He scored the first points of UCLA’s season on a two-handed dunk.
Before the No. 8 Bruins finished with their 76-50 pole-axing of Sacramento State in their season opener on Monday night, he was dancing around confused defenders in the lane and soaring over gravity-bound opponents for rebounds.
He caught up to a Sacramento State player on a fast break and pinned his layup against the backboard.
Never mind that he was called for goaltending. Jaime Jaquez Jr. was moving like he’d never moved before.
Whatever mobility Jaquez lost because of the bone spurs and chips in his ankle was regained in the surgical procedure he underwent in the offseason. Jaquez is now whole, and UCLA is, too.
Finally, Jaquez looks as if he’s ready to make the leap to stardom that was expected of him 12 months earlier.
The senior forward can be an All-American — and more.
With the Lakers in the dumps again and the Clippers counting on Kawhi Leonard’s unreliable knee, UCLA has a chance to be the No. 1 basketball attraction in town and Jaquez the most beloved player.
“Just trying to get back to what I was,” Jaquez told reporters last month.
A breakout performer in UCLA’s Final Four run two seasons ago, Jaquez averaged 12.3 points per game in the 2020-21 season and 13.9 points last year.
Very, very, very few players this day and age would have played on with bone spurs in their ankle with a pro career in front of them. He was playing on two bad wheels last year.
— UCLA coach Mick Cronin on Jaime Jaquez Jr.
He started his final collegiate season with 14 efficient points, making seven of nine shots from the field while collecting seven rebounds in 32 minutes.
Jaquez scored 12 points in the first half, after which the Bruins were ahead, 39-25. With the game already decided, Jaquez attempted just one shot in 13 minutes in the second period.
More important was how Jaquez scored on the eye test.
He moved more freely than he did at any point last season. He was more explosive. He wasn’t limited to post-up moves.
“Running faster, jumping higher, all that,” coach Mick Cronin said.
Jaquez’s health will be critical to the Bruins’ success, as Cronin said that for UCLA to be a “great team,” Jaquez and point guard Tyger Campbell have to be All-American-caliber players.
Jaquez wasn’t that player last year. He played in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina with a sprained ankle and UCLA lost.
“But even when Jaime was hurt, he was never going to let you know,” Cronin said. “He’s a throwback. He’s like the guys in the ’80’s, like [Kevin] McHale, who played in the playoffs with a broken foot.”
Jaquez was slowed by ankle problems the entire season. He missed practices. He even missed a January game against Oregon State. He considered ending his season prematurely.
“There were times when he couldn’t even jump,” his father Jaime Sr. said in the spring to Ben Bolch of The Times. “He was just trying to muscle through the whole entire season and did the best he could.”
By continuing to play, he earned the admiration of the other players.
“I was really impressed with him just sticking to it all last year,” fifth-year senior guard David Singleton said.
Cronin shared a similar sentiment.
“Very, very, very few players this day and age would have played on with bone spurs in their ankle with a pro career in front of them,” Cronin said. “He was playing on two bad wheels last year.”
Shortly after UCLA was eliminated, Jaquez underwent an operation to repair his ankle.
“The doctors couldn’t believe when they looked in there, what they saw and what he was able to do with what he had in there,” Jaime Sr. said.
That was only the start, as the procedure was followed by months of rehabilitation and strength training.
“For him to be 100% now, I’m so proud of him,” Singleton said. “The amount of work he put in, the amount of physical therapy with the trainers, the strength training, I’m just so proud of him and [looking forward to] seeing how he’s going to pan out because I believe he’s an NBA professional athlete.”
“He’s definitely,” said guard Jaylen Clark, who nodded in agreement.
Singleton continued: “To see him fulfill that dream step by step is a beautiful thing.”
Jaquez will have that opportunity, and more, over the next five months. He’s certainly healthy enough.