Nearing the end of his celebrated UCLA career, Jaime Jaquez Jr. sat on a terrace on campus this week and reminisced.
About how bad he had once been.
“As a freshman for the first few months he thought he was terrible and he didn’t know if he would ever play,” coach Mick Cronin told of the scene. “He says, ‘I turned it around, you were all over me, I thought I smelled.’ ”
That is no longer a word anyone would use to describe the senior forward, who will likely end his career as an All-American. Nowadays only compliments apply. Difficult. Fearless. Resilient. Smart.
Perhaps one more identifier will fit before it’s over: Legendary.
His play over the past few weeks has cemented his legacy in a team with national championship aspirations. It also dramatically improved its standing in a two-man race for Pac-12 Player of the Year, along with Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis.
The stats favor Tubelis, who is trying to become just the seventh player to lead the conference in points (19.6 per game) and rebounds (9.1) in the same season. The Pac-12 standings and the final minutes of several tight Bruins wins tilt heavily in Jaquez’s direction.
In his last six games, Jaquez averaged 20.8 points and 10.7 rebounds while making 48.9% of his shots and 47.8% of his three-pointers. Along the way, he pushed the No. 4 Bruins to the brink of their first Pac-12 title in a decade with a string of late baskets against Oregon, Stanford and Utah.
Removed from the NCAA tournament selection committee following UCLA’s announced departure to the Big Ten, Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond did not hold back his thoughts on one pick involving his team.
“If @jaquez_jr isn’t POY conference, something,” Jarmond tweeted late Thursday, using a fish emoji to make his point.
While Jaquez’s averages of 17 points and 8.1 rebounds lag those of his leading competitor, his team’s success could be the tipping point that gives the Bruins their first conference player of the year since Kevin Love in 2008. UCLA (24- 4 overall, 15-2) can clinch the conference regular season title with a victory over Colorado on Sunday at the CU Events Center after Arizona State stunned Arizona on Saturday.
Jaquez pushed his team closer to that possibility on Thursday with more late-game heroics. With the Bruins holding on to a three-point lead, Jaquez rolled seven points and a handy assist to Jaylen Clark in the space of 3 ½ minutes to help his team clinch its seventh straight win.
“He’s kind of one of our closers,” said point guard Tyger Campbell, who added his own dagger with a three-pointer in Utah’s final minutes. “He just seems to know when to throw the ball in the basket and when to pass, and he’s got everything you could want from an All-American senior.”
Cronin maximized Jaquez’s strengths with a small ball setup that yielded favorable matchups. Whenever the Utes doubled him, Jaquez found the open teammate, a bounce pass down the baseline went to Clark for a layup.
There’s no more room for self-doubt given a skill that includes making three-pointers and beating defenders from the dribble, in addition to a variety of moves around the basket. Jaquez is one of only 10 UCLA players to rank in the top 20 in the school for scoring (1,620 points) and rebounds (764).
“Look, Jaime is a big player,” Cronin said. “We’re talking about a guy who’s an All-American, he’s going to play 10, 12 years in the NBA, so no surprise” which he did at the end of the game in Utah.
Jaquez attributed his recent rise to the extra work he put in after practicing his shot and preparing for pressure situations. He has become the go-to guy the Bruins need as they approach an NCAA tournament that is sure to bring more nervous finishes.
“The coach trusts me with the ball in my hands,” said Jaquez, “and I want to continue to earn that trust and my guys have faith in me that I will make the right play every time.”
The final decision for player of the year could come down to the final game of the regular season, which pits Jaquez and Tubelis against each other when the Bruins face the Wildcats on March 4 at Pauley Pavilion. The winner of the prize will be announced three days later.
If all goes well, the UCLA season has one month left and will end in early April. It still may not be enough considering how much Jaquez has enjoyed his rise from not good enough to one of the best in the country.
“Jaime is literally depressed that it’s going to be over, he’s so happy to be here,” Cronin said. “Now he’s probably fed up with me, which I understand — I get fed up with me sometimes — but he really likes, he really said, ‘I’d spend another five years (here) if I could.’ ”
His coach didn’t act like he would be able to keep his star beyond this spring, even if he has one more season of eligibility.
“I said,” Cronin replied, “Well, NIL isn’t big enough.” ”