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

Bruins forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. drives toward the lane against Cardinal forward Harrison Ingram.
Bruins foward Jaime Jaquez Jr., driving during a win over Stanford on Feb. 16, is one of the two leading candidates to become the Pac-12 Conference player of the year.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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The end of his celebrated UCLA career nearing, Jaime Jaquez Jr. sat at an outdoor patio on campus this week and reminisced.

About how bad he once had been.

“As a freshman, the first couple of months, he thought he was terrible and he didn’t know if he’d ever play,” coach Mick Cronin said, recounting the scene. “He goes, ‘I turned it over, you were all over me, I thought I stunk.’ ”

That’s no longer a word anyone would use to describe the senior forward, who is likely to finish his career as an All-American. These days, only compliments apply. Tough. Fearless. Resilient. Savvy.

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

His play in recent weeks has enhanced his legacy on a team with national championship aspirations. It also has dramatically improved his standing in a two-man race for Pac-12 player of the year, along with Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. (4) celebrates with teammate Prince Ali 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 statistics favor Tubelis, who’s trying to become only 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 taut Bruins victories, tilt heavily toward Jaquez.

Over 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 nudged the No. 4 Bruins toward the brink of their first Pac-12 title in a decade with a slew of late baskets against Oregon, Stanford and Utah.

Removed from the NCAA tournament selection committee upon UCLA’s announced departure for the Big Ten, Bruins athletic director Martin Jarmond did not hold back his thoughts about one pick involving his team.

“If @jaquez_jr isn’t conference POY something” fishy, Jarmond tweeted late Thursday, using a fish emoji to make his point.

Though Jaquez’s averages of 17 points and 8.1 rebounds trail those of his top competitor, his team’s success might 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’s 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 Thursday with more late-game heroics. With the Bruins clinging to a three-point lead, Jaquez rolled off seven points and a nifty assist to Jaylen Clark in a span of 3 ½ minutes to help his team polish off its seventh consecutive victory.

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

Cronin maximized Jaquez’s strengths with a small-ball lineup that provided favorable matchups. Whenever the Utes double-teamed him, Jaquez found the open teammate, one bounce pass along the baseline going to Clark for a layup.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. scored 23 points as No. 4 UCLA held off a late Utah rally to win 78-71 and inch closer to their first Pac-12 regular season title since 2013.

Feb. 23, 2023

There’s no more room for self-doubt given a skill set that includes making three-pointers and beating defenders off the dribble 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 lists for scoring (1,620 points) and rebounds (764).

“Look, Jaime’s a big-time player,” Cronin said. “We’re talking about a guy that’s an All-American, he’s going to play in the NBA for 10, 12 years, so not a surprise” what he did at the end of the Utah game.

Jaquez credited his recent surge to the extra work he has put in after practice on his shot and preparing for pressure situations. He has become the go-to guy the Bruins need as they approach an NCAA tournament that surely will involve more nervous finishes.

“Coach trusts me with the ball in my hands,” Jaquez said, “and I want to continue to earn that trust and have my guys have faith in me that I’m going to make the right play every time down the stretch.”

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The final decision for player of the year could come down to the last game of the regular season, Jaquez and Tubelis going head-to-head when the Bruins face the Wildcats on March 4 at Pauley Pavilion. The winner of the award will be announced three days later.

If all goes well, UCLA’s season will have another month to go, ending in early April. It still might not be enough given how much Jaquez has savored his rise from not good enough to among the best in the nation.

“Jaime is literally depressed that it’s going to be over, that’s how much he loves being here,” Cronin said. “Now, he’s probably had enough of me, which I understand — I get enough of me at times — but he like really, he really said, ‘I would spend five more years [here] if I could.’ ”

His coach didn’t pretend that he might be able to keep his star beyond this spring, even with one more season of eligibility remaining.

“I said,” Cronin replied, “ ‘Well, NIL’s not big enough.’ ”

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