Jaime Jaquez Jr. eyes hoop dreams at UCLA, Mexico, PanAms

California-born Jaime Jaquez will play for Mexico in the Pan American Games before suiting up as a freshman for the UCLA Bruins. Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- There's no question that incoming UCLA freshman and Mexico National Team forward Jaime Jaquez, Jr. was born into basketball.

His father, Jaime Sr., played for a Concordia College team that was up against Grand Canyon University, where Horacio Llamas, the first Mexican-born player to suit up in the NBA, starred in the early 1990s. His mother, Angela, was a power forward at Pima Community College in Arizona, and she eventually transferred to Concordia where she met Jaime Sr in the most appropriate of ways -- on the court.

"My wife and I got to know each other through playing basketball," Jaime Sr. recalled. "I got sent to practice, and on the court was the women's team. And there she was."

Even his paternal grandfather, Zeke Jaquez, had a hand in the game, playing for Ventura College and Northern Arizona University.

"Basketball's in my blood, for sure," said the 18-year-old born in Camarillo, California. The teenager is expected to grab significant playing time on a young Mexico squad competing in the Pan American Games in Lima. Last September, Jaquez was called up to the FIBA World Qualifying Games as a means to gauge his talent (Mexico failed to qualify for the Worlds). On a team stacked with veterans, Jaquez did not log any minutes in games against Argentina and Uruguay. Next year, pending a qualifying tournament, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo loom. Beyond that, the talented 6-foot-7 wing harbors bigger dreams.

"Obviously playing in the NBA is a huge dream of mine, but I'm just excited to play basketball at UCLA next season," Jaquez Jr. said. "I want to be the best that I can be and show that I can keep getting better as a player."

Only four Mexicans have played in the NBA, with Jorge Gutiérrez suiting up with the Charlotte Hornets in 2016. Llamas, Gustavo Ayón and Eduardo Nájera are the others. Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker is of Mexican ancestry through his mother, but does not represent the country internationally.

Within Mexico's basketball federation, convincing Jaquez to join the team was considered a coup as the player's star rose through high school.

During his senior season at Camarillo High, Jaquez broke the school's single-game scoring record with a 54-point performance against Royal High. It was his second game with 50 or more points in two weeks. After receiving more than a dozen offers from Division I schools and landing a spot among ESPN's Top 100 for the class of 2019, Jaquez committed to UCLA.

By then, after three years of invites to the USA's Junior National Team camps, he swapped allegiances in favor of Mexico's senior squad.

"I just went a different route," Jaquez Jr. said. "I tried to connect with my heritage and open up a new pathway for Mexican basketball players."

The decision made waves within the Jaquez family, who still have roots in Mexico, including relatives living in Guadalajara. "When we were last there, all my aunts and uncles would talk about was 'Jaimito,' they're all really excited. It's an honor for me and my family for him to represent Mexico," Jaime Sr. said.

Jaquez joins a team in the midst of generational flux. After a self-styled "Golden Age" that saw Mexico qualify for the FIBA World Cup in 2014 following an absence of four decades, older players like former NBA vets Gustavo Ayón and Gutiérrez were phased out for the Pan American Games by coach Iván Déniz, hired in 2018 after stints in Venezuela, Mexico and his native Spain.

"The tournament doesn't offer any possibilities for [Olympic] qualification and I think the best choice was to give new players an opportunity to represent the country," Déniz said recently at a news conference in Mexico City. "It wouldn't be good for them or fair to expect to win a medal."

While a younger, less-proven roster might prompt Mexico's coach to concede chances for a medal are slim, Jaquez was bullish on what fans should expect from the 12 Guerreros (12 Warriors) at the tournament, where they'll square off in Pool B play against Argentina, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic.

"Our goal is to win," he said. "We want that gold medal; we're trying to make a statement."

When the veterans rejoin the team in preparation for the qualification tournament to the Olympic Games, other Mexican Americans who make up the talent pool will surround Jaquez.

During a 2018 FIBA World Cup qualifying match against the USA -- which Mexico won -- nearly half of their roster consisted of American-born players. Through only a handful of camps and practice sessions, Jaquez has already made an impression on the team's veteran core. The hope remains he'll help them atone for missing out on the Worlds this year, subsequently complicating their road to the 2020 Olympics. The 12 Guerreros will need to stamp their ticket to Tokyo via a qualifying tournament in July of next year.

"He's definitely a talented kid, there's no doubt," said Lorenzo Mata, a player habitually called up to the Mexican team and a former UCLA center who made two Final Four runs with the Bruins in 2006 and 2007. "He's got all the tools to succeed, and he can be the start of something great with Mexico, for sure."

Jaquez credits Mata for being an early influence in watching Mexican American players find success. "Los Angeles has a high population of Mexicans and Latinos. Hopefully we get those fans to come out to Pauley Pavillion like Lorenzo did. Following in his footsteps is a big deal."

Given Jaquez's talent and basketball pedigree, it is almost unbelievable to find out his parents were actually wary of pushing their son into the game, prompting him to try other sports during early childhood. Jaquez still enjoys playing soccer and baseball. However, during second grade, basketball came into center stage.

"Ever since he stepped on a court, he was a natural," Jaime Sr. said. "He could dribble, rebound and shoot. He almost sleeps with that ball in his hands."

According to a study conducted two years ago, basketball is Mexico's fourth-most popular sport, behind soccer, baseball and boxing. The NBA has held at least one regular-season game per year in the country since 2014, with two scheduled in December, featuring the Dallas Mavericks facing off against the Detroit Pistons and the Phoenix Suns taking on the San Antonio Spurs. There's even been talk of potential NBA expansion into the country.

Having a player like Jaquez make the league and become the poster boy for the national team's next generation could prompt more youngsters to continue in his stead. Those include 16-year-old Gael Bonilla, who signed with Spain's FC Barcelona last year, or fellow Mexican American Isa Silva, the Jesuit High (Arden-Arcade, California) point guard who was recently offered scholarships by Pac-12 schools Arizona and Colorado.

"When I go down to Mexico I see basketball courts and people playing," Jaime Jr. said. "There's definitely a lot of people down there who have the talent. Hopefully they see me as an inspiration. As someone who actually made it."