De Nicolao’s steady play triggers UTSA’s free-wheeling offense

UTSA point guard Giovanni De Nicolao drives to the bucket Thursday night in the first half against Rice. Video:

Giovanni De Nicolao admits that he faced a period of social adjustment when he first arrived in San Antonio in 2016.

Born and raised in Italy, he was a long way from home.

Giovanni De Nicolao

“Initially it was a little bit hard,” UTSA’s sophomore point guard said. “Everything is different, away from family. When I got here, I didn’t know anybody, but I adapt easily.

“Especially, with the coaches, they did a really good job. (Incoming players in) my class, my freshman class, we were just friends – on the basketball team and also outside (of the gym). That was kind of, last year, my family.”

If De Nicolao has ever been homesick, it’s been hard to tell based on his performance level on the court.

In a little more than two seasons with the Roadrunners, he has started every game.

At the moment, the 6-foot-3 guard from Padua, Italy, is sort of like the maestro of a finely-tuned orchestra.

With De Nicolao’s hands on the ball coming up court, free-wheeling UTSA (8-6, 1-0) ranks second in the conference in scoring at 86.6 points leading into tonight’s home game against North Texas (8-6, 1-0).

He leads a fast-improving program in assists (3.8) and steals (2.1) and is second in minutes played (25.3).

“He hasn’t had a bad day in a year and a half,” UTSA coach Steve Henson said. “He hasn’t had a bad practice. Every day, he walks in and he’s ready to practice. He’s all about the right things. He never takes a practice off.”

Henson traced that mindset to De Nicolao’s background in basketball.

“His dad is a coach,” Henson said. “He’s got an older brother that plays (professionally). He’s grown up the way a lot of kids in the states (did) 20 years ago (in) the way he thinks.”

De Nicolao is a pass-first guard, always looking for his teammates. He shoots only when the situation calls for it.

“The point guard position has changed so much,” said Henson, who once played the position at Kansas State. “So many of the elites, those guys they watch in the NBA, those guys are the leading scorers on their teams.

“He’s a little more of a throw-back guy. He’s about running the show and leading with his defense and penetration and assists.”

Last year, the Roadrunners struggled to shoot from the perimeter, meaning that De Nicolao often found himself forced to make a play when the shot clock was running down.

This year, with freshmen sharp-shooters Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace on the floor, the pressure is off the lead guard.

De Nicolao said it’s almost like a point guard’s dream to play on this team, with so many confident shooters.

“As you say, if someone miss one or two in a row, I’m going to find them again to get the third one, because I know they’re going to make it,” De Nicolao said. “Also, I don’t have to pass only to one guy. I can distribute the ball.

“I can get it to Kea(ton), Deon (Lyle), to Jhivvan, and I know they’re all going to make the shot. If they miss one, I know the next one is going to go in.”

De Nicolao acknowledged that he feels more at ease on the court this year, in part, because of his solid friendships and a growing familiarity with his surroundings.

“That definitely impact my game, because I feel more free, and secure,” he said.

Even so, De Nicolao said he talks regularly via FaceTime with members of his family back home.
He said he typically calls home following an afternoon practice, or, between 11 p.m. and midnight in Italy.

The conversations invariably turn to basketball.

“Both my brothers are both point guards,” De Nicolao said. “Also, my dad, he was a point guard. So, we have that point guard mentality.”

In San Antonio, he feels most at home with his closest friends, his teammates.

De Nicolao said after a Friday workout that he likes UTSA’s chances for continued success because of players’ unselfish attitude about the game.

“I think we have real good freshmen this year,” De Nicolao said. “Not only can they score. Not only can they make shots. But, they also pass the ball really well. Today I noticed (that) nobody forced a shot. We’re always trying to make an extra pass to get someone open.

“Whoever is going to shoot the ball, everyone is excited, because we know (it’s) going to go in.”

The ball moves quickly in UTSA’s offense, this time from Jhivvan Jackson on the left, to Giovanni De Nicolao in the middle. De Nicolao promptly executes a touch pass to Keaton Wallace for the three-pointer. Video: