“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.”