After storybook UCLA career, Jaime Jaquez Jr. savors chance to prove himself in NBA

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Jaime Jaquez Jr., talks to the media during the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago

Jaime Jaquez Jr., talking to the media at the NBA draft combine in Chicago, is a potential late first-round to early second-round picks. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Jaime Jaquez Jr. is about to find himself back in a familiar, comforting place.

Back at the bottom. Back to having to prove himself. Back needing to show he belongs.

The small forward who went from fighting for minutes four years ago to one of the most beloved players in UCLA basketball history doesn’t harbor a shred of anxiety about making it in the NBA.

History has shown he’s got this.

Whatever his new team needs, he’ll do, with sweat dripping and body parts freely sacrificed to whatever piece of hardwood beckons.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. runs and slides during an NBA Draft Combine drill

Jaime Jaquez Jr. participated in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago on May 15. (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Nine teams have brought him in for workouts, meaning the Clippers, Indiana, San Antonio, Golden State, Portland, Utah, Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte have all witnessed his unique brand of grit, not to mention his expanding skill set and savvy that could make him an attractive pick in the June 22 draft.

“The feedback has been very positive,” Jaquez told The Times this week by phone. “I think I’ve gone through this process and shown a lot of teams what I can do and I think they’ve all been very impressed. I think I’ve definitely improved my stock — at least that’s the way I feel. I mean, you never know — it’s not how I feel, it’s about how these GMs feel. I think I did, so I guess I’ll leave it at that.”

You’re not imagining things if you detect supreme confidence from someone known for being humble. Sticking around for four years at a place where bolting for the NBA at the earliest possible moment is a tradition rivaling the pregame roll call has girded Jaquez for this moment.

No one was better in the Pac-12 during a senior season in which he won the conference’s player of the year award. After taking UCLA to one Final Four and two more appearances in the Sweet 16, Jaquez finished his career with 1,802 points, a haul that was good for eighth place on the school’s all-time scoring list.

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“I feel really ready,” Jaquez said of moving on to the NBA. “I feel more prepared than ever and I’m really looking at the four years and realize how much that’s prepared me for going into these workouts and really making an impact and talking to these GMs. I’m really seeing the payoff of my time at UCLA.”

How so? In addition to the enhanced feel for the game that those extra years provided, Jaquez said he’s learned to be more vocal on defense and make his presence felt via his all-around game. His ability to score from anywhere inside 25 feet is matched by relentless rebounding, strong defense and a willingness to pass.

One NBA executive who watched Jaquez work out said another quality that makes him attractive is that teams know exactly what they’re getting based on his dependability. “He played really hard, he competed his ass off, he made smart decisions with the ball,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss NBA prospects. “The shooting looked improved. He’s going to maximize his abilities because of all the intangible qualities that he has. As you kind of expect from him, he won almost all of the drills during the workout.”

The executive said he envisioned Jaquez being taken somewhere from No. 17 to No. 25 in the first round, a prediction that jibes with several mock drafts. The Lakers have the No. 17 selection and the Clippers the final pick of the first round, No. 30 overall. Indiana has three first-round picks, including the No. 26 and No. 29 selections that might be possible draft spots for Jaquez if he’s not already off the board.

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Jaquez spent much of the last month crisscrossing the nation in hopes of proving he’s worthy of becoming UCLA’s highest pick since Lonzo Ball was selected No. 2 and TJ Leaf went No. 18 in the 2017 draft.

The monotony of NBA team workouts and interviews was shattered during a film session with the San Antonio Spurs, who delighted Jaquez with surprise footage of him on a boat alongside several UCLA teammates and sister Gabriela.

“We were going over some film and they were like, ‘Oh, we have this one last clip’ and they showed me a clip of me in a MrBeast video,” Jaquez said, referring to his cameo appearance alongside the YouTube sensation with 160 million followers. “I just thought it was funny. I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you guys even saw it,’ but he’s the biggest YouTuber in the world.”

Jaquez received reminders of his bid to become the next Mexican-American in the NBA while working out with former Lakers forward Juan Toscano-Anderson in recent weeks at a practice facility in Agoura Hills. Toscano-Anderson, who shares the same heritage, advised Jaquez to stay ready for the wild swing of highs and lows experienced by anyone trying to make it in the NBA.

As Jaquez sees it, he’s about to try his best to make an extended family proud.

“It’s just great for a guy like myself to represent a group that really hasn’t seen the light in the NBA and I think it’s just because a lot of Mexicans don’t play basketball,” Jaquez said. “I’m just trying to inspire a new generation to maybe give it a shot and see if they like it and enjoy the sport as much as I do.”

Getting drafted, of course, is just a prelude to more work. Jaquez knows he’ll have to earn his way into a lineup just like he did at UCLA, primarily through defense and making open shots. It took him only eight games to earn a starting spot with the Bruins, one he relinquished just once the rest of his career when he happily ceded it on senior day near the end of his freshman season.

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“I’m a winner,” Jaquez said. “I’ll take what I learned from UCLA and apply that and try to bring all that knowledge and experience to a team and try to help an organization try and win some games.”

Jaquez said he has no regrets about his time in college, though that may not be entirely true. He’s sad to leave sister Gabriela behind after one memorable year together. The siblings saw each other almost daily, even if it was just in passing at the practice facility their teams shared.

During rare overlapping free time, they would go shopping or grab something to eat in Westwood Village.

“It was a lot of fun, I can’t lie,”Jaime said. “To be on campus with her at the same time — I can’t even believe it happened. It happened so fast, it kind of like it was there and then it wasn’t.”

Jaime’s departure will leave Gabriela to uphold the family legacy on campus after a freshman season in which she averaged 6.3 points while providing a constant spark off the bench to help the Bruins reach the Sweet 16. Jaime attended as many of his sister’s games as his schedule allowed, though Gabriela found it increasingly difficult to make eye contact.

“He would have to sit sometimes a little more far away [from the court] because people would come and take pictures with him,” Gabriela said, “and he just wanted to focus on watching the games.”

Getting mobbed was nothing new for a campus celebrity who rarely made it to class or one of his favorite Westwood haunts without someone stopping him to say how much they appreciated what he had done to revive the UCLA basketball brand.

Wherever he lands in the NBA, a round of introductions will be in order before Jaquez can endear himself to another fan base. He can’t wait.

“I’m going to be back at the bottom,” Jaquez said. “I’m a rookie now.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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