To grasp the amount of confidence that New Orleans Hornets Coach Monty Williams had in Greivis Vasquez before this season, consider that Williams signed off on the team trading Jarrett Jack to Golden State in July in order to create an opportunity for the former all-American from the University of Maryland.
Jack isn’t an all-star, but he’s a solid and respected NBA veteran and was especially close to Williams. Jack’s father, Carlton, watched and mentored Williams as he grew up playing basketball at Marlow Heights Recreational Center.
“It was hard for me. I grew up with Jarrett,” said Williams, who starred in high school at Potomac (Md.). Williams also was an assistant in Portland, where Jack started his NBA career. “That was a tough one.”
Williams felt that Vasquez could handle the responsibility of being an NBA starting point guard but certainly didn’t expect the third-year player from Venezuela would lead all guards with 24 double-doubles and trail only Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul in assists per game. Vasquez joined Jason Kidd and John Stockton as the only players in NBA history to lead their team in assists in each of his team’s first 60 or more games.
“We had no idea he’d be as good as he’d be,” Williams said of Vasquez, a former All-Met at Montrose Christian in Rockville.
After starting just 27 games his first two seasons, Vasquez, 26, is flourishing in the role now, averaging 14 points, 9.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds. He is among the leading candidates for league’s most improved player, along with Indiana’s Paul George and Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday. Vasquez has almost doubled his career averages in three categories entering this season (7.7 points, 4.8 assists and 2.3 rebounds) and compares his NBA career trajectory to what he encountered in college at Maryland.
In four years playing under Gary Williams at College Park, the 6-foot-6 Vasquez went from being a backup, to a starting shooting guard to leaving as a senior by claiming the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s best point guard; beating out John Wall, his counterpart on Friday, when the Hornets play the Wizards (21-42) at Verizon Center.
“My freshman year, it was tough. Nobody thought I was going to be a good ACC player. Then my sophomore year, I struggled a little bit. I was playing more minutes but I was playing through my mistakes. I had a good season last year, too, in the NBA. But I thought my junior year was key year for me in college. Now my third year in the NBA is a huge step for me,” said Vasquez, who was drafted by Memphis 28th overall in 2010. “I feel my fourth year in the league is going to be like my senior year, the year that I established myself and everybody will talk about me as a starting point guard, not only in New Orleans but around the league. So that’s my ultimate goal and I know it’s going to happen, because I’m going to work. My work ethic ain’t never going to change.”
About 30 minutes after the Hornets concluded practice at Georgetown’s McDonough Arena, Vasquez was still participating in shooting drills with Hornets assistant Fred Vinson and taking pointers on avoiding flat-footed jumpers from beyond the three-point line. But Vasquez’s diligence toward getting better can truly be found during games, with him showing more command of the floor by getting his teammates in the best positions to score.
“Greivis is a great ballplayer,” said Hornets rookie Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick of last June’s draft. “He does it all. Rebound, can score the ball, he can pass the ball and he’s huge, 6-6. He’s a great point guard for us. I love playing with him and I love having him on our team.”
Vasquez and LeBron James are the only players in the NBA with at least six games with 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds; he is also one of just 10 players with at least seven games with at least 10 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in a game.
Having backed up Mike Conley in Memphis as a rookie, and Jack last season, Vasquez said he wasn’t nervous or intimidated when the Hornets decided to put the team in his hands after dealing away Jack.
“I was like, ‘This is my shot.’ Timing is everything,” Vasquez said. “Jarrett Jack got me better. I used to go to practice thinking, ‘I have to go at his neck.’ He was going at me. At times he was killing me and it got me better to the point that I’m having the season I’m having right now. But I would trade some of my individual success for more wins. Because my rookie year, I experienced being in the playoffs and I want to get back to that.”
The Hornets (22-43) are tied with Phoenix for the worst record in the Western Conference, but Vasquez is encouraged by the direction of the franchise, which is building around Davis and shooting guard Eric Gordon.
“We’re building a program here,” Vasquez said. “New Orleans, it’s a good spot for me. I just want to stay focused and have a great NBA career. I have a big responsibility right now. This is my chance to shine. Being mature and being a man, this is your chance to prove to the league.”
And Vasquez is grateful that Williams was willing to take a chance on him.
“Something about coaches with the last name Williams,” Vasquez said, flashing a huge grin.