TORONTO -- The first thing you'll notice about Greivis Vasquez is he's a competitor. You can see it. Watch his face when he plays, how he talks to his New Orleans Hornets teammates, how he celebrates wins. He's fiery, he's emotional and you don't forget he's on the court.
"I want to show guys that I'm here fighting and we gotta fight to win games," Vasquez said before facing the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. "And that's just basketball. You've got to fight, you've gotta compete because if you don't compete, tonight Kyle Lowry will destroy me. If I don't compete against a guy like that, he's a bulldog. Every night in this league, it's not an off-night for anybody because everybody wants to kill the person in front of them."
"He's an unbelievably passionate player," New Orleans center Robin Lopez said. "He really pushes himself and he pushes our team, which is really a priceless facet of his game, a priceless thing to have in a guard."
Funny choice of words. Hours earlier in the Raptors locker room, players discussed the price tag Vasquez will command when he eventually hits free agency. The Hornets' point guard is averaging 14.1 points, 9.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game this season, stats stunningly superior to those he put up in his first two years. On Friday, Vasquez registered his first triple double, a 21-point, 12-assist, 11-rebound effort in a win in Atlanta. With more total assists than anybody else in the NBA, 2010's No. 28 pick has a salary that won't reflect his raised game until the end of next season.
As is usually the case with Most Improved Player candidates, Vasquez' rise has a lot to do with his situation. While he is now in complete command of the Hornets' offense, the focal point of their pick-and-roll attack, he couldn't show all of his skills as a rookie in Memphis playing behind Mike Conley. Those who were there, though, saw him readying himself for when his time came.
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"You could clearly see in our practices that Greivis had a real ability about him, a flair, a good base that allowed him to do things," said Raptors assistant coach Johnny Davis, who served on Lionel Hollins' staff in Memphis. "He just hadn't had an opportunity to get the experience that he needed to put those things into place."
Davis referred to his film work with Grizzlies guards as "classroom" sessions, and Vasquez credits his former coach for mentoring him, making him a better player and person. He said it was "extremely hard" not having Davis around after his first season. Back then, Davis continually told Vasquez, "If you take care of your game, your game will take care of you," and the rookie took it to heart.
Some nights that year, he only played garbage time. Other nights, he didn't play at all. He averaged 12.3 minutes per game, which isn't at all abnormal for late first-round picks. What's not the norm is the way he worked, carried himself and kept his confidence.
"He never wavered in his belief in himself that he was a solid NBA basketball player," Davis said, proud of his student. "He played that way in practice, he played that way whenever we had a chance to put him in the game when he was a rookie earlier in the process. And there would be times where he would make what we call rookie mistakes but he never let that deter him. The next day he was the first guy in, the last guy to leave and he kept working at it and look at him now. He's a legitimate NBA point guard that all 30 teams would love to have."
When Conley got in foul trouble early in Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2011 playoffs, Vasquez had to step in. His 11 points and three rebounds don't jump off the page, but it was impossible not to watch and be impressed by his poise, considering the situation. He ended up splitting minutes with Conley almost evenly, holding the fort and directing his veteran teammates as they defeated the Spurs to advance to the next round to face the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"I just needed a chance, man. I needed my chance. Coach was always telling me just be ready, stay ready and then in the playoffs all of a sudden I was the backup point guard and ... I had an unbelievable game against Tony Parker," Vasquez said. "You know, Tony Parker, oh my god, I grew up watching this guy and then I got this amazing game. I think that series and the series against Oklahoma got me this job that I have right now."
Vasquez now has the role he wanted, but in no way has he relaxed. Going from the Grizzlies to New Orleans, splitting minutes with Jarrett Jack last season before stepping in as the starter, he has repeatedly stated he's not satisfied.
"I'm the guy that always thinks I'm the underdog," Vasquez said. "I went to Maryland and nobody thought I was going to be good enough to be in the ACC. I was the ACC Player of the Year my senior year, Bob Cousy award [winner]. Now in the NBA, everybody thought, 'Oh he's not going to get it done, he don't got this, he doesn't have that,' and I just kept working."
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Last summer, he went to John Lucas' dirty gym for his unforgiving workout sessions. John Lucas III, a Raptors guard, noticed Vasquez training with his father and gained respect for how he worked there.
"When you come into the gym and you go through the workouts 100 percent and you're not half-assing it, you can tell when somebody's serious about their craft," Lucas said. "Just like anybody who works hard 9-to-5 who takes their job seriously, you want to see other people take their job just as seriously."
Beyond the numbers that are starting to attract attention, Hornets head coach Monty Williams is most impressed with what he's seen from Vasquez when people aren't looking.
"Some guys can't even take criticism from coaches," Williams said. "I think a lot of people work on their game but they don't want to listen and get helped. This kid just, he takes hard coaching. I've coached him harder than anybody we've had."
Forward Ryan Anderson agrees.
"He's been able to take criticism and with a guy that runs the offense, that's in control of everything basically, he gets a lot of the brunt of it if we make mistakes or if something happens," he said. "And he takes it and he runs with it and he wants to get better."
"That's what life is all about," Vasquez said. "When you're a young kid, you don't know everything. You don't know better. I don't know the game like those guys do so you have to be able to be coached and be coachable ... That's why I have a good connection with Monty because he knows I'm going to listen and I'm going to do whatever he wants me to do on the court."
What Williams wants Vasquez to do is to play with passion but stay steady. "I'm trying to teach Greivis how to hit for singles sometimes instead of swinging for the fences," Williams said in a television interview before Sunday's game. Vasquez has always had a flair for the dramatic, but sometimes his risky passes ignite opposing fast breaks.
"Time will help me to control my emotions a little bit better and to be more mature," Vasquez said. "It's only my first year playing actual minutes and sometimes I get too excited because I want to do so well. We see the elite point guards don't do that as much. They get emotional, CP3 gets [emotional], [Russell] Westbrook all the time. But now they control it pretty well and that's one thing I gotta do better. And I know it. That's the important part, when you recognize what you're doing wrong yourself and then trying to correct it."
"He's the most cocky humble guy I've ever met," Anderson said. "He's just a good guy. He's incredibly unselfish and at the same time ... he doesn't talk trash but he'll get in and he'll get everybody hyped. And he's not afraid of anybody."
Exchanging heated words with his friend Gay at the free throw line near the end of the fourth quarter in Toronto, plenty has changed for the point guard in his two-and-a-half years in the league. But some things stay the same.
"I always play with a chip on my shoulder no matter what," Vasquez said.