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Vasquez goes to Grizzlies in first round of draft

A dream that began years ago in a South American country known for producing more shortstops than jump shooters and took shape at Maryland the past four seasons became reality Thursday night at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Greivis Vasquez silenced his doubters, at least for the time being, after getting chosen by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA draft. Vasquez was the 28th player taken overall.

He didn't shimmy his shoulders in celebration, as he had done so many times as a Terp, but punched the air and celebrated with friends and family members. He then walked onto the stage and gave NBA commissioner David Stern a bear hug.

Vasquez, who won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation's top point guard as a senior and finished his career second only to Juan Dixon on Maryland's all-time scoring list, was the first Maryland player taken in the first round since Dixon and Chris Wilcox in 2002.

Six years after arriving from Caracas, Venezuela -- spending the first two at Montrose Christian School in Rockville before moving on to College Park -- Vasquez has hopes of becoming the first player from his country to have a significant NBA career.

"This means a lot to me and to my country in Venezuela," Vasquez said on ESPN's broadcast of the draft. "I never thought [growing up] that I'd be in the NBA."

Oscar Torres is the only other Venezuelan-born player to make the NBA, but the 6-foot-6 guard lasted only 82 games over two seasons with the Houston Rockets (2001-02) and Golden State Warriors (2002-03). Torres, also from Caracas, was one of Vasquez's heroes growing up.

"When [Vasquez] came to Montrose, one of his goals was to play in the NBA," said Stu Vetter, who coached Vasquez in high school, attended Terps games at Comcast Center and accompanied Vasquez to New York for the draft. "He's always had confidence in his game, that he could play with the best."

Vasquez's confidence came from the success he had playing for the Venezuelan national team against Kobe Bryant and some other NBA stars in the world championships following his sophomore year at Maryland. While his game was still erratic, he patterned it after Manu Ginobili of Argentina, who went from relative obscurity to becoming an All-Star with the San Antonio Spurs and a key member of two championship teams.

"I like his game a lot," Vasquez said toward the end of his sophomore year. "I see myself like him. He's not a point guard, but he's a clutch guy. A lot of people criticize him because he turns the ball over a lot. I just want to be myself. I like playing the point."

"He's always likened his game to Ginobili because of his size and his versatility," Vetter said, "but I think Greivis is going to be a special, unique player in his own right."

The most important decision Vasquez made in the past year did not come on the court. After going to the NBA pre-draft camp but not signing with an agent after his junior year, Vasquez returned to Maryland knowing that he still had his share of detractors among the pro scouts.

One by one, game by game, they disappeared as Vasquez led the Terps to a 24-9 record and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. He was also a second-team All-American.

With a number of teams interested in the 6-6 guard after strong workouts in the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago last month, the Grizzlies emerged as Vasquez's main suitors. He was the team's third first-round draft choice, coming two spots after Memphis selected South Florida guard Dominque Jones.

"This is a great opportunity," Vasquez said on ESPN. "We have a great roster with Rudy Gay [Archbishop Spalding] and O.J. Mayo and the other guard [Jones] they picked tonight. We're going to have a great season."

While Vetter won't go as far as to say that Vasquez has come as far as any player he has ever coached -- after all, Vetter coached Kevin Durant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft -- he did say Thursday that Vasquez has overcome more than most.

"He came here barely speaking English," Vetter recalled. "He had to work hard to graduate Montrose and then to graduate Maryland. He had a lot of obstacles in his way."

The obstacles have been removed, the critics mostly silenced.

Vetter thinks that Vasquez's game could be more suited for the NBA than it was for the ACC.

"I think he's ideal for the pros," Vetter said. "He has size, the ability to see the court; he's the best passer I've ever coached in 35 years. He knows how to run the pick-and-roll, which is essential for a point guard in the NBA."

And Vasquez has something else in abundance -- passion.

"I'm going to do everything I can," he said going into the ACC tournament. "I'm going to die on the court if I have to."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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