LOS ANGELES — When the Miami Heat drafted Jaime Jaquez Jr. last June at No. 18, the reaction around the NBA was, “he’s such a Heat player.”
How right that has turned out to be.
“I think just his temperament, how he fits in with the team, his personality — he’s a worker,” Kevin Love said of how Jaquez has blended in with Miami as a rookie. “He certainly has a very grown man game, if you will, he can step in right away. He’s been well coached, you can tell, doesn’t get sped up, has a really good pace to his game.”
Jaquez has been forced into a larger role than expected as a rookie due to injuries in Miami, but he has thrived with the Heat averaging 13.7 points a game, with an above-average 59.7 true shooting percentage. He has shown the ability to be a shot-creator for himself and others, he’s moved into the starting lineup and has the sixth-highest usage rate on the team. He looks like a guy who could finish in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting and be First-Team All-Rookie when the season ends.
What did the Heat see that made them think Jaquez could be this kind of player in Miami? What drew the franchise to a four-year college player over a younger player who maybe had a higher upside? Heat coach Erik Spoelstra peeled back the curtain a little.
“I think what was relevant to us is the fact that he had to embrace a role early on as a freshman [at UCLA]. He had to fight and earn an opportunity as a role player,” Spoelstra said. “And then he succeeded in that. Second year, he was probably their third or fourth option, embraced that, and then had a great tournament run. And then each year, he was earning more opportunities. And by the time he was a senior, he was the face of the franchise.
“You just rarely see that anymore. I mentioned the other night, usually if things are not perceived going your way — and the unfortunate thing right now for young kids, there’s 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 number one option, you’re basically transferring, going into the portal, or you are declaring. 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 he was a senior, he was really impacting winning as a number one option, but he was impacting winning as a role player. And that was very similar to what Tyler [Herro] and Bam [Adebayo] did in their college, one season. It’s the same thing, it was embracing a role that was much different than what they’re doing right now.”
One pick before the Heat took Jaquez, his home-town Lakers were on the clock. Los Angeles went the younger player with upside route selecting Jalen Hood-Schifino out of Indiana. He may develop into a rock-solid NBA player, but has appeared in just seven games for Los Angeles and is a work in progress. In an NBA with the dreaded luxury tax second apron fully kicking in next season, more and more contending and playoff teams — the ones drafting in the second half of the first round — are going to look at players like Jaquez who can come in and help right now because the team needs the inexpensive help around their high-priced stars. Plus, Miami has a long history of knowing what it wants and finding players like this.
Jaquez said previously he was happy the Lakers didn’t take him because he wanted to experience something new — he grew up in the greater Los Angeles area (Camarillo), played his college ball at UCLA, and felt it was time to get away. Miami is definitely different than L.A.
The downside of getting out of SoCal was that Monday night against the Clippers at Crypto.com Arena was the first time Jaquez’s family saw him play in person as a professional. He rented out a couple of suites at the arena for them.
“This is the first game [my family] got to see, just very happy they were able to come out,” Jaquez said. “Especially at this time in their life, just be able to still support me through through it all is really special.”
It wasn’t just his family — Jaquez got a loud round of cheers when introduced as a starter. When he scored — he had 15 points in the game — the cheers sounded more like a Clipper had gotten a bucket.
“I definitely felt and heard the love from the people in the crowd…” Jaquez said. “Like you said, it wasn’t a home game for us, but it felt like a home game for me. And I was just really happy to see all the support.”
It was a rough homecoming. The Heat lost 121-104 and, with Jimmy Butler out injured, Jaquez drew the Kawhi Leonard defensive assignment to start the game (Leonard finished with a game-high 24 points), and spent stretches of time guarding James Harden as well.
“Those guys are where they are for a reason, tough challenge, for sure,” Jaquez said. “Just being able to be on the floor with those guys and just trying to do whatever I can to get stops, they’re tough guys to guard.”
Despite injuries that have not let them find a consistent rhythm this season — and coming off a summer where they were not able to land Damian Lillard or another major star — the Heat are still 19-14 and sit as the No. 5 seed in the East. After a run to the NBA Finals last season, nobody sane is counting the Heat out — to a man they believe if healthy they are a very tough playoff out.
Jaquez, as a rookie, is a big part of that.
“I think as he goes through his second, third time through the league the upside is only going to get higher for him,” Love said.
Which should make the rest of the league nervous.