- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

TORONTOGreivis Vasquez’s presence at a podium, in front of a camera or before a running recorder is enough to prompt crossed fingers from Toronto Raptors public relations folks, if not outright prayer. In his fifth season in the league, and second with Toronto, Vasquez remains a swashbuckling presence on and off the floor. Media sessions tend to wind in various directions no matter the question. Sunday, Vasquez swore and referenced Paul Pierce’s groin during his press conference. It did not seem anything but standard Greivis to the locals.

The Venezuela native who became a Maryland legend feels renewed in Toronto. For consecutive seasons, he’s been on a playoff team. The home crowd loves Vasquez, and he often pronounces the amount of love he feels back. Being traded from the Sacramento Kings to Toronto during the 2013-14 season helped stir Vasquez back to his bubbly, talkative, shimmying self.

“It really refreshed my career in a way because I wasn’t having a good time in Sacramento,” Vasquez said. “It wasn’t a good fit for me. When I came here, I didn’t care about basketball, I was just happy to be here. It turned out to be a great fit. It’s a really good fit. I love the city, I love the fans, I love our team. I know it’s a business, but I would love to stay here for a long time, if I could.”

In Toronto, Vasquez has resumed the role he’s had much of his career. He’s a backup point guard with size, some shooting and a herky-jerky game that should last over his career since it is predicated more on craftiness than leaping or speed. This season, his first full one in Toronto, was similar to his previous four in the league. Vasquez averaged 9.5 points in 2014-15; he averages 9.2 for his career. His field-goal percentage was down slightly, his 3-point percentage up slightly. He played just more than 24 minutes per game and made 29 starts.

When starting point guard Kyle Lowry fouled out at the end of Game 1, Vasquez returned to the game. His pull-up 3-pointer with 25 seconds to play tied the game and served as the cap to an unlikely Toronto comeback after the Raptors trailed by 15 points in the fourth quarter. The shot dropped, the sellout crowd boomed and Vasquez, with his freshly faded hair that included etched-out lines, shook his shoulders like he heard Elvis for the first time. Asked about his rhythm and reaction by a reporter he recognized, Vasquez smiled.

“You know,” Vasquez said. “You’re from Maryland. That shimmy comes from college. But more than that, I wanted to win the game. As you guys know, I’m not afraid to take any big shot.”

When he left Sacramento for Canada, Vasquez said he knew there was diversity in Toronto, which continues to boom with skyscrapers in various state of completion throughout downtown and is closing in on Chicago in metro population. He had heard of Vince Carter and Damon Stoudamire. He knew seasons more often than not ended with a losing record in a hockey-first town and country.

Last year produced a shift for the organization. The trade that took Vasquez, Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons to Toronto sent star Rudy Gay along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray to the Kings. Considering Gay’s stature and the return haul of role players, it appeared Toronto was prepared to flush the season following the swap. Instead, it set a team record with 48 wins and won the Atlantic Division before losing its first-round playoff series in seven games. The postseason appearance was the organization’s first since 2008. The city began to latch on. The Raptors were fifth in the NBA this season in average attendance, filling 99.8 percent of the available seats.

“In a humble way, we kind of made it like that,” Vasquez said. “Last year, we had such a great year that people were like, ‘Wow, now the Raptors are really good.’ Then, we made the playoffs back-to-back. We break our own records, we won 48, now 49 wins this season. We won our division. So, we’re doing some great things. We are a team in progress.”

Vasquez’s ability to be casual in a seemingly manic moment was summed up well with his tying 3-pointer in Game 1. Toronto coach Dwane Casey said he was yelling at Vasquez to get the ball to Lou Williams, who was named the league’s Sixth Man of the Year on Monday, but Vasquez opted for the three after seeing Bradley Beal fall down. At times, Vasquez makes Casey cringe as much as he pleases him.

“I have a lot of guys like that,” Casey said with a laugh. “He makes you crazy … even some of those shots he makes, you go, ‘Bad shot.’ But, that’s why I use the word passion. His heart’s in the right place. He’s trying to do what he can. Does he make the right decision all the time? No. But, he’s competing for the right reasons. He’s not doing it trying to get his numbers up or scoring or 3-point shooting up, he’s taking it because he thinks he can make that to help us win. He’s much better at those decisions … even when they go in, some of them are not good shots.”

Prior, Casey explained Vasquez’s existence by repeatedly using the word “passion.”

“He’ll run through the wall for you,” Casey said. “He won’t turn back and say, ‘Now what do you want me to do?’ He doesn’t question that. Team guy first. Excellent clutch shooter.”

Vasquez remains ever thankful to Maryland, where he won the Bob Cousy Award his senior season over John Wall, among others. He doesn’t return as much as he would like in the summer because of duties with the Venezuelan national team, though that may change when he’s done in the NBA.

“I think eventually I see myself raising my family or doing something back in D.C.,” Vasquez said. “Coaching, who knows? I just love my school. Maryland gave me an opportunity to be where I’m at right now. Imagine that? I’m talking playoffs, playing against Paul Pierce, doing all these things. It’s a dream come true.”

Vasquez said he would eventually like to start in the NBA. At 6 feet 6, he is an option to start alongside all-star point guard Kyle Lowry. Vasquez signed a two-year contract extension last summer and can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season.

“I still consider myself a young player,” Vasquez said. “I proved to the whole league that I can play in this league for a long time.

“We’ll see what happens. I like my role as it is right now. But, I think the future looks bright. My work ethic got me here ever since my Maryland days, and we’ll see what happens.”

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