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Former Terps star Greivis Vasquez making his mark with New Orleans

NBAMaryland TerrapinsChris PaulNew Orleans PelicansMonty WilliamsGreivis VasquezGary Williams

NEW YORK -- The conversation took place during his freshman year at Maryland. Greivis Vasquez, still learning a new language and getting adjusted to playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, sat down in his coach's office one day to talk about his dreams.

"He told me that he wanted to play in the NBA," Gary Williams recalled recently. "I told him, 'You've got the size, you see the court really well, you can shoot fairly well. It's just a matter of getting better every year.' He just took that to heart and went with it. Greivis got better every year."

Now in his third NBA season and second with the New Orleans Hornets, the 6-foot-6 point guard who left College Park trailing only Juan Dixon in the school's record books for scoring is still following the same career arc.

Just as he did at Maryland, when he doubled his scoring average between his freshman year and senior year, Vasquez has gone from being a sporadically used rookie in Memphis to a starter and team captain in New Orleans.

The 28th pick in the first round of the 2010 draft, Vasquez averaged 3.6 points and 2.2 assists in a little more than 12 minutes a game with the Grizzlies his first year. He was traded to the Hornets before the start of last season, when his numbers improved to 8.9 points and 5.4 assists in 25.8 minutes. He started 26 of 66 games.

"A lot of times in Memphis, I was the last guy off the bench," Vasquez said. "This organization has given me the opportunity to become the player I think I can be."

Statistically, he has made an even more impressive jump than he did at Maryland. Vasquez went into Saturday night averaging 13.9 points and 9.4 assists – third in the league in assists behind injured Boston Celtics star Rajon Rondo and Most Valuable Player candidate Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers. He has started all 46 games and is averaging a team-high 34.4 minutes.

Vasquez was named the Western Conference Player of the Week in late December — the first Hornet to be so honored since Paul in November 2010 — and has been mentioned prominently in a small group as a leading candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player this season.

The chip he carried from Caracas, Venezuela, to Montrose Christian in Rockville — where he played one season with future Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant — to Maryland and eventually to the NBA remains the essence of who Vasquez is and wants to become.

"Even if I establish myself as a starting point guard, an elite point guard, whatever it is, I'm always going to play like nobody knows me, like I'm an underdog, that I have to prove a point," Vasquez said after a recent road game against the New York Knicks. "That's the thing about me. I'm such a competitor, what makes me good makes me bad. But that's just who I am."

In another rebuilding year with a franchise that was forced to trade superstar Paul to the Clippers before the lockout-delayed 2011-12 season, Vasquez has been one of the bright spots — and biggest surprises — for the Hornets.

Given the opportunity to start after former Georgia Tech star Jarrett Jack, Paul's successor, was traded to the Golden State Warriors after last season, Vasquez has put up impressive numbers — including 19 double doubles for points and assists. He has had single-game career highs for assists (17), points (27) and minutes played (43).

"It's just a great opportunity for me to lead. It kind of reminds me of my college days to showcase my talent and my leadership," Vasquez said. "The NBA is a tough business. This is the year for me to establish myself, continue to get better and to keep playing in the NBA."

Vasquez doesn't pay attention to his improved statistics because they could serve only as a distraction.

"If you say you have to get 10 assists a night, you're not going to get them," he said. "I just go out there and play, man."

With the offense built around fifth-year guard Eric Gordon (who came in the deal for Paul but missed most of last season after undergoing knee surgery) and former Kentucky star Anthony Davis (the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft), Vasquez has become to the Hornets much what he was to the Terps.

Vasquez doesn't shimmy his shoulders wildly after hitting 3-point shots as he did at Comcast Center. He plays with more restraint than he seemed to in college when he often admonished the home crowd for not screaming loud enough or on the road where he famously yelled after leading the Terps to victory at Florida State, where fans earlier had spewed ethnic slurs in his direction.

But the passion Vasquez developed growing up in Venezuela is still very much apparent to his teammates.

"The thing that sticks out about Greivis is that he's always competitive, no matter if it's a shoot-around or a tight fourth-quarter game," Hornets center Robin Lopez said. "He's always going after somebody's throat. He's always passionate about the game."

The genesis of the way Vasquez is playing this season goes back to the Western Conference playoffs his rookie year, when he hit some big shots against the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round and Oklahoma City in the second round.

"It really helped me a lot," Vasquez said of his first taste in the playoffs. "It gives you a lot of confidence, and that's the way I'm playing right now, with a lot of confidence. The NBA is all about confidence. You can't be afraid. You can't be afraid of failure. You can't be afraid of turning the ball over. When I was in college, I thought it was the best level.

"It's a little bit different in the NBA. One night you play against Chris Paul, the next night against Steve Nash, tonight against Jason Kidd. You have to be ready. This is a job. If you're not confident enough that you can outperform guys like that, then you're going to be out of the league. Right now I think I can perform against any point guard in this league."

Knowing what Paul did during his six seasons with the Hornets, Vasquez concedes that he feels a bit of pressure.

"It's pressure, but I can't really take it like that. I have to be myself," he said. "I can't be Chris Paul. I'm not really as fast. I haven't been in the league as many years as he has. I have to give all that I've got and trust my work ethic and do what I do. … Obviously I've got to guard the quicker point guards. That's the knock on me. I get it. Their advantage over me is that they're quicker, but I'm stronger and bigger."

And just as resilient, his once-fragile shell hardened like that of Maryland's mascot, Testudo.

Playing for Williams at Maryland helped Vasquez endure some tough-love coaching in the NBA, first from Lionel Hollins in Memphis and now from Monty Williams in New Orleans. The Hornets' 41-year-old coach seems a lot more laid-back than Gary Williams, but Vasquez sees similarities.

"I know in his heart he wants to make me better," said Vasquez, who is only the third Venezuelan to play in the NBA. "He's never going to say how good I do, and that's good because I don't need to read that. I like the way he coaches me. That means he cares."

Monty Williams, who overcame a heart defect discovered at Notre Dame to play nearly a decade in the NBA, wants more from Vasquez.

"He understands that I'm going to get on him no matter what, so he might as well play through it and deal with hard coaching because the point guards get more hard coaching than anybody," Williams said before the Jan. 13 game in New York.

Asked whether Vasquez has exceeded his expectations, Williams said: "I don't think about that kind of stuff, to be honest. I try to push him so that he fulfills his potential. Our coaches do a great job of showing him his flaws and showing him things he does well. I'll look at all that stuff at the end of the season and try to evaluate then, but while you're in the process, you try not to think about it. He's done a good job, but there's certainly room for improvement."

Given his history, Vasquez will likely get that done.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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