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

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (24) is defended by Arizona guard Pelle Larsson
UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. is defended by Arizona guard Pelle Larsson on March 4 at Pauley Pavilion. Jaquez has been named the Pac-12 player of the year.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
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Jaime Jaquez Jr. arrived at UCLA as a willowy prospect fighting for minutes. His nearly shaved head, a remnant of a rookie ritual with the Mexican national team, symbolized necessary growth while endearing him to a bald coaching staff.

Four years later, Jaquez has sprouted into a brawny veteran who almost never leaves a game. His thicket of locks billowing over a blue headband has become another metaphor.

He’s all grown up.

Flourishing like never before for a team that ran away with the Pac-12’s regular-season championship, Jaquez was recognized Tuesday by conference coaches who selected him as the Pac-12 player of the year.

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A 10-game winning streak and the Pac-12 regular season title aren’t enough to guarantee UCLA a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA tournament? Nope. Here’s why.

The senior forward became the Bruins’ first winner in that category since Kevin Love in 2008 and was part of UCLA’s nearly clean sweep 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 the freshman of the year. The only major awards that did not go to the Bruins were for most improved player, Arizona’s Oumar Ballo, and sixth man of the year, USC’s Reese Dixon-Waters.

“Let’s get the brooms out,” Jaquez said. “I mean, that’s a pretty clean sweep. … This is a team that works so hard and we push each other and when you’ve got guys of this caliber always going against each other in practice, it makes the games a lot easier, so I’m going against the defensive player of the year every single day in practice, I mean, I would hope that I would become a better offensive player.”

Jaquez was the most indispensable player on the best team in the Pac-12, No. 2 UCLA going 18-2 in conference games and topping Arizona and USC by four games in the standings for the largest margin of victory since 2004. Jaquez averaged 17.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals, becoming just the sixth player in conference history to rank in the top five in each of those categories.

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

No matter what happens in the Pac-12 tournament next week, the UCLA men’s basketball team deserves to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Cronin snagged his second conference coach of the year award in four seasons after his Bruins won their final 10 games.

“That’s coaching staff of the year,” Cronin said. “You know, that’s how I look at it.”

Even with two freshman 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 suffered extended lulls.

Clark was the centerpiece of that defense, averaging a Pac-12-leading 2.6 steals per game before suffering what appeared to be a lower-leg injury against Arizona last weekend. His final play involved a steal and layup before departing with the injury early in the second half that could end his season. Bona’s 1.6 blocks per game led the Bruins and his interior presence altered numerous other shots.

Freshman Jaime Jaquez Jr. dribbles past Notre Dame's Temple Gibbs on Dec. 14, 2019, in South Bend, Ind.
Jaime Jaquez Jr., shown dribbling past Notre Dame’s Temple Gibbs on Dec. 14, 2019, in South Bend, Ind., moved into the starting lineup early in his freshman season and became the spiritual cornerstone of coach Mick Cronin’s rebuilding efforts.
(Robert Franklin / Associated Press)

Moving into the starting lineup only a handful of games into his freshman 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 gutted through bothersome ankles as a junior before showing what he could do when fully healthy in his final college season.

“I came here on a mission, I’m taking steps along this road, along this journey, to try to get there and as a freshman, you never know what to expect,” Jaquez said. “If you would have told me four years later you’d win the Pac-12 championship and I’d be Pac-12 player of the year I don’t know if I would have believed you, I mean, it’s just been such a crazy ride so far and I’m so grateful to be a part of this thing.”

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

USC’s Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson also earned a place on the Pac-12’s first team, with Trojans big man Joshua Morgan and guard Kobe Johnson making the all-defensive team alongside Clark and Bona. Bona and UCLA teammate Amari Bailey were on the all-freshman team alongside USC’s Tre White.

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