DiVincenzo said. “His game hasn’t really changed. I think for me just watching him and the efficiency, just the way he does it night in, night out, is very impressive. But all his footwork, all his dribble-up threes. Everything that he’s doing I’ve been seeing for eight or nine years now.
“I would love for him to get an All-Star berth. I think he is. I think we have two All-Stars on this team. And I thought that last year watching these guys. We have a lot of good talent on this team. So you know how the NBA works whatever it is. But we know what our situation is. And we know who the guys are in this locker room.''
DiVincenzo is averaging 9.0 points in 20.7 minutes per game. He may not be an All-Star, and maybe when Grimes returns, he won’t even be a starter, but he delivers much of what the Knicks need — a heady and tenacious defender, a 40% three-point shooter and a player whose constant motion offensively opens up opportunities for himself and others.
“He played great,'' Brunson said of DiVincenzo's 25-point outing Saturday. "I mean, whenever he’s on the court, I’ve seen him do a lot of things in whatever role he’s been in, so I’m not really surprised at all. But I just know that he works really hard. He’s a gym rat. He strives for perfection all the time. I’m not really surprised by it. But it’s pretty cool to see it, one of your best friends playing that way.
“We envisioned playing in the NBA. We envisioned all that stuff, but not this. Jokingly, maybe, but never really a serious thought . . . It’s great. Him, Josh, Arch — I’m not taking it for granted. It’s really cool.”