To chase his basketball dreams, Jeffrey Velasquez felt he needed to leave his native Puerto Rico.
“I just wanted to play basketball in the United States,” Velasquez said. “My dad moved here and I came with him.”
He arrived in Brooksville, attended Hernando High and joined a Leopard team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2003-04.
The 5-foot-11 senior guard helped his new club overcome a critical injury and compile an 18-8 record, and for his efforts earned the nod for Hernando Today Player of the Year.
“The role he had to play with our basketball team, scoring when he had to score, playing defense, distributing when he had to, he just had a killer instinct,” Hernando head coach Mark Latsko said. “When the games got close, we knew we could pull ahead and pull out a ‘W’ if he was on.”
Essentially coming out of nowhere, Velasquez finished third in the county scoring at 17.6 points per game, led the local circuit in steals (3.3) and was second in assists (5.6).
“For my first year at Hernando High School, it’s been great. It was a good season,” Velasquez said. “Coach Latsko is a great coach. He helped me so much. I’ve liked my senior year. It’s been great.”
He began playing basketball at age 3, he said, with his father Jerry Velasquez helping him in drills and placing him in camps in Puerto Rico.
As he continued growing on the court, it eventually led him to Clarksville, Tenn., where he spent two junior varsity seasons at West Creek High.
For his junior year he returned home to Arecibo, Puerto Rico, then eight months ago he arrived in Florida.
“It’s different with the team and everything,” Velasquez said of adjusting to his new environment. “The people are great. It’s not that hard to meet new people.
“The team was nice. The players are good. They love basketball and everything. We’re good friends.”
Velasquez stormed out of the gate, scoring in double figures in each of the Leopards’ first seven contests, capped by a 30-point performance in a Dec. 18 win over South Sumter. In that game he knocked down a season-best eight 3-pointers.
Two games later, sophomore guard Mark Wilson, an All-County selection in 2011-12, left early with a broken collarbone and would miss nearly the rest of the regular season.
Wilson’s injury coincided with Christmas break, and when the Leopards returned in January Velasquez began an eight-game stretch in which he averaged 25.6 points.
That hot streak included a pair of 35-point nights within three games, Jan. 15 against Dunnellon and Jan. 18 at Crystal River.
Without Wilson, Hernando went 8-5, with three losses combined against Class 5A, District 7 foes Nature Coast and Eustis, the top two teams within the district.
Though Velasquez certainly had help, including his good friend and another senior move-in from Puerto Rico, Giovanni Perez, as well as forward Ra’shaad Hart, Wilson’s absence magnified Velasquez’s emergence.
“He was a huge addition,” Latsko said. “A true primary ball-handler. He had a pass-first attitude. Scoring came as a necessity for us to win games.
“He’s a true ambidextrous ball-handler. He’s deceptively quick. He can beat you off the dribble. He’s dangerous from beyond the arc. He’s just a truly great basketball player.”
“If we had them from the time they were freshmen or another year,” Latsko said, “the sky’s the limit.”
But with graduation pending, Velasquez will find himself playing for his third team in as many years.
It appears that next squad will be Webber International University, a NAIA school in Babson Park. Velasquez said he has spoken with the coach there and will probably end up signing.
That would be the next step toward achieving his goal of one day playing in the NBA.
“I have to pass through college first and do a lot of things first,” Velasquez said. “I’ve got keep up my grades and play hard.
“I’m not that tall. I don’t know if that helps me. I have to do a lot of things to get to that level. It’s really hard.”
He has already journeyed considerably far, leaving his mark during his brief time donning purple and gold.
Does he wish he could have stuck around longer?
“I wish that,” Velasquez said. “I wish I could have one more year there.”
By the numbers: Jeffrey Velasquez