By Mike Wise
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Before Gary Williams's alter ego withdrew his name from the NBA draft and told his coach he was returning for his senior season on Monday, it was no secret in basketball circles: Greivis Vasquez didn't wow the people paid to poke and prod and run stopwatches on prospective pro players.
Heck, Notre Dame beefcake Luke Harangody and Pittsburgh's round mound of rebound, DeJuan Blair, who won the body-fat competition (12 percent) at the NBA pre-draft camp, ran faster times in the three-quarter-court sprint drill than Maryland's main man of last spring.
Syracuse skywalker Jonny Flynn's vertical leap was measured at an ungodly 40 inches, a full foot higher than the guy with the worst standing jump at the camp, Greivis Vasquez.
Which just perfectly fits this ongoing script about unwanted mutts ending up in College Park, no?
Emotional kid rescues Gary's program from the NIT rubble last winter, engineering a career-defining win over eventual national champion North Carolina. After a wild run secures an NCAA tournament bid, kid decides to test the NBA waters.
Even though he's outplaying top 15 picks-to-be in individual workouts, the NBA basically tells him he can't run or jump, and the Web site DraftExpress.com projects him at No. 58 in the second round, two spots from the last pick. Meaning no guarantees -- of money or even being plucked in the draft.
You could imagine Greivis Vasquez percolating with anger, the conversation he had with himself: "They don't think I can play, huh?"
The frustration builds until he finally goes back to the one place he is allowed to vent unconditionally -- the Comcast Center court -- to the one man who knew enough about his heart and his game that he never had to run tests on his explosiveness or speed -- Gary Williams.
"I love him," Williams said yesterday as he sat at the conference table in his office at Maryland.
"I love Coach," Vasquez says often.
Fueled by their emotions, both hunker-down fighters, you can almost envision coach and player back-to-back, with clenched fists dropping domestic and foreign enemies one by one, some of them real, some imagined.
The great thing about Vasquez returning isn't that it flies in the face of so many one-and-done kids making a farce out of the NBA's age-restriction rule; no, these two deserve each other for one more season, if for no other reason than what they've already gone through.
The Gary and Greivis Show was never validated by numbers and splits or any other timing instrument or tape measure; it was about the bonding of two survivalists.
Williams said yesterday he never believed his job was in genuine jeopardy when another NCAA tournament rejection seemed likely in late January, after Maryland lost by 41 at Duke. But the run Maryland embarked upon to earn a berth erased the question, a run orchestrated by the junior point guard who led his team in scoring, assists and rebounds.
"When you talk about coaching teams -- not talent-wise, but as a team -- that was as good as a team has functioned the last month of the season as any team I've ever coached. There was a lot of New Jersey in that team," said Williams, a product of the Garden State.
Still fresh in the mind is the upset of No. 3 North Carolina on Feb. 21, the way Vasquez scored his team's first 16 points as the Comcast crowd erupted. Then, when Tar Heels Coach Roy Williams sicced double-teams on him, how Vasquez began finding his teammates curling around screens. And the storming of the court afterward, Vasquez in the middle of the pandemonium.
The Terrapins lose only Dave Neal next fall and have two freshmen with size to add to Williams's small-ball approach of last season. "We're starting from a different place this year," he said, saying he believes the Terrapins will be thought of as somewhere in the glut of the nation's top 35 teams to begin the season. "Last year we had to develop into a team."
"We have the confidence, without being cocky, that we can be a good team," he added. "How good? I think we can compete for the ACC championship. If we do that, then that puts you on a national level where you can play anybody."
Under special circumstances involving financial need or talent, Williams is a proponent of players turning pro before they graduate. His essential argument: If a math whiz parlays his MIT academic scholarship into working at NASA one day, why can't a gifted ballplayer on athletic scholarship use his program as an NBA apprenticeship?
He never put any pressure on Vasquez, he said, to return to Maryland. But now that the kid has made his call, his coach agrees with him.
"I think he made a good decision," Williams said. "If he plays like he can play next season, if we have a good year, I think he's definitely a top 20 prospect."
His affection for Vasquez isn't merely about basketball or the fact that Vasquez got Williams through maybe the most trying days of his career last spring. It's about Greivis the goofball stealing candy out of his coach's office, bopping in each assistant coach's office, always ready to go, his motor constantly running.
In October of Vasquez's freshman season, Williams recalled, the lanky Venezuelan kid poked his head through the doorway, saluted his coach and said, "Reporting for duty, sir."
Vasquez effectively said that again Monday to Williams, who's suddenly got a more-than-decent college basketball team returning.
So two of the more portly players at the NBA draft combine were faster than Vasquez in a sprint drill. Big deal. It should be noted that Derrick Rose had the fourth-slowest time in the same drill a year ago, and he turned out okay, didn't he?
And besides, as Juan Dixon can attest, many of the best players to be coached by Williams could never be measured by conventional methods. As long as they've got some Jersey or Caracas in them, they'll make do.