UCLA men’s basketball senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. has been a cornerstone of the program since his freshman year in 2019-2020. This offseason, Jaquez opted to return to the Bruins for his senior season instead of declaring for the 2022 NBA Draft. In late August, Sports Editor Sam Settleman sat down with Jaquez to discuss his decision to come back, his recovery from multiple ankle injuries and his expectations for the blue and gold in the 2022-2023 season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Bruin: How has this offseason been treating you so far?
Jaime Jaquez Jr.: It’s been really good. Just been taking a lot of time to just move through this offseason slow, do whatever I can to get back 100% in my ankles and just work on things that I needed to work on.
DB: As an athlete, you don’t want to get too caught up in the past, but going back to the end of last season, do you still think about the end of that North Carolina game at all?
JJ: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, man. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But it’s just adding fuel to the fire and just getting us more ready and more prepared for the upcoming season – learning from our mistakes.
DB: You just talked about it, but you battled ankle injuries for the better part of last season. So now that you’re five months out of the year, how are you doing healthwise?
JJ: I’m doing a lot better, man. I’m doing a lot better. I feel like a lot of my athleticism is coming back. I’m moving a lot better and moving without pain, which is really the best thing for me. Just continuing to get better every day, continuing to strengthen my muscles around my ankle and just going to practice every day trying to get better.
DB: Going back to that injury in the tournament, now that it’s after the fact, can you kind of elaborate on how significant of an injury that was? Was there any chance you were going to miss that North Carolina game?
JJ: I mean, there was no chance I was going to miss it. I was going to play regardless. It was just unfortunate at the time that happened because to get prepared for that game, it was better for me to just rest, stay off it as much as possible so I could be able to play in that game.
DB: There’s been a ton of videos this offseason of you playing against NBA players at the Rico Hines runs, hitting jumpers over (Los Angeles Clippers forward) Paul George. What’s it like going against those guys like PG and (Toronto Raptors forward) Pascal Siakam?
JJ: It only gets a guy like me better. Just trying to guard the best. They’re in a position that I want to be, and the only way to improve yourself and try to get there is by guarding those types of guys. Really, the only thing that happens is they make me better. I try to push them as well, try to play the best defense I can, try to earn their respect and just try to win at the end of the day.
DB: Speaking of the next level, you had a chance to leave UCLA this offseason but decided to come back instead. Can you expand more on your decision to come back and what your thought process was in making that call?
JJ: It just made sense at the time. I was going to have to get surgery on my ankle. So one, it just wouldn’t make sense for me to go into the draft process coming right out of surgery, not being able to do that stuff. And also two, we have unfinished business here. I feel like I still have a lot to improve on as far as my basketball game goes. I just wanted to come back, take one more year, cement a real legacy here at UCLA and try one more time for that national championship.
DB: Had your ankle been fully healthy going into that offseason, would you have maybe been more likely to make the call to go to the NBA?
JJ: I think there’s a lot of factors that go into that. If it wasn’t hurting, how well would I have played during the season? You know, I don’t know. That’s a tough one.
DB: Switching gears a little bit, but name, image and likeness is a huge topic in college sports right now, especially with all the new things happening in the football world. As a prominent student-athlete yourself, what are your thoughts on what NIL brings to collegiate sports and where you see that going as it continues to develop?
JJ: I think it’s great. For so many years, college athletes have been getting taken advantage of. Big companies, television and all were making money off college basketball and the players who play. And for now, them to get an opportunity to have a chance to finally make some money is real big. It’s really progressive, and that’s moving towards the way it should be.
DB: Do you personally have any kind of goals or plans for this year when it comes to name, image and likeness?
JJ: Yeah, we have some things in the works. I’m always working to try to get good deals, trying to make a little money. But at the end of the day, I’m trying to play basketball. My ultimate goal is to make it to the NBA, where I can make obviously the most money possible.
DB: Going back to basketball, a lot of people are talking about your sister coming to UCLA, how cool it is to have a brother-sister duo playing for UCLA men’s and women’s basketball. Was the fact that she’s going to be here this year a factor at all in your decision to come back?
JJ: My sister, she was going to come here anyways, whether I left or if I didn’t leave. As much as I would love to say she played a factor – I mean obviously coming back is great – but honestly, it wasn’t the deciding factor, I should say, in my decision.
DB: But just generally, for you, for her, for your entire family at home, how cool is it for the two of you to share this experience?
JJ: Yeah, it’s a great experience obviously. It’s very exciting to have my sister here and be on campus at the same time. Not a lot of people get that opportunity. And to also be playing sports in front of Bruins fans, it’s really special.
DB: Looking at your team heading into next season, you’ve got a strong group of freshmen coming in. What have you seen out of them so far as you’ve had a chance to go up against them in practice a little bit?
JJ: I’ve been very impressed with them, man. They’ve been great. They have great attitudes, they’re learning fast like we need them to, and they impress us and me every single day. They’re freshmen, but they don’t really play like freshmen. We’re really excited.
DB: If you had to pick one out of that group that kind of really stands out to you so far, do you have one in mind?
JJ: Oh, wow, man. That’s so hard to say. I will say this: Adem’s (freshman forward Adem Bona’s) athleticism is something. … I haven’t seen anything like it, man. That dude is a freak of nature.
DB: Unlike last offseason, there’s been a lot of roster changes this year with Johnny (guard Johnny Juzang), Jules (guard Jules Bernard) and Cody (forward Cody Riley) all leaving. It’s kind of the end of an era for that five-man unit with you and Tyger (redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell) and the three of them. Can you just talk about what kind of impact you five had at UCLA over these past couple of seasons?
JJ: We came so far as a group together, and we accomplished so much. People can say a lot about that team, but at the end of the day, we did a lot of great things – Final Four, Sweet 16 – with that core group of guys. We’re going to miss them, but we’re obviously very excited with the new group that we have, and we’re ready to continue that legacy.
DB: You and Tyger are the last ones left of that five-man unit that made that Final Four run. It’s now year four together for the two of you, so what kind of chemistry do you guys have with one another?
JJ: That’s one of my best friends here – not even just on the court but off the court as well. It’s been great to be here with him all four years. We’ve grown so much together, and our chemistry has only grown, man. I love playing with that guy. We’re really excited. We’ve talked so much about it to just get after it for our last year here together.
DB: You’ve also had the opportunity to play for Mick (coach Mick Cronin) for a couple years now. What’s the chemistry like between the two of you, and how has that maybe changed over the last couple years?
JJ: I think it’s just a lot of trust. Building that trust since I was a freshman and now here being a senior, there’s a lot of trust. And obviously a lot of responsibility on both our ends – he obviously the coach and me trying to be a coach on the floor, trying to voice his coaching styles and his philosophies onto the younger guys as well. You got to hear it from two different types of people. Hearing it from a coach is one thing, but when your team is also believing in it, it really helps the whole team as a whole understand.
DB: Certainly a new-look team this year. What do you think sets this year’s team apart from other UCLA teams you’ve been on?
JJ: I think we got a lot more quick, small, fast guards. We had a lot of big wings and a lot bigger guards, but this team we got a lot of quick guys that like to get up and down the floor a lot.
DB: This team has made back-to-back runs in March and certainly has the talent and experience to do so again. What are your expectations for this group this year?
JJ: I’m just going in with the mentality that it’s my last year. Let’s make it count, man. Let’s do what we can to get back to the Final Four and make that one last push and try to hang banner No. 12 up in the rafters.
DB: I mean you just said it, you came back to have this big impact in your last year, so do you have any individual goals for yourself this season? Pac-12 Player of the Year, All-American, first-round pick in the draft – what do you see as your goals this year?
JJ: My goals are my team’s goals. My goal is to win a national championship, and everything that comes along is just icing on the cake.