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Sprouting into top form, UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. is the Pac-12 player of the year

Jaime Jaquez Jr. arrived at UCLA a slim prospect who fought for minutes. His nearly shaved head, a remnant of a rookie ritual with the Mexico national team, symbolized necessary growth while endearing him to a bald coaching staff.

Four years later, Jaquez has grown into a muscular veteran who hardly ever leaves a game. His thicket of locks billowing over a blue headband has become another metaphor.

He’s all grown up.

Jaquez blossomed like never before for a team that walked away with the Pac-12 regular season championship and was recognized on Tuesday by conference coaches who selected him as the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

The senior forward became the Bruins’ first winner in that category since Kevin Love in 2008 and was part of UCLA’s near-clean victory of the conference’s major awards. Mick Cronin was honored as the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year, Jaylen Clark was the Defensive Player of the Year, and Adem Bona was the Freshman of the Year. The only major award that did not go to the Bruins was Most Improved Player, which was presented to Arizona’s Oumar Ballo. USC’s Reese Dixon-Waters was named sixth man of the year.

Jaquez was the most indispensable player on the arguably best team in the Pac-12, No. 2 UCLA, winning the conference race by four games over Arizona and USC. While Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis led the Pac-12 in both scoring (19.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.1), Jaquez was a more complete player given his superior defense. Jaquez averaged 17.4 points and 8.0 rebounds while never being removed late in games for defensive purposes like his Wildcats counterpart.

Jaquez was also a force late in the games, helping the Bruins cap off recent wins over Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Colorado with a flurry of points in the final minutes.

Cronin bagged his second conference coach of the year award in four seasons after his Bruins won their final 10 games to go 18-2 in Pac-12 play, easily beating the Wildcats (14-6) and Trojans (14-6) outperformed. Even with two first-year starters learning his famously demanding style, Cronin’s team built what was clearly its best defense since his arrival. The Bruins gave up a conference-best 60.1 points per game, keeping them in every game even when their offense stalled for extended periods.

Clark was the center of that defense, averaging 2.6 steals per game on the Pac-12 before suffering what appeared to be a serious injury against Arizona last weekend. His final play included a steal and a layup before leaving with the unspecified injury early in the second half.

UCLA freshman Jaime Jaquez Jr. dribbles past Notre Dame’s Temple Gibbs on December 14, 2019 in South Bend, Ind.

(Robert Franklin/Associated Press)

Coming into the starting lineup for just a handful of games in his first season, the fiery Jaquez became the spiritual cornerstone of Cronin’s rebuilding efforts. He helped his team reach the Final Four as a sophomore and struggled through troublesome ankles as a junior before showing what he could do when fully healthy in his final college season.

Jaquez and Tyger Campbell were named to the Pac-12 first team, marking a third straight selection for Campbell. Jaquez was on the first team last season and second team in 2020-21, making him and Campbell the Bruins the first three-time all-conference selections since Darren Collison from 2007-09.

USC’s Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson also earned a spot on the Pac-12 first team, with Trojan big man Joshua Morgan making the all-defensive team.