It’s not easy balancing humility and confidence. But New Orleans Hornets point guard Greivis Vasquez is doing it. The former Maryland standout is having a breakout season in his third year in the NBA, averaging 14.3 points, 9.2 assists (third in the NBA) and 4.6 rebounds, and racking up more 20/10/5 games (points/assists/rebounds) than anyone outside of LeBron James. Yet despite dishing more dimes than stars like Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker, he’s still having trouble getting recognition.
“You know I have been an underdog my whole life, my whole career,” Vasquez told Dime. “So now people are starting to think about me a little bit different but I haven’t really gotten the respect I need to get. That comes with time and that’s why I got to keep being humble and keep working because in my head I haven’t done anything yet.”
Vasquez was almost overlooked on his own team heading into this season. The Hornets had thoughts about playing rookie Austin Rivers at point guard alongside their star scorer, Eric Gordon. Then Gordon went down with a knee injury and Rivers struggled through the opening months of his rookie campaign. It opened the door for Vasquez to play big minutes. He had come into training camp with a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to prove he belonged as a starter. He has – the 6-6 playmaker has started every game for New Orleans this year.
“Now I’m playing with a lot of confidence and I am happy but I am not satisfied,” Vasquez says. “I think I have so much room to get better. I think Coach (Monty) Williams knows that and we all know that, but I think I am heading in the right direction.”
Vasquez is one of the bigger point guards in the league and he credits his size for giving him keen vision on the court. He also understands the mental side is just as important as his physical tools.
“I am going against the best point guards in the world,” he says. “I want to be a guy that’s not afraid of failure and that’s why I think my confidence is really helping me. Like I always say you got to know your limits and I know my limitations. I’m not trying to do too much.”
But Vasquez still wants to push himself, still believes he must prove himself every night. That’s the way LeBron thinks. So does Kobe, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, too. Vasquez knows he’s not jumping over anyone’s head. He knows he’s not appearing on highlight reels.
“Sometimes I do stuff and say, ‘How in the world did I do that?’ he admits. “I am not the most athletic guy so I don’t have a step-back jumper or anything like that. I’m just crafty.”
He finds himself studying many of the league’s top guards, and even discovered an unlikely teacher in Russell Westbrook.
“I probably shouldn’t say this but I like Westbrook’s attitude because he wants to kill you,” Vasquez says. “I mean he wants to kill you and some people don’t like it because they think he’s arrogant but that’s just who he is and that makes him that good. That’s who I am too. Obviously I am not as athletic jumping out of the gym like he does, but picking my spots I want to be like that. I want to let the other guy know, ‘Look, it’s not going to be an easy ride for you tonight. It’s going to be tough for you to get what you want. So we’re going to have to compete.’ That’s basketball, that’s what the NBA is all about.”
Then there’s Chris Paul. Vasquez called the L.A. point guard his favorite matchup. He grew up watching the Wake Forest product, knows his whole career, even as far back as Paul’s high school days. Vasquez once attended Chris Paul’s summer camp. Now, he’s replacing him in The Big Easy, and in two games against Paul this year, Vasquez has played him even (15 points, 10 assists a game, one W a piece).
“I get up for any match but he’s one of those matches you look forward to ’cause to me he’s the best point guard in the league right now,” Vasquez says. “When you get an opportunity to play against a guy better and with more tradition in the NBA you got to take advantage of that and make a name for yourself.”
But Vasquez’s play hasn’t just been good against Paul. He’s been consistent all season, logging nearly 35 minutes a night, a team-best, while taking on a leadership role as a 26-year-old. He almost had to. There was no one else.
Roger Mason is one of the few veterans in New Orleans, and he’s been a mentor to Vasquez this year. The point guard and the veteran have a close relationship, both coming from the Washington, D.C., area. Being a leader when you’re averaging 25 points a night and going to All-Star Games is easy. It’s another thing entirely to lead a group of young players all trying to make a name for themselves.
“It’s different when Tim Duncan tells you go… go out there and do this,” Vasquez says. “He’s Tim Duncan, you know what I mean? He doesn’t have to say much. I try to do it in a different way by just playing hard, competing, giving guys confidence by sharing the ball, running the offense, rotating defensively and just doing the right things. You know, that’s leadership right there.”
Luckily for Vasquez, the Hornets are loaded with young talent. Early season injuries rattled them into last place in the Southwest Division. But since Christmas, they are 9-6. Eric Gordon is back and healthy, adding a scoring dimension the team didn’t have before. Ryan Anderson is one of the most underrated players in the league, and Vasquez believes the sharpshooting big man gets him at least five assists a game. Anthony Davis has struggled with injuries, but when he’s been on the court, the former No. 1 pick is productive, blocking 1.9 shots a game with a PER of almost 21. Even though he jokes the rook still needs to get him a copy of USA Today every day, Vasquez hopes to help Davis reach his potential by feeding the 6-10 forward the ball until he gets comfortable with his back to the hoop.
“Playing with him is a privilege,” Vasquez says of Davis. “Unfortunately he got injured at the beginning of the season, which set him back a little bit. But what I like about him is that he’s always smiling. He’s always happy. He’s a happy kid and that’s contagious.”
But it starts on the bench with Monty Williams, a young coach learning on the fly just as his team is. Last year, Williams guided them through an injury-riddled season. At some points, they only had seven or eight healthy bodies. Now he’s earned the trust of his players, and in turn, Williams is allowing his up-and-coming point guard more freedom on the offensive end.
“I got to follow his gameplan,” Vasquez says. “I listen to his calls most of the time, but when I tell him, ‘I see this on the court right now. Let me run this play,’ he lets me because we have built that trust. Not every time, but most of the time when I do it, he lets me run the play I call. That’s why I am playing with so much confidence because when I do it every now and then and it works, it builds confidence on our team, and confidence with me and him.”
Ryan Anderson was the recipient of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season. Now, ironically, Vasquez has a chance to win it this year. It’s been a journey for the former Montrose Christian School (HS) star, going from DNPs early in his rookie season with Memphis to logging time with the Grizz in the 2011 Postseason to emerging in Louisiana. And while he doesn’t play for individual awards, he does expect the general opinion of his game to eventually change. When you make the right moves when no one is watching, he explains, good things will follow.
“I am not going to change anything,” he says. “At some point people are going to say, ‘You know this kid is doing the right things to be one of the elite point guards, and a starting point guard in this league on any team.’ That’s my goal. If I am the Most Improved Player that will be great because you want recognition. But if I’m not, that’s not going to change my work ethic or my thought process.”
The Hornets have a vision: possibly playoffs this season – definitely a playoff run next year. It won’t be easy in the Western Conference. A .500 record won’t get you to the second season. But the fans respect it, and Vasquez wants to repay them for being so loyal even as the team has struggled. He thrives off that attitude.
“We can’t forget about the people that don’t have the privilege that we have in the NBA,” he says.
It’s hard not to root for Vasquez. He made his name. Nothing was given to him. Now that he’s finally earned some success in the NBA, all he wants is more of it. The journey never stops.
Is Vasquez the most improved player in the league this year?
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