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Changing the narrative: Villanova’s NBA surge

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After a program record-breaking night at the NBA Draft, Villanova’s quartet of recent draftees are gearing up for their first bit of action as pros. They may have also taken the first step in changing the narrative surrounding the Wildcats and the NBA.

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been heard before, sometimes seemingly on endless replay -- hackneyed criticisms of Villanova’s basketball program.

Great program, but not if you want to be a NBA player.

Yeah, it’s a basketball school, but Villanova is not a pro factory.

A talented team that works together well, but their players are just system guys that won’t pan out in the NBA.

Winning two National Championships in three years, Villanova’s recent success seems to have quieted down the pundits -- for now. With the most recent title run in April, Villanova entered the “Blue Blood” conversation, and Jay Wright is building up a case to be among the top active coaches right now--and possibly--one of the best all-time.

Despite the Wildcats’ recent success, the pundits’ arguments regarding Villanova and the NBA aren’t totally misguided, nor unfounded.

Since 1950, the Wildcats have seen 62 players drafted into the NBA. Of the 62--and the others who made it onto a NBA team without being drafted--only two Villanova products were fortunate enough to be named an NBA All-Star: Paul Arizin and Kyle Lowry.

Arizin, the Hall of Famer, made it on 10 All-Star teams throughout his career, last doing so in 1962. It wasn’t until 53 years later that another Villanovan would make it, when Lowry was given his first All-Star honor in 2015. Since then, Lowry hasn’t missed an All-Star game.

However, the Villanova Basketball program and its fans witnessed something that had never been done before. A couple of weeks ago, four Wildcats were welcomed and introduced by their respective teams to the NBA. The Wildcats enjoyed a couple of milestone moments in the 2018 NBA Draft, where three players were selected in the first round alone and four Villanovans were drafted altogether.

Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, and Jalen Brunson each had their NBA dreams realized on June 21. This weekend, they will be taking their first step as professionals on the basketball court, playing in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League. Could this be the start of a culture change at Villanova?

The recently drafted quartet seem to think so. While their names will be tied together for their school record-breaking night at the NBA Draft, they defer the credit elsewhere.

”It just shows what Coach Wright does, how he develops his players,” Bridges said. “You look at me right now, you know, not one person would probably say I’d be an NBA player when I came out of high school. But people thought that--my family and Coach Wright--he develops his players very well. He turns them into grown men. He does everything for you. I’m so happy to have him, he got me in this position.”

DiVincenzo, who was alongside Bridges and Wright in the Green Room on draft night, echoed similar sentiments.

”Villanova is the reason I’m sitting in this chair right now,” he said. “Coach Wright and the coaching staff have done a good job developing me as a player and as a young man. Now it’s my job to take everything I’ve learned from Coach Wright and the coaching staff, and apply it to myself.”

Bridges, DiVincenzo, and Spellman went in the first round--marking the first time that three Wildcats went in the first half of the Draft. Brunson, was picked shortly after at 33rd, rounding off the quartet of draftees and also topping off a draft night for Villanova that had four players go in a single draft.

While they give Wright credit, he defers it back to them.

”I am really happy for the guys that the NBA Teams saw the same value in them,” Wright said. “As college basketball players they were the best in the country. I think the NBA Teams have shown they look at them the same way. In a program like ours with rich tradition to do something for the first time is pretty remarkable and it’s a tribute to these young men and their families.”

Entering the 2017-18 season, it seemed like Villanova was only going to have two potential draftees in Bridges and Brunson. Going into the postseason, it still seemed that way. Things changed after a strong NCAA Tournament for Spellman and DiVincenzo, who played their way into the picture.

Bridges is Villanova’s first top-10 pick since Randy Foye went seventh overall in 2006. While the disappointment that came with not playing for his hometown team still stings some of the Villanova and Philadelphia faithful, Wright is optimistic for his new home in Phoenix.

”Their general manager, Ryan McDonough, he is a good friend of mine and he loves Mikal,” Wright said. “I didn’t realize when he was asking me all of these questions that he was thinking about trading for him. McDonough really does love him and will play him right away; that is a great opportunity for any player.”

As for DiVincenzo, the 2018 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, if his 31-point performance in the National Championship Game wasn’t enough to prove his worth, his performance at the NBA Combine garnered more attention. It was more than enough for the Bucks’ front office to wish for DiVincenzo falling into their laps at 17th.

”I am really excited for him, I know they wanted him really bad,” Wright said. “[The Bucks] called me in that morning and told me he isn’t getting passed us. They were more worried someone would take him beforehand. I know their coach really wants him, he was his choice. Their general manager really liked him as well.”

Spellman came off the board at the end of the first round. The 6-foot-9 center was named the Big East’s Freshman of the Year and was given a spot on the NCAA Tournament All-East Regional Team for his play in the first four rounds. While he only got to see action for one year on the court, he decided to continue his development at the next level and the Atlanta Hawks were ready to work with him, picking him with the 30th overall pick.

”It is such a great accomplishment to be a first round pick,” Wright said. “An organization makes a commitment to you and I know Omari will take that commitment very seriously. Omari is very serious about his craft, this year it was about his development. He is really talented and I think the Atlanta Hawks will love to see the versatility of his game, offensively and defensively.”

The final Wildcat to come off the board, Brunson, was probably one of the most important college basketball players this past season. Villanova’s first-ever National Player of the Year was picked 33rd overall by the Dallas Mavericks. He left Villanova with one of the most decorated careers in program history and for him to go at that stage of the draft allows Wright to believe that the Mavericks are getting a steal.

”I know Rick Carlisle will love him,” Wright said. “He loves tough, gritty, intelligent and committed basketball player and that is what he is going to get. I felt that wherever Jalen was going that he will make a positive impact.”

While it’s uncertain how these newly drafted players’ NBA careers will pan out, there’s no doubt that the 2018 NBA Draft marked a monumental night for the program--achieving feats that had never been done before.

The narrative is changing and that night marked the first step into a new direction. Only time will reveal what the future brings and if this is truly the opening of a gate for even more Wildcats to step through.