Why UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez is in race for Pac-12 player of year

With his acclaimed UCLA career nearing its end, Jaime Jaquez Jr. sat on an outdoor patio on campus this week and reminisced.

About how bad he used to be.

“As a freshman he felt terrible for the first few months and didn’t know if he would ever play,” said coach Mick Cronin of the scene. “He’s like, ‘I flipped it, you were all over me, I thought I stunk.'”

That’s no longer a word anyone would use to describe the senior forward likely to end his career as an All-American. Only compliments count these days. Hard. Fearless. Robust. get it

Maybe another identifier will fit before it’s over: Legendary.

His play over the past few weeks has reinforced his legacy at a team with national championship ambitions. It also dramatically improved his standing in a two-man race for Pac-12 Player of the Year alongside Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) celebrates with teammate Prince Ali (left) during a game in 2020.

A fresh-faced freshman Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) celebrates with teammate Prince Ali during a game in the 2019-20 season.

(Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press)

The stats speak for Tubelis, who leads the conference in points (19.6 per game) and rebounds (9.1). The Bruins’ Pac-12 standings and the final minutes of several tight victories lean heavily on Jaquez.

In his last six games, Jaquez has 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 brought 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.

Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond was removed from the NCAA tournament selection committee following UCLA’s announced departure to the Big Ten and did not hold back his thoughts on a selection involving his team.

“Unless @jaquez_jr conference POY is a little fishy,” Jarmond tweeted late Thursday, using a fish emoji to get his point across.

Although Jaquez’s average of 17 points and 8.1 rebounds falls short of his top 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 claim at least a chunk of the conference regular-season title with a win over Colorado on Sunday at the CU Events Center or an Arizona loss to Arizona State on Saturday.

Jaquez brought his team closer to that possibility with more late-game heroics on Thursday. While the Bruins held on to a three-point lead, Jaquez rolled seven points and a nifty assist for Jaylen Clark in 3.5 minutes to help his team complete a seventh straight win.

“He’s kind of one of our closers,” said point guard Tyger Campbell, who added his own dagger with a three in the final minutes. “He just seems to know when to put the ball in the basket and when to pass, and he has everything you could want from an All-American senior.”

Cronin maximized Jaquez’s strengths with a small ball lineup that made for cheap matchups. Whenever the Utes doubled him, Jaquez would find the open teammate, a bounce pass down the baseline going to Clark for a layup.

There’s no more room for self-doubt given a range of skills that include making three-pointers and beating defenders from dribbling, in addition to a variety of moves around the basket. Jaquez is one of only 10 UCLA players to make the school’s top 20 list for scoring (1,620 points) and rebounds (764).

“Look, Jaime is a big player,” Cronin said. “We’re talking about an All-American guy, he’s going to play 10, 12 years in the NBA so no surprise,” which is what he did at the end of the Utah game.

Jaquez attributed his recent surge to the extra work he’s put into his shot after training and preparing for pressure situations. He’s the go-to person for the Bruins as they approach an NCAA tournament that will surely feature more nervous finishes.

“The coach trusts me with the ball in my hands,” Jaquez said, “and I want to keep earning that trust and have my boys trust that I’m going to play the right game every time.”

The final decision for Player of the Year could come in the final game of the regular season, pitting Jaquez and Tubelis against each other when the Bruins take on the Wildcats on March 4 at Pauley Pavilion. The winner of the prize will be announced three days later.

If all goes well, UCLA’s season will last another month, ending in early April. It still might not be enough considering how much Jaquez has enjoyed his rise from not good enough to one of the nation’s best.

“Jaime is literally depressed that it’s going to be over, he loves being here so much,” Cronin said. “Now he’s probably fed up with me, which I understand — I get fed up with myself sometimes — but he really liked it, he really said, ‘I was going to spend five more years [here] if I could.'”

His coach didn’t suggest he could keep his star past this spring, even if there was one more season left.

“I said,” Cronin replied, “‘Well, NIL isn’t big enough.'”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2023-02-24/ucla-basketball-jaime-jaquez-jr-in-player-of-year-race Why UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez is in race for Pac-12 player of year

Emma Bowman

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