Sleeper Deep Dives: Jaime Jaquez Jr.
The third-year UCLA guard/forward has flown under the radar at times in his college career, but his all-around game makes him more than worthy of a first-round pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
The UCLA Bruins have never been an under the radar basketball team, but their men’s team had an incredibly strange season last year. After a slow start and a roller coaster ride of a regular season, they turned it on at the best possible time; for possibly the first time ever, UCLA lived out a Cinderella story in March Madness.
Much of the spotlight for that magical tournament run went to Johnny Juzang, who got red-hot from mid-range at the best possible time. The Bruins bowed out of the tournament in the Final Four, but Juzang announced his return and the squad added a top-flight prospect in Peyton Watson. The bright lights are almost always shining on UCLA, and that glow only seemed poised to grow brighter with Watson in the fold.
Yet throughout that magical tournament run, UCLA’s most consistent player got much less of the spotlight than Johnny Juzang. Even with Peyton Watson in the mix, and even with Juzang taking up so much of the oxygen around the team both this year and last year, the team’s best player this year has still been the man who still has not gotten as much of the limelight as he deserves.
Let’s talk about Jaime Jaquez Jr.
In some ways, it feels strange to call Jaquez Jr. a sleeper. He ended up at #25 on the No Ceilings Big Board and at #26 in the No Ceilings Mock Draft. He plays for one of the most storied college basketball programs of all time. He made the PAC-12 Second Team and the PAC-12 All-Defense First Team. He was nominated for the Wooden Award this preseason.
On the other hand, there are still plenty of people who are not Jaime Jaquez Jr. believers. He did make the Big Board, but some of my No Ceilings colleagues did not have him in their Top 30—and they’re certainly not the only people in the draft space with that opinion. He may very well end up falling out of the first round in the 2022 NBA Draft, and that doubt about his status alone is an argument for his sleeper status. So…let’s dive deep!
Offense: Passing Precision and Shooting Touch
The most intriguing tool in Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s very impressive toolkit is his great passing touch and vision. After showing flashes of passing excellence last season, Jaquez Jr. has spent much more time on the ball this year as a primary initiator. That shift in play style has certainly helped his draft stock, since it has given him more opportunities to create for himself and others.
Jaquez Jr. makes smart decisions with the ball in his hands, and reliably finds the open man both in the half court and in transition. He is great at outlet passing and kickstarting transition attacks for UCLA, and those kick-ahead passes are particularly important since UCLA also leans heavily on him as a rebounder (he’s second on the team in rebounding at 6.4 boards per game). The team’s offense is too iso-heavy for the raw assist numbers to really pop, but Jaquez is also second on the Bruins in assists per game behind Tyger Campbell.
The increase in on-ball reps has also given Jaquez Jr. more chances to show off his handle—he doesn’t have the flashiest handle in the world, but he has a really functional one. He stops and pops with ease, puts pressure on the rim as a driver with minimal mistakes and turnovers turnovers, changes speeds exceptionally well with the ball in his hands, covers a lot of ground with his crossovers, and generally looks comfortable on the ball regardless of where he catches it or how much time is left on the clock.
Jaquez Jr.’s passing ability opens up a lot of avenues for future NBA success, but his passing talent alone wouldn’t be enough to vault him into the first round of the draft even with his solid handle. That’s where the rest of his offensive package comes into play.
Jaquez Jr. has made steady improvements as a shooter since his first year campaign when he shot 31.3% from deep. He knocked down 39.4% of his triples as a sophomore, and has made 40.9% of his long-range looks so far this season. He hasn’t started bombing away with no conscience—he shot fewer than three triples per game as a freshman, put up 2.9 3PA per game as a sophomore, and is currently on track to finish this season with under three long-range shots per game once again. He could certainly stand to take a few more threes per game given his accuracy, but he’s well past the point of being considered a non-shooter. His growing ability to space the floor makes it that much more difficult for defenses to deal with him:
The shot isn’t the only thing worth noticing in this possession for Jaquez Jr.—just look at all the work that he does to create space for this attempt. He sets a screen on his defender, slips the screen in time to dart out to the three-point line AND slips the screen at the perfect angle so that Jake Kyman can occupy two defenders at once, and then knocks down the shot. His off-ball movement will be crucial for Jaquez Jr. at the NBA level; he won’t have the ball in his hands as often, so he will need to continue to create looks for himself by running defenders into screens.
Jaquez Jr. isn’t just a spot-up guy, however. He might not do it as often as Johnny Juzang, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. is very capable of shooting off the bounce from mid-range and beyond the arc. The understanding of the game that is so clear during his best passing moments also comes into play when he calls his own number; if a defense is foolish enough to give him an opening, he will not hesitate:
Jaquez Jr. ranks in the 71st percentile offensively so far this season per Synergy Sports, after finishing in the 84th percentile offensively last season. He got to that elite level last season in a variety of different ways, too—he was above-average in every offensive category besides post-ups, P&R ball-handling, and P&R roll man scoring.
So far this season, his offensive profile has been even more encouraging despite the overall ranking dropping a few spots. His second-most frequent play type behind spot-up shots is shots as the ball-handler in the pick and roll , as it was last season. However, he shot as the ball-handler on 10.8% of his possessions last year, while 28.7% of his looks came on spot-ups.
That gap has narrowed significantly this year; so far, 19% of his looks have been spot-ups and 18.2% of them have been as the pick and roll ball-handler. However, Jaquez Jr. ranked in the 29th percentile on those P&R plays last season, which was his worst play type by a significant margin. This season? He’s up to the 78th percentile, and that increased comfort shines through in his film as well—Jaquez Jr. has been much more confident in calling his own number in those situations, and has looked more fluid while doing so.
He’s also posted up more frequently so far this season, and has jumped up from the 41st percentile to the 63rd percentile efficiency-wise on those plays. Jaquez Jr. has the size and strength to bully smaller players down low, which is also a huge plus for his NBA draft stock; his ability to punish teams for putting undersized guards on him will give him more avenues to succeed in a wider variety of lineups at the next level. The passing touch and shooting growth are both strong signs for his future development and theoretical ceiling, but every additional tool in his offensive toolkit boosts his floor even higher.
Defense: Fire and Versatility
When it comes to defense, Jaime Jaquez Jr. has not been overlooked—at least in terms of college basketball. He earned that spot on the PAC-12 All-Defense First Team last season, and his ability to defend multiple positions will really help him to lock down a spot in an NBA rotation.
The offensive game is easier to quibble with, but Jaquez Jr.’s defensive game is easier to overlook. While he is one of the best players in the country in terms of cutting off passing lanes (he was sixth in the PAC-12 in total steals last year and is ninth in steals per game so far this year) and also contributes as a weakside shot blocker (he was 12th in the PAC-12 in blocks last season), he isn’t a highlight-reel player on that end of the floor.
Still, just as he does offensively, Jaime Jaquez Jr. fills a ton of gaps on the defensive end of the floor. He rarely gets beaten one-on-one, he is a willing and smart help defender, and he plays with the kind of intensity that you hope to see from elite defenders. His size at 6’6” and 220 lbs. has certainly helped him with improving his overall offensive game and post-up success this season, but the real impact of his size is on the defensive end; it’s nearly impossible to push him around if he gets to his spot on time.
Jaquez Jr. is bulky enough that he might get looks as a small-ball four sooner rather than later at the NBA level. Jaquez Jr. as a passer in short-roll situations and as a floor-spacing big is really enticing (at least to me, anyway), and that possibility is much more likely to happen down the road for him because of his top-notch defense. He’s not exactly a speed demon, but he slides his feet well on the perimeter and is more than happy to rotate into the paint and cover for his teammates down low. Opponents who underrate his athleticism and ability to get back into plays defensively tend to get punished for it:
Jaime Jaquez Jr. ranks in the 68th percentile on defense so far this season per Synergy Sports, and has continued to build on his defensive CV after his First Team nod last season. He has guarded 1-4 pretty consistently at UCLA, and done well with nearly every assignment. He probably won’t be tasked with guarding too many speedy point guards, but his ability to switch onto nearly any wing or forward player and hold them in check will be vital to his game at the NBA level.
While Jaime Jaquez Jr. undoubtedly has his backers, there are plenty of people who remain unconvinced of his value. Some think that his ceiling is not high enough to make him a first-round pick. Others are concerned about what position he would play in the NBA. Still others might wonder if they could find a similar player in free agency instead of having to use a draft pick.
All of those concerns are valid, but to me, they also miss the point. Jaime Jaquez Jr. has shown, time and time again, that he finds ways to contribute to winning basketball on both ends of the floor regardless of the context around him. He can shoot, he’s an excellent passer for his size, and he’s a stalwart defender.
Even among the non-Jaquez believers that I’ve talked to, the general consensus seems to be that he is a good basketball player. The questions surrounding him are mostly related to value: is he good enough to be worth a first-round selection?
In my mind, the answer is clearly yes. After years and years of watching teams pass on the Jeremiah Robinson-Earls, Xavier Tillmans, and Jae Crowders of the world in the first round, you would think that executives would see that there is a lot of benefit to drafting prospects who you know are good basketball players. That’s an oversimplification, to be fair, and the NBA Draft has never been anything close to an exact science. That being said, one would think that being a good basketball player would be useful when it comes to playing basketball professionally.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. is someone who can fill a lot of holes for a team, and that is in many ways the most intriguing part of evaluating him as a prospect. Could there be a world in which he goes to a team in desperate need of wing help and fits in right away as a 3-and-D small forward option for 15 minutes a game? Yes. Could there be a world in which he goes to the Warriors, learns from Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, and becomes a devastating short-roll passer at the four and an all-around defensive menace? Sure. Could there be a world in which he does in fact go to the Chicago Bulls at #26 like he did in the No Ceilings Mock Draft, and they slot him into a role as a pass-first big man off the bench similar to the role that Thaddeus Young filled so brilliantly last season? Absolutely.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. has the passing, defensive excellence, and shooting touch to be able to fit into an NBA rotation sooner rather than later. If he takes another leap as a passer and on-ball initiator, he might get to the point where he becomes a gap-filling starter rather than a gap-filling rotation player. Even if he doesn’t take that leap, there are plenty of playoff teams that would be better off if they played Jaquez Jr. for 15 minutes a game.
Jaquez Jr. will probably never be an All-Star, but his varied skill set makes it hard to believe that he will fail completely in the NBA. He can shoot, make good decisions with the ball in his hands, play multiple positions, do the dirty work on defense, and generally shore up weaknesses for his team on both ends of the floor.
Simply put, Jaime Jaquez Jr. makes his teammates better. If a team decides to draft him in the first round, or if he ends up getting drafted in the second round, he will make his new team better as well. Even though he doesn’t get the attention he deserves for it sometimes, that’s just what Jaime Jaquez Jr. does.