The tests of will that forged Heat’s Jaime Jaquez Jr: ‘This dude isn’t a normal rookie’

MIAMI — Jaime Jaquez Sr. was trying to find his son’s breaking point.

As coach of the Camarillo Dons — a youth travel team based in his hometown of Camarillo, Calif. — the elder Jaquez knew his team wasn’t big or skilled enough to compete with the top travel teams in the state. His best chance to create an edge was to make sure his team was in peak physical condition.

So Jaquez Sr. put his team and his oldest son — Jaime Jaquez Jr. — through an endless number of conditioning drills to test their physical and mental stamina. He adopted his mindset from watching the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s and his coaching idol, Pat Riley. Little did he know, Riley would play an integral part in the start of his son’s NBA career.

Jaquez Jr. credits his father with helping to form much of his perspective on life and basketball. But to this day, Jaquez Jr. can distill all the wisdom his dad passed down to him to a single command he and his teammates heard repeatedly during their strenuous practice sessions.

“Run,” he said with a smile.

The elder Jaquez made them run so that when they faced more talented teams, “we would run them out of the gym.” He viewed Riley as a “mastermind” and made sure to channel Riley’s maniacal focus to his son and their team. But his real goal was to see how each player responded when pushed beyond their limits.

Most faded as the drills and practices intensified, but Jaquez Jr. kept asking for more. And more. And more. It soon became clear to Jaquez Sr. that his efforts to push his son to his physical limits only fed an unquenchable thirst for improvement.

“He didn’t just love the game. He loved the work. He loved the process of getting better,” Jaquez Sr. told The Athletic.

So what was Jaquez Jr.’s breaking point? By the time he reached high school, it went beyond even what his dad thought. Each day, the younger Jaquez would arrive at school at 6 a.m. to put in extra work before the day started. He then practiced with the varsity team after school later in the day. After a while, he’d even sneak in some late-night workouts when he felt like there was more to accomplish.

That was when Jaquez Sr. had to step in. He approved the extra work, but had just one request: At least eat dinner before going back to the gym.

Jaquez Jr’s response? “You don’t want me to be great?” he’d say playfully.

He didn’t know it at the time, but Jaquez Jr. was already adopting one of the fundamental principles of Miami Heat Culture: greatness requires a mental edge acquired only through relentless work and accountability. It’s only fitting that Jaquez Jr. and the Heat not only found each other years later, but discovered they were a perfect match along the way.

The No. 18 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft has instantly become one of the team’s core contributors during his rookie season, no small feat considering the franchise’s win-now ethos. Miami has pushed Jaquez Jr. to the forefront much more than almost any other rookie during Riley’s time as team president. And though injuries and other inconsistencies have at times stalled Miami’s bid to repeat as Eastern Conference champions, Jaquez Jr. has been a consistent bright spot.  He’s allowed the Heat to remain competitive enough to keep their current championship aspirations alive while also giving them one more foundational piece to set them up for the future.

Jaquez Jr.’s offensive versatility has added a much-needed element to a Miami offense that has been, at times, overly dependent on its star players Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Jaquez Jr.‘s comfort with being a three-level scorer is a rarity for a young player in their first season, especially one taken outside of the lottery. And as the rest of the Heat have discovered, his mentality, developed from a young age, is almost unheard of for a player with so little NBA experience.

“I’ve said it over and over,” Adebayo said. “That dude isn’t a normal rookie.”

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“He didn’t just love the game. He loved the work. He loved the process of getting better,” Jaime Jaquez Sr. said of his son, right. (Photo: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

Jaquez Jr. is no stranger to proving he’s more mature than most first-year players. It only took him seven games to show the UCLA coaching staff.

The Bruins were sleepwalking through a game against Division II Chaminade, the longtime hosts of the famed Maui Invitational. After losing to BYU the night before, the Bruins went into halftime leading by just six points.

Jaquez, who scored a total of 10 points in 66 minutes across the team’s first six games, was fed up. Most freshmen in his position — perhaps every freshman in his position — would stay quiet and follow the lead of the older players on the team.

That wasn’t an option in Jaquez’s mind.

He stood up in the halftime locker room and lit into his teammates. He called on them to play with more pride and remember what it meant to represent UCLA.

The Bruins coaching staff overheard Jaquez’s fiery speech as they were walking back into the locker room. It was then they decided the team needed that spark on the court, not just in the locker room. They moved Jaquez into the starting lineup for the second half, and after he scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in an eventual 26-point victory, he never left.

“It was one of the moments when the light bulb goes off and you say, ‘This is the guy we need to put at the forefront for everything we’re doing,’” said UCLA assistant coach Darren Savine, who worked with Jaquez all four years he was at UCLA.

It was proof Jaquez was more than physically ready for a step up in competition. He was prepared to take on any responsibility so his team could win.

Basketball quickly became an obsession for Jaquez Jr. Though his parents both played at NAIA Concordia University, they always pushed Jaquez Jr. and his two siblings — Gabriela, a freshman on the UCLA’s women’s basketball team, and Marcos, who played football at Camarillo High School — to participate in as many sports as possible. But they quickly saw that Jaime was naturally drawn to the basketball court.

The sport fit his curious personality. Jaquez Sr. remembered teaching his son how to play chess at an early age. A few days later, he discovered him scouring YouTube for tips on how he could master the game.

“His mind is always seeking out more information when he finds something he enjoys,” Jaquez Sr. recalled.



‘Half the battle is wanting it more’: UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. understands what it takes to win

Jaquez Jr. started watching games on TV with his dad. He looked up highlight reels of his favorite players on YouTube. Naturally, he gravitated toward Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, who played a little over an hour away from his hometown.

Even as he began to exceed his father’s own expectations,  Jaquez Jr. would always hear his father’s voice in the back of his head, reminding him that reaching his goals would require him to continue pushing himself physically. His siblings, growing into accomplished athletes themselves, provided more fuel. But his dad was the engine.

“We were always pushing each other to be better, but I always had something inside of me that kept pushing me to do more,” Jaquez Jr. said. “My dad played a huge part in that.”

That unparalleled work ethic carried over to Jaquez Jr’s high school career. Playing for Camarillo High School, which was not known as a basketball powerhouse, he became one of the best players in the state.

He committed to UCLA, and the moment he lit into his teammates in Hawaii was the springboard to his quest to bring the program back to glory. As a senior, he won Pac-12 Player of the Year and led the Bruins to their first Pac-12 regular-season title since 2013.

Once he left, he ranked eighth in school history in both scoring (1,802) and steals (178). Since 2000, he is one of 21 players in NCAA Division I men’s basketball to register at least 600 points, 300 rebounds and 50 steals in a single season. Some of the other players on that list include Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Ben Simmons and Draymond Green.

But much of the work that led to him becoming such a complete player came not at Pauley Pavillion on winter nights, but at the nearby UCLA Student Activities Center in the Southern California heat during one of Rico Hines’ legendary runs.

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Jaime Jaquez Jr., seen here celebrating a 2022 win over USC, became UCLA’s leader very early in his career. (Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

Hines, a former UCLA player who serves as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers during the NBA season, invites pros and former collegiate greats to the gym to hone their craft in a competitive setting. Hines organizes pickup games on three courts, with the winning team advancing to play on the winner’s court in the middle while losers have to fight to keep their spot on the outer courts. Hines picks who plays together on all of the teams and he takes it upon himself to make sure the competitiveness of the runs increases with each game. Teams only need to score seven points to win, which makes every possession matter.

“Every game feels like you’re recreating the last three minutes (of a close game) in the fourth quarter,” Jaquez Jr. said. “Playing in those games, it really forces you to take every possession seriously.”

The first time Jaquez Jr. attended one of these runs was when he was still in high school, just before he made his commitment to UCLA official. Hines does not open the runs to the public, but is known to invite prominent local high schoolers to come watch. Jaquez Jr. walked into the gym and was instantly awestruck by how many big names were present. He saw Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons, Paul George, Trae Young, Corey Brewer and Pat Beverley, among others.

“It’s definitely intimidating when you walk in there,” Jaquez Jr. remembered. “It’s a hostile environment for basketball players.”

Jaquez Jr. finally got his chance to play regularly the following summer after his freshman season at UCLA. One of the rules at Hines’ runs is one spot is always reserved for a five-man squad of current UCLA players. That quickly turned into Jaquez’s crew, and he spent the next few summers crafting his game against some of the best the world has to offer.

Over time, Jaquez Jr. became even more aware of the importance of developing a complete game that would allow him to thrive in any environment. He’s battled George, Kevin Durant, James Harden and several others over the years. He improved as a ballhandler. He grew more comfortable operating out of the post. He worked to perfect his footwork in isolation situations. And he always insisted on guarding the best player on the other team. Those one-on-one battles over the summer taught him many tricks of the trade and helped him tighten up some of his defensive deficiencies.

“The biggest thing that I told myself early on is that these guys are playing the game at such a high level,” Jaquez Jr. said. “I thought I was good, but I knew I had to get way better.”

It was a pro setting, and Jaquez Jr. soaked it all up. Once it was time for him to go to the NBA, he was certain his game would translate to whatever system or team that drafted him.

But he and his family had a preference.

As the 2023 NBA Draft drew closer, Jaquez Jr. and his family had a general sense of when he was going to hear his name called. Due to his age (22), they figured it would be somewhere in the 15-20 range, below younger prospects with more theoretical upside.

There were two teams picking back-to-back in that range. One was his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, who held the No. 17 selection.

From the outside, they seemed like an obvious match. But the Lakers never expressed much interest, and in truth, Jaquez Jr. was looking forward to a fresh start away from the West Coast.

The team picking next was the real dream scenario for Jaquez Jr. and his family. The Heat had everything they were looking for: A new city with a diverse culture, a team that prioritized winning to the highest degree and the presence of both of their idols. While Jaquez Sr. hoped his son could be attached to Riley and protégé Erik Spoelstra, the younger Jaquez zeroed in on Jimmy Butler, who had eclipsed Bryant as his favorite NBA player.

“I loved watching Jimmy because he’s a complete player on both ends and he leaves everything on the floor,” Jaquez Jr. said. “He’s a winner, and that’s the type of player I want to be.”

Heading into draft night, members of CAA, Jaquez’s agency, had informed the family the Lakers wouldn’t be the landing spot. Los Angeles eventually took Jalen Hood-Schifino, a one-and-done point guard from Indiana.

But the Heat were tight-lipped about their plans.

“We had no clue what they were doing at 18,” Jaquez Sr. said. “We didn’t know Jaime was getting drafted until the ESPN cameras ran up to our table.”

It turned out the Heat had also zeroed in on Jaquez Jr., knowing his background would make it easy for him to mesh with the demands that come with Heat Culture. They saw how much Jaquez Jr. and his family valued going the extra mile in the practice gym and his fearless style of leadership. They viewed his four-year tenure at UCLA as a case study in understanding how role and fit are more essential than individual talent.

And as much as Jaquez Jr. needed to go to Miami to reach his potential, the Heat badly needed him too. After spending much of the summer in what was ultimately a failed open pursuit to acquire Damian Lillard via trade, the Heat needed Jaquez Jr. to provide some of the extra scoring punch that Lillard would have brought.

But they were going to make him prove it, too. As soon as training camp began, the team’s veterans were determined to do exactly what Jaquez’s father once did to great effect: Push Jaquez to his limits and see what he was made of. Jaquez Jr. admitted the intensity and physicality in some of the training camp sessions were beyond what he imagined. Through it all, he remained unfazed.

“We got after it in camp almost immediately. The younger guys get thrown in that fire early on,” Heat guard Caleb Martin told The Athletic. “With Jaime, you could tell he moved with zero fear. He was very confident in who he was and what he could do.”

Jaquez kept his head down, focusing solely on doing all the little things that so often go unnoticed by rookies. The more he handled those responsibilities, the more the Heat began considering if they could put more on his plate. His diverse skill set on offense jumped out immediately to Spoelstra.The head coach soon started envisioning ways to use Jaquez Jr. to take some of the shot-creation pressure off Butler and Adebayo.

“He’s just so advanced with his footwork and the way he sees the floor,” Spoelstra said. “He can operate in the mid-post or out on the perimeter in screening action. It adds a lot to our offense.”

That was how Jaquez Jr. found himself thrown into the fire in a close fourth quarter in his regular-season pro debut against the Detroit Pistons. Leading into the final period, Spoelstra drew up a play for Jaquez Jr. to catch the ball in the post and find guard Duncan Robinson for an open 3-pointer. Robinson drilled the shot and put Miami up double digits in a game it eventually won by just one point.

“I heard (Spoelstra) call the play in the huddle,” Jaquez remembered. “And I was like, ‘Oh, s—, that play’s for me.’”

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Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Heat superstar Jimmy Butler have developed a mentor-mentee relationship this season. (Photo: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

Since then, Jaquez Jr. has been a model of consistency on a team that has dealt with so many injury absences to key players. Through his first 64 games as a pro, Jaquez is averaging 12.3 points and four rebounds per game while playing 29.3 minutes off the bench. He has a chance to become the first Heat rookie to play 2,000 minutes in a season since Justise Winslow in 2015-16.

Butler and Jaquez Jr. have quickly developed a mentor-mentee relationship and shown promising on-court chemistry. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Heat are outscoring opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions when Butler and Jaquez Jr. share the floor this season.

“It’s cool to see because he’s super young. I picked that type of stuff up when I was 28, 29,” Butler said of Jaquez’s diverse game. “He has so much room to get better. He’s so confident. He wants to make the right play every time. It’s not like he’s (playing like) a rookie. He knows what it takes to win.”

Yet it’s been Jaquez’s play without his idol that has been the most impressive aspect of his season. The Heat have been shockingly successful when they’ve asked Jaquez Jr. to perform his own Butler impression on offense, whether out of necessity or just to throw a changeup. In the 21 games Butler has missed this season due to injury or suspension, the Heat are 13-8, with Jaquez Jr. averaging 15.1 points in those games. Several of his best performances this season have come with Butler cheering him on from the bench.

Or, in one notable case, from an undisclosed location outside the arena.

On Feb. 26, the Heat limped into Golden 1 Center in Sacramento to face the high-octane Kings. Butler, along with teammates Nikola Jović and Thomas Bryant, was suspended for that game following an on-court altercation with the New Orleans Pelicans a few nights before. Along with those three, the Heat were also missing injured rotation players Tyler Herro (knee), Terry Rozier (knee) and Josh Richardson (shoulder).

Most teams would’ve packed it in and looked ahead to their game the following night in Portland, with Butler and Rozier set to make their respective returns. But that’s not how the Heat operate. And this time, it was their least experienced player driving them forward.

Led by Jaquez’s 26 points, including 20 in the second half, the Heat scratched and clawed to a 121-110 win after nearly blowing a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter. When the game looked as if it was slipping through Miami’s fingers, Jaquez Jr. came up with two massive shots that stemmed the tide late in the fourth.

Somewhere, Butler must have been smiling, knowing the present and future of Heat Culture was in good hands.

“It definitely felt like a win he’d take pride in,” Jaquez Jr. told The Athletic.

(Illustration by Sean Reilly / The Athletic. Photos: Brian Sevald / NBAE via Getty Images; Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

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