Hornets Insider: Six Things to Know About Greivis Vasquez’s Improvement

March 13, 2013

Far from the glare of TV cameras in New York City’s Times Square, where last year’s NBA draft lottery was held, or in London, England, where NBC broadcast the Olympics to a worldwide audience, one of the most noteworthy developments of the New Orleans Hornets’ 2012 offseason was unfolding in an unlikely place: Venezuelan gyms.

While practicing with Venezuela’s national team in its attempt to qualify for the Olympics, Greivis Vasquez worked out with Hornets assistant coach Fred Vinson, who spent a month in the South American country. Vinson’s primary objective: Help prepare the 6-foot-6 point guard to make another significant leap during Year 3 of his NBA career.

Through three-fourths of the 2012-13 regular season, Vasquez has established himself as a bona fide Most Improved Player candidate, increasing his production in every major statistical category. While starting every game for New Orleans, the University of Maryland product has more than doubled his career averages in scoring (13.9 ppg, up from 6.2), rebounding (4.5 from 1.8) and assists (9.3 from 3.8).

Vasquez is quick to credit Vinson for figuring prominently in the player’s vast improvement. “The two years I’ve played here in New Orleans, he has always been there to work with me, since the first day,” Vasquez says of the former NBA guard, who played for the Hawks and SuperSonics. “You can see I’ve improved so much.”

The 26-year-old, who can be seen consulting daily with Vinson at practices, describes his summer workouts with the coach as an intense immersion in getting better. In between the Venezuelan national team’s practices and meetings, the native of Caracas spent extensive time working on specific aspects of his game.

“We were going at 6 in the morning every day,” Vasquez remembers. “I had practice around 10 with my national team. Then at night we got shots up. I feel like I got so much better.”

The results speak for themselves, with Vasquez gaining entry into a group of league MIP candidates that also includes Houston’s James Harden and Omer Asik, Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, and Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday.

There’s no doubt that Vasquez possesses considerable natural ability, but as is the case with many players, the story behind his improvement is partly about how he’s better capitalized on his strengths, while minimizing his weaknesses. Here are six things to know about why Vasquez has emerged as the team’s most improved player:

1) No matter how fast a player is, the game can’t be played at one speed.
As an NBA rookie in 2010-11, Vasquez was often in a hurry – even if he wasn’t entirely sure where he was headed. He soon discovered that point guards must adjust on the fly, but to do so, a player must first understand what opposing defenses are trying to do. It’s tough to execute that if you’re out of control while making decisions with the ball.

“Even though I’m not the fastest or quickest player in this league, I was always playing at one speed,” Vasquez describes of his early pro career. “The biggest jump I made was just slowing down some. I see the game better and make my reads. That’s why I’m getting so many assists, because I see things more clearly. The game has slowed down for me.”

“His ability to read defenses has gotten a lot better,” Vinson said. “Point guard is like playing quarterback. He has to know what the defense is doing, so he can counter that action and find open guys. We do a lot of film work to help him see it. He’s not a Russell Westbrook, blazing-fast type of player, so he had to learn how to set guys up (to move) in the opposite direction of where he wants to go. That helps him in not having that kind of (elite) speed.”

2) The NBA’s third-ranked assist leader is trained to think pass first…
It didn’t take long for Vasquez to demonstrate that 2012-13 would be a big passing season. The 28th selection of the 2010 draft assisted on five of New Orleans’ first six baskets in its Oct. 31 regular season opener vs. San Antonio. He also picked up the assist on each of Anthony Davis’ first two NBA baskets, in the initial 2 1/2 minutes. By the end of the first quarter, Vasquez had six assists, part of a 13-assist game.

“The one thing we focus on a lot with point guards is to get your teammates going first,” Vinson said of Vasquez’s approach. “Get them open looks and give them the ball in the positions where they’re going to be successful. For example, if you give the ball to Robin (Lopez) out too far from the basket, he’s not going to be successful. Give it to him where he can score. That’s what really good guards do. They know where everyone’s spot on the floor is. Greivis has gotten better at that and understanding that.”

Vasquez’s 6-6 height – making him one of the tallest point guards in the league – also gives him an advantage in seeing over defenses. His stature helps compensate for the quickness edge that many smaller players have on him.

“The way I look at it is, you’re faster than me? Well, I’m going to utilize my height,” Vasquez says of many of his matchups. “I’m going to post you up and try to get you into foul trouble, so I can get you out of the game quickly or force a mismatch.”

A recent victory vs. Sacramento was an example of the latter, when Vasquez immediately posted up against 5-9 Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. Eventually the Kings switched Thomas onto Eric Gordon, who normally is defended by bigger wing players.

3) … but sometimes his team needs him to score, too.
Vasquez entered this season with a career high of 20 points. He’s already reached that 20-point mark a total of 13 times in 2012-13, including a new best of 27 points in a win at Orlando on Dec. 26. As a result, he is somewhat surprisingly New Orleans’ third-leading scorer, behind only Ryan Anderson and Gordon.

Although he’s received the most recognition nationally for trailing only Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul in assists, injuries have often meant that the shorthanded Hornets also need points from Vasquez. His field-goal percentage remains unchanged from last season (43.0) despite receiving much greater attention from opponents, but his three-point accuracy has gone from a below-average 31.9 to 35.7.

“A lot of (opposing) teams think I’m going to pass, so that’s when I get open shots,” Vasquez says. “I can be a master of doing that and really take advantage of it.”

Vasquez’s role with the Venezuela men’s team also gives him a different perspective on the court.

“He plays shooting guard for them,” Vinson relates. “He plays off the ball. It’s an interesting dynamic. He really looks to score, because they need him to. That actually benefited him when he came back to the States. He can already pass and do things with the ball in his hands. But off the ball, he really hasn’t done that a lot at this level. His national team tells him, ‘Greivis, go get us 25 to 30 points.’ ”

Vinson also worked extensively with Vasquez on improving his shooting balance, perhaps part of why he’s become more accurate from three-point range.

“A lot of times he was jumping forward and off-balance, or to the side, when he was shooting,” Vinson says. “One of the things I worked with him on in Venezuela was the fundamentals of his shot and his balance. When he comes off a pick or off the dribble, he has to be able to rise up and shoot the ball (with posture that is) straight up and straight down, without all of the extra movement. He’s gotten a lot better at that.”

4) He’s also helping out on the backboards.
Like virtually every NBA team, the Hornets don’t want their point guards gambling for offensive rebounds, because it’s a much bigger priority that they get back on defense to reduce opponents’ fast-break chances. On the defensive end, however, point guards can make a big difference, by sagging back into the paint to collect long rebounds. Vasquez has increased his rebounding average from 2.6 to 4.5, almost entirely due an uptick in defensive boards.

“We teach point guards to get back (on defense) so that we have court balance,” Vinson explains. “But on defense, I talk to Greivis about getting those rebounds just inside the dotted line (of the paint). A lot of times, that’s where defensive rebounds fall to. Rarely do you see a point guard under the rim getting rebounds. Most of the time, you can get to the ball right around the free-throw line area. Just chase the ball and grab it. He’s made a conscious effort to rebound.”

One of the biggest tangible benefits of Vasquez’s boardwork took place on Feb. 8, when his 11-rebound game in a win at Atlanta led to his first career NBA triple-double. He’s just missed a triple-double on two other occasions, coming up a single rebound shy both times. Keep in mind, Vasquez entered 2012-13 with a career high in rebounds of just six.

Vinson: “I talked to Greivis over the summer and said, ‘Hey man, you should have triple-doubles, or flirt with triple-doubles, on a relatively consistent basis.”

5) There’s never a shortage of motivation…
To hear Vinson tell it, there are at least 30 million reasons behind what drives Vasquez on a daily basis. That’s the total population of Venezuela, where citizens follow the every move of the nation’s only active NBA player (Vasquez is just the third native of Venezuela to play in the league). Over 260,000 fans follow him on Twitter. “He carries the weight of his country on his back, at least from a basketball standpoint,” says Vinson, who was a prolific scorer in Venezuela’s pro league after his time in the NBA. “He gets recognized everywhere. He has his own personal security detail, and it’s not for show. It’s because people appreciate that he is from their country and having success here in the States.

“They all want a piece of him, but he is unbelievably gracious. He takes pictures with everyone, signs autographs, even at times where he’d be tired and exhausted. He’s always smiling and just being himself. I think it’s something he feels he owes them, or his way of giving back to people who have helped him along the way.”

6) … but the Most Improved Player competition isn’t necessarily part of it.
If Vasquez captures the Most Improved Player award, New Orleans would then have each of the past two winners on its roster (Anderson won it in 2011-12 with Orlando). Vasquez admits that he would be extremely grateful if he were chosen, but says it’s not something he’s thought about much this season.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talking about me as maybe the Most Improved Player,” he says. “That’s cool. It would be a good reward for all of the hard work. We’ll see what happens at the end of the year. But if I could trade that for more wins, I would do that.”