The smile is unmistakable, even on the court, even during the most intense of games. Greivis Vasquez plays with the same enthusiasm that prompted him to nearly sprint to the stage three years ago in New York when he was drafted in the first round by the Grizzlies.
Fast-forward to this season. The NBA’s only player from baseball-crazed Venezuela, where Miguel Cabrera and Andres Galarraga are the standards for sports heroes, appears to have found a home with the New Orleans Hornets.
A leading candidate for Most Improved Player, Vasquez is fourth in the league in assists (8.8 per game). As the starting point guard for the youthful but talented Hornets, Vasquez has flourished in his role as floor leader. He scored 25 points as the Hornets snapped a seven-game losing streak with a win Tuesday against the Clippers.
The Hornets are an organization in transition, with Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers as their rookie anchors while they wait for potential cornerstone Eric Gordon to come back from knee issues. Without a true point guard after the departure of Chris Paul, Vasquez received his first full-time starting job. So far, he is taking advantage of the chance.
“I am blessed to have this opportunity that I have right now,” he said. “I do appreciate what coach Monty Williams is doing with me. He’s giving me a great amount of responsibility and he’s letting me play. He’s letting me develop my game and showing the NBA what I’m capable of doing.
“And, to me, right now, I’ve still got so much room to get better. I can lead this team to win more games.”
At the University of Maryland, Vasquez was asked to do everything but drive the team bus. He was a true combo guard for the Terrapins, and it took some adjustment for Vasquez to become comfortable as a point guard. He played sparingly as a rookie for the Grizzlies but then found increased opportunity when he was dealt to New Orleans for Quincy Pondexter.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said. “I am a combo guard with a point guard mentality. I’m a great passer, I create shots and get my teammates better.
“At Maryland, it was different. I needed to score, rebound, shoot, I did it all. In the NBA, you play with a lot of talent — that’s why I can get my 10 assists a game and make the people around me better, because I get to the basket and find people because of my length.
“I’ve been in the league for three years, and this is the first time I’m getting the playing time that I always dreamed about having. To me, the NBA is about confidence and I have a lot of confidence in getting the job done.”
Vasquez can roll off the names of Venezuelan baseball greats, but he takes deep pride in being just the second NBA player from the South American country. (Oscar Torres played 82 games for Houston and Golden State from 2001-03.) He came to the United States when he was 17 and played one year of high school basketball before signing with Maryland in 2006.
“I’m really blessed and thankful I have the whole country behind [me], they’ve supported me, followed my career in the NBA, every little thing that I do,” he said. “Bottom line, what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to use my NBA career to help kids back home understand that if I made it, you can make it too by having a work ethic and having a good attitude.
“That’s what I did. I wasn’t the most talented — I really can’t jump that high — but not that many guys come anywhere and outwork me on the court.”
Vasquez said he was chided by friends back home when he told them he wanted to play in the NBA.
“When I got drafted, I was the happiest kid in the world because that was a dream that I had when I was little,” he said. “I used to talk to my homies and say, ‘Man, I am going to be in the NBA,’ and they used to laugh like it was a joke. Now they call me every day and say, ‘Can I get a jersey? Can I get a pair of shoes?’
“What I did was change people’s minds.”
Vasquez can tell his buddies back in Caracas that he has completed his journey to the NBA. While the league has many foreign-born players, Vasquez’s road from a country without much of a national basketball reputation is virtually unprecedented.
“I came to the United States when I was 17 and I couldn’t speak English at all,” he said. “It was hard because I left my family — I spent the first two years without seeing my family. I couldn’t afford a ticket to Venezuela but that got me more mature and that was my motivation.
“Every time I’m on the court, I play with a chip on my shoulder because I have to prove myself every night. So I got a chance to shine and I am going to take advantage of it. That’s why I am so happy.”
Martin fits in with Thunder
The Thunder were heavily criticized for shaking up their core by trading reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden to the Rockets for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. The Thunder handily defeated Houston in Harden’s return game and owned the third-best record in the NBA entering Saturday.
The Thunder brass, including coach Scott Brooks and general manager Sam Presti, preached patience with the move, especially considering that Martin has never played for a winning team. But he has adapted smoothly, averaging 15.9 points per game and shooting 46.2 percent, his best since the 2006-07 season.
“It’s been fun to play with these guys, it’s the best team I’ve ever played with,” Martin said. “I’m an easy guy to play with. I don’t need 20 shots a game. They’re just making it easy right now and hopefully it keeps on happening.
“I have played for five or six different head coaches and really have had a smooth transition here, especially for the fact that I played for coach Brooks before [when he was an assistant with the Kings]. I am happy to reunite with him.”
The final word on Martin will come in the spring, when he will be depended on to provide scoring and even defense during difficult playoff games.
“I think [in this situation] you just have more focus,” Martin said. “Everybody handles things different. I work hard in the summer. I don’t have expectations low or high. Whatever they are, hard work will pay off.
“I played on teams where we got up to play the Lakers or the Spurs, teams like that, so you know [playing for the defending Western Conference champion], you’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
Brooks said there is an emphasis on getting Martin comfortable.
“James was a very good player for us and a great teammate, but when we made the trade, we’re a team that doesn’t make any excuses, and the transition had to happen the next day,” Brooks said. “You had to go in and do your job and no matter who’s doing it, you had to do it as well as you can.
“K-Mart has done a good job of coming in and blending with what we do and figuring out how to fit in quickly. Our guys do a good job of accepting new players and really haven’t missed a beat.”
Magic’s ‘Baby’ takes big step
While he was with the Celtics, Glen Davis was a complement — a burly reserve who was an understudy to Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Davis had issues with maturity and his uncertain role, and often clashed with coach Doc Rivers.
Davis wanted an opportunity to shine in a more pivotal role, and that wasn’t likely to happen in Boston, so the Celtics last December dealt him to Orlando, where his minutes increased but he was still a second option to Dwight Howard.
With Howard gone to the Lakers and the Magic bringing in 11 new players this season, Davis was assigned a new role by new coach Jacque Vaughn. He is cocaptain with Jameer Nelson and considered a team leader. Davis sought this responsibility for years and truly believes he is mature and seasoned enough to handle being a franchise cornerstone.
“I try to welcome the challenge, because this is an opportunity to start something fresh and new,” said Davis, who is averaging a career-best 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds. “This is an opportunity for me to be the guy to help.
“If you think about my rookie year, I really did a lot to win that championship, and now being a part of this team, I’ll be doing a lot, I’ll be the main focal point of why we’re successful. That’s what you want as a player. You don’t want to shy away from that. You want to accept the challenge any way you can.”
Of course, the Magic are starting over. They are in complete rebuilding mode with just one player (Nelson) who has made an All-Star team. The Magic have to be successful by playing harder than opponents and using their youth, depth, and athleticism. And the formula almost worked against the Celtics last Sunday.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, the Celtics drafted a player similar to Davis last June in Jared Sullinger. Both are undersized power forwards, and when they met last Sunday in Orlando, Davis used his veteran guile to win the matchup, though Sullinger had his moments.
“I see some similarities, but we’re not the same player,” Davis said. “He still has to learn defensively how to play the game.
“He’s a talented player, has a huge upside, but I kind of felt [Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] made that move to get another Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis. But you don’t know about him because he’s young. He hasn’t been through the trenches and the wars yet.”
Davis sounds like someone who has learned from his experiences, positive and negative, andappears prepared to accept new responsibility with his new contract.
“I think he’s accepted the [captain] role fairly nicely,” said Vaughn. “He’s done a good job of being a leader in practice, being a leader on the floor, being held accountable, and those are all the things that go into accepting more responsibility.
“He’s done a good job with it. I think he wanted it. He’s at a stage in his career where he needed a challenge and he needed some additional responsibility.”
As Garnett and Pierce did with him, Davis has served as an on-court mentor to the Magic’s younger players.
“In practice, just being able to embrace a young guy, whether it’s Kyle O’Quinn or Andrew Nicholson, and explain to them why they need to come over to this side of the paint or how they need to close out,” Vaughn said. “Taking time to do it and continually do it, not just once every fifth practice. It’s something that occurs frequently, which is good.”
Smith’s stock has dropped
The departure of junior center Joshua Smith from UCLA may not have much of an effect on next year’s draft if he decides to enter. Smith, who was granted a release from the team for “personal reasons,” was considered a potential top 10 pick when he began his college career, but the Seattle-area product has never gotten into top condition, reminding scouts of players such as Mel Turpin, Oliver Miller, and Michael Sweetney. Smith has great footwork and natural skills but had trouble running the floor and could only play in UCLA coach Ben Howland’s offense in limited stretches.
If you think the 76ers got nothing in return for their involvement in the Dwight Howard trade, just check in with the Warriors, who have lost centerpiece Andrew Bogut indefinitely because of major ankle surgery. The often-injured Bogut, acquired from Milwaukee last season, has yet to meet the expectations of being the top pick in the 2005 draft, and he has yet to be fully healthy after that ghastly elbow injury two years ago. The Warriors are using Festus Ezeli and Carl Landry at center.
Quick. What was the hottest team in the NBA entering Friday’s games? It was the Atlanta Hawks, winners of six straight before losing Friday night. They are the league’s biggest surprise, as it was believed they would suffer without Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. The Hawks are winning with balanced scoring; they have five players averaging in double figures, including newcomers Kyle Korver and Lou Williams. The Hawks have taken advantage of a soft schedule, though, as only two of the wins in their streak were against teams that currently have a winning record . . . The Celtics are going to be patient filling their roster because there is not a plethora of quality big men on the market to help immediately with rebounding. They are wary of the attitude and disposition of Kenyon Martin, who was not asked back to the Clippers because of his unhappiness with coach Vinny Del Negro. They may wait to see who’s available as of Jan. 5, when contracts become fully guaranteed for the season . . . One available player is Jordan Williams, who was waived by the Hawks after being acquired from the Nets in the Johnson deal. Williams is just 22, and 6 feet 10 inches.