NEW ORLEANS — Point guard Greivis Vasquez is sporting a full, thick beard now. That bodes well for Vasquez, and to a larger degree, the New Orleans Hornets.
Many times this season, starting in training camp,Vasquez has cut off the beard. Asked the significance earlier, he said: “I feel I need a change, to change things up. Things aren’t going too well right now.”
Things are going well now for Vasquez and the Hornets, who have a season-high four victories in a row heading into today’s 11 a.m. game at the New York Knicks.
The return of shooting guard Eric Gordon and backup center/power forward Jason Smith has been given much credit for the Hornets’ current reversal of fortune, and rightfully so.
However, it’s Vasquez’s continued improvement and steady play from game to game that has been the biggest influence during this most recent nine-game stretch in which the Hornets have gone 6-3. Let’s just say the beard isn’t going anywhere soon.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence now,” he said, stroking the beard. “I’m looking to have it for a long time.”
Ryan Anderson said it’s fun playing with Vasquez, in part because of how he distributes the ball and his tremendous enthusiasm, but also because of how hard he works.
“He is the most humble cocky guy I’ve ever known,” said Anderson, laughing.
In the past nine games, Vasquez has averaged 18.8 points on 50-percent shooting and 10.9 assists while committing just 3.1 turnovers per game. His assists per game has climbed to 9.1, third in the league.
“He’s got to be in the top 10 (in the NBA) as far as importance to his team, when you look at the percentage of points he produces either scoring or assisting on or being involved in the play,” said Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
Hornets coach Monty Williams readily admits he is Vasquez’s harshest critic. After Vasquez was selected Western Conference Player of the Week for games leading the Hornets to a 2-1 record in games from Dec. 26-29, Williams said Vasquez still needed to keep turnovers down and defend better on the pick-and-roll.
However, after the Hornets defeated Southwest Division foes Dallas, Houston and San Antonio in succession from Jan. 5-9, Williams said: “Greivis has been playing great.”
“I could stand here and go on about what he could be doing better,” Williams said, “but we need him to play consistently well to win, and he has done that of late.”
It’s the turnovers, or lack thereof, that stand out. Through the first 25 games, Vasquez had as many as six in a game five times, with eight in one game and five in another. In the past 11 games, he’s had as many as six once. He has had two or fewer five times.
“I’m not doing anything differently; my approach to the game is still the same,” he said. “I’ve gotten more playing time, more experience, and I knew at some point it would pay off, and it’s paying off now.”
Assistant coach Fred Vinson, who works with the Hornets’ guards, said Vasquez has worked hard.
Vinson, who often can be seen going over situations with Vasquez on a laptop computer after practices, says Vasquez wants to be a great player and works to get there.
Vinson said Vasquez’s turnovers have come down because he’s been wiser with his passes.
“We constantly remind him that’s it’s OK to make the safe play,” Vinson said. “I think a lot of times, he tries to create and make easy plays for his teammates but tries difficult passes to make that happen. He watches film on what teams are trying to do with him, what the weakside action is, and those things are helping as well.”
It’s no secret around the league that Vasquez loves to go to his right, almost exclusively. Vinson has him working on passing with his left hand when he does go that way to help offset teams trying to force him left.
Vinson said Vasquez has gotten better at setting up the player guarding him and at changing his pace, not playing one speed all the time.
“That’s one thing that was causing turnovers,” Vinson said. “He was going too fast, not waiting. I think now, his window has opened up even more.”
Vasquez said the return of Gordon, who opens up the floor, also has been helpful.
“I can be more efficient,” Vasquez said, “and secondly, it gives you a little rest when he has the ball.”
Vasquez hit big baskets playing off Gordon in the overtime win at Dallas on Jan. 5. He also sank a huge 3 in the next game against San Antonio at New Orleans Arena.
Williams said he likes that Vasquez has shown he can make big shots with the game on the line. He also has become impressed with his resiliency.
Against Dallas and in Friday’s game against Minnesota, he spent much time on the bench because of foul trouble. But he came back. Against Minnesota, he had six points and just one assist in the first half. He finished with 18 points and 13 assists in a huge comeback victory.
“I like the way he stuck with what we were doing,” Williams said. “We had some games were we had to come back, and he was a big part of that. He’s always had that mindset that he can’t give in. Sometimes it gets him in trouble, but it’s the same thing you love about him.”
Vasquez said he has a long way to go, however.
“I know people don’t know who I am, but in the NBA, you’ve got to make name for yourself,” he said. “I’m going to stay humble, keep working, keep watching (film), keep getting here early. I want to be the point guard on this team and get it done.
“I’m on a mission, and I’m focused.”