Jaime Jaquez Jr., the steal of the 2023 NBA draft, heats up

About an hour before his NBA homecoming, Jaime Jaquez Jr. sat at his locker next to a big-screen television showing plays the Miami Heat’s opponent liked to run.

The Clippers’ tendencies would be of no use to Jimmy Butler. Unable to play because of a sore foot, the six-time all-star was up for a different sort of challenge Monday evening inside Crypto.com Arena.

Hornets guard Ish Smith, right, pressures Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. during a game on Nov. 14.

(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

As he sat on a shoe bag munching on buffalo wings in the middle of the locker room, Butler asked which teammate — Jaquez or Kevin Love — was a better player at UCLA.

Each was a Pac-12 player of the year. Each led the Bruins to a Final Four. Each was drafted in the first round.

The biggest difference?

Love stayed for just one year while Jaquez lingered for four.

“He had me watching all four years,” Love said, walking over to Jaquez’s locker to slap his hand.

Remaining gracious, Jaquez said he wasn’t answering Butler’s question, signifying a possible first for the rookie forward. It might have been the only time he’s backed down during his first three months in the NBA.

As part of a high-flying start for someone picked outside the draft lottery, Jaquez ripped the ball out of Lakers star LeBron James’ hands to trigger a fast break, threw down a vicious dunk over Toronto’s Scottie Barnes and was a holiday hellraiser with his 31-point, 10-rebound eruption against Philadelphia on Christmas.

“Just enjoying this dream that I’ve been living,” Jaquez told The Times earlier Monday as he sat inside the men’s gym at UCLA as part of a return to campus for the Heat’s shootaround.

Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. shoots over Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins on Dec. 28.

Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (11) shoots over Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins (22) on Dec. 28 in San Francisco.

(Loren Elliott / Associated Press)

Having become a part-time starter and a staple of Miami’s fourth-quarter lineups, Jaquez has emerged as the steal of the draft after the Heat selected him with the No. 18 pick. Just as he did with the Bruins, Jaquez has immediately captivated his new team, doing things that haven’t been done by a Heat rookie since Dwyane Wade more than two decades ago.

Along the way, he’s become as popular in Miami as art deco architecture. Pat Riley, the legendary former Lakers coach and current Heat president, gave Jaquez a fist bump as he walked by inside the men’s gym. Assistant coach Caron Butler shared a laugh with Jaquez about the nickname he had given the rookie, “Friday the 13th.”

“It means you’re a killer,” Jaquez explained.

The hometown hero received loud roars from the crowd when introduced before the game against the Clippers, and not just from the family and friends who packed three suites inside Crypto.com Arena. Jaquez’s No. 24 UCLA jerseys sprinkled the crowd. A fan dressed in a Bruins hat, sweatshirt and shoes sat at the end of the Heat bench.

Miami guard Jaime Jaquez Jr.'s friends and family members gather outside Crypto.com Arena.

Miami guard Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s friends and family members gather outside Crypto.com Arena to cheer him on during the Heat’s game against the Clippers Monday.

(Courtesy of Jaquez family)

Jaquez will probably be showered with similar adoration when he returns to face the Lakers on Wednesday, providing a reminder of the player they bypassed in favor of Jalen Hood-Schifino, the No. 17 pick who has played a total of 63 minutes across seven games.

Not begrudging the Lakers — or any other team that overlooked him — Jaquez said he’s exactly where he wants to be.

“I was ready to get out — I didn’t want to stay in Los Angeles my whole life,” Jaquez, who starred at Camarillo High before coming to UCLA, told The Times. “I wanted to go out and experience a new part of the world. I mean, Miami is a part of America, but it doesn’t feel like it when you’re there and it’s really cool to be able to experience something new, live in a new city by myself.”

Miami’s vibrant food scene immediately dazzled its new inhabitant, the Japanese steakhouse Gekko, uniquely intimate Casa Tua and French eatery La Sandwicherie topping the list of Jaquez’s favorite haunts. Of course, nothing could beat a Christmas-style spread of steak, green beans and mashed potatoes with teammates and staffers at the Riley household after Jaquez’s big holiday showing.

“It was awesome, man, just to be able to see another side of everybody beyond basketball,” Jaquez said, “and I think that’s what separates the Miami Heat from a lot of other organizations is that off-court camaraderie that we have.”

Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, stands beside Carson, Mick Cronin's stepson who received Jaquez's jersey for Christmas.

Miami guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, stands beside Carson, Mick Cronin’s stepson who received Jaquez’s Heat jersey for Christmas. Jaquez signed the jersey for Carson.

(Courtesy of Jaime Jaquez Jr.)

The resolve that Jaquez developed at UCLA while going from a role player to the Bruins’ go-to guy was among the reasons the Heat coveted him. It reminded executives of previous draft picks Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, who had shown a willingness to do whatever it took to win.

By the end of his career, Jaquez finished as the Bruins’ eighth all-time leading scorer with 1,802 points while helping his team reach two Sweet 16s in addition to the 2021 Final Four. That made him a rarity in today’s college game.

“The unfortunate thing right now for young kids,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said, “is they have so many people in their ears and it’s a microwave society, so if you’re not a sensation right out of the gate as a No. 1 option, you’re basically transferring … or you are declaring [for the draft] and you’re not really getting these opportunities to grow, develop some grit, embrace a role, understand what it takes to win in that role and then earn more opportunities and that was relevant to us.

“By the time [Jaquez] was a senior, he was really impacting winning as a No. 1 option, but he was impacting winning as a role player.”

Mastering details that allowed him to thrive as a Bruin — avoiding turnovers, prioritizing rebounds and getting to the free-throw line — have translated to instant success at the next level. The NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner lists Jaquez third in his rookie rankings, behind Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren and San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama.

“I always felt my game was more suited for the NBA, just the way I play,” Jaquez said, “so I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. I knew if I had an opportunity, I was going to make the most of it and that’s kind of where I’m at. Once you’re in the [NBA] game you kind of just realize it’s basketball all over again. There’s really good guys that you’re playing against and then you’ve got to understand that I’m here for a reason as well, so this is where I belong and I think that’s what gives me the confidence to go out there and play my game.”

Jaquez unleashed some of his familiar relentlessness against the Clippers in his first game at Crypto.com Arena while starting for the severely short-handed Heat, who were missing Butler, Haywood Highsmith, Caleb Martin and Josh Richardson.

Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, drives past Clippers guard Terance Mann.

Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (11) drives past Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) at Crypto.com Arena on Monday.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Near the end of the first quarter, Jaquez came up with a steal and nearly made a heave from beyond halfcourt. Later, a tap-out led to a Love tip-in. Then, after missing a layup when he lost the handle on the ball, Jaquez snatched it back from the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard in the backcourt and went in for a dunk.

Defensively, it was mostly a struggle with the Heat missing so many wing players. Jaquez took turns guarding a parade of all-stars in Leonard, Paul George and James Harden, often losing those battles as the Clippers blistered the Heat with isolation plays and drives leading to easy baskets while shooting nearly 60%.

After finishing with 15 points, four rebounds, four steals and two assists in a team-high 38 minutes, Jaquez answered questions in English and Spanish — sometimes both — on Mexican Heritage Night. Though his father’s side of the family is of Mexican descent, Jaquez said he’s still working on his Spanish through the learning app Duolingo.

“I definitely felt and heard the love from the people in the crowd,” Jaquez said in English when asked about the reception, “so I just want to shout-out everybody supporting me through all these years. It wasn’t a home game for us, but it felt like a home game for me.”

That support carried over to the locker room, where Love gushed about his teammate’s maturity and readiness to produce in the NBA. The Eastern Conference’s rookie of the month for November, Jaquez is averaging 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 29.7 minutes per game for the season.

“He certainly has a very grown-man game, if you will, can step in right away,” Love said of Jaquez, who recently became the first Heat rookie to score in double figures in 13 consecutive games since Wade in 2003. “He’s been well-coached, you can tell. He doesn’t get sped up, has a really good pace to his game and I think as he goes through his first and second and third time in the league, his upside is only going to get higher.”

His time also figures to be increasingly in demand. After spending New Year’s Eve with sister Gabriela, a sophomore forward on the unbeaten UCLA women’s basketball team, Jaime had lunch with some of his former Bruins teammates on Tuesday. He also signed the Heat jersey with Jaquez’s name and number that UCLA coach Mick Cronin gave his stepson, Carson, for Christmas.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Kevin Love clap hands during the Heat's game against the Nets on Nov. 16.

Jaime Jaquez Jr., left, and Kevin Love clap hands during the Heat’s game against the Nets on Nov. 16 at Kaseya Center in Miami.

(Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

Entering the twilight of his NBA career, the 35-year-old Love is happy just to be around the player he watched more than any other at the college level over the last four years.

Who was the better Bruin? Does it matter now that they’re together?

“I’ve been a fan of his, now I get to have my locker right next to him and be somewhat of a mentor, but certainly a great vet for him,” Love said, “so I’m looking forward to watching him grow.”

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