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Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. hopes to inspire new generation of Mexican NBA players, fans

Jaquez, one of several Mexican American players in NBA history, is a standout in his rookie year

Jaime Jaquez Jr. answered a few questions in Spanish following the Miami Heat’s New Year’s Day game against host the LA Clippers.

It’s not often that an NBA player takes questions in Spanish. The Heat’s rookie guard is on a short list of NBA players of Mexican heritage to play in the league. But now with a global platform, this budding star hopes he can have an impact on aspiring basketball players from Mexico and Mexican Americans dreaming about playing in the NBA and WNBA who want to grow in the game.

“I’ve been noticing it a lot, even in college as well, the impact that I’m having on a community,” Jaquez, 22, told Andscape last week. “I guess more now because the NBA is a much bigger league. But even in college, people were coming up to me and thanking for representing something much bigger than myself …

“I didn’t come into this league thinking I want to be the best Mexican basketball player to play. That wasn’t necessarily my goal. But if that comes along, that’s great to be able to make an impact.”

Three-time NBA All-Star and two-time champion forward Mark Aguirre’s father and grandfather were from Mexico and he once considered playing for the Mexican national team, according to the Chicago Tribune. Jorge Gutierrez, a Mexican American, played in 47 NBA games. Former NBA guard and head coach Earl Watson’s mother is Mexican American. The mother of Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, a three-time NBA All-Star, is Mexican American. NBA champion Juan Toscano-Anderson, who is Mexican American and African American, was signed by the Sacramento Kings after beginning this season with the G League Mexico City Capitanes.

But since its inception in 1946, the NBA has only had three native Mexican players. The most notable was Eduardo Najera, who averaged 4.9 points and 3.7 rebounds in 619 games for Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors and New Jersey Nets. Horacio Llamas played in 28 games and Gustavo Ayon played in 135 games.

“Najera was before my time, but I’m fully aware of who he was and what he was able to do,” Jaquez said.

From left to right: Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Heat president Pat Riley pose for a portrait on June 23, 2023, at Kaseya Center in Miami.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaquez was a second-team All-American as a senior at UCLA last season after averaging 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds. He dropped a few draft slots, perhaps because he was an older prospect. The Heat selected Jaquez with the 18th overall selection in the 2023 NBA draft.

In a preseason NBA general manager survey, 10% voted that Jaquez would be the “biggest steal” of the draft. Most of Miami’s residents are Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, which added more curiosity from locals about the newcomer.

“I was at an [autograph] signing at a Miami Heat store and you got people bringing Mexican flags to sign. There is pride at the games with people saying, ‘Viva Mexico’ to me,” Jaquez said.

Jaquez was averaging 13.7 points, fourth-best among NBA rookies, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists for the Heat entering Wednesday’s game against forward LeBron James and the host Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET). The 6-foot-6, 230-pounder scored a career-high 31 points during Miami’s 119-113 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Christmas Day. Jaquez has also started the last nine games for the Heat.

It’s likely he will be a part of the NBA All-Star Rising Stars Challenge, the game that includes young NBA and G League Ignite standouts during NBA All-Star Weekend.

“I trusted in my work,” Jaquez said. “As long as I had an opportunity, I knew I would be able to perform. So, I got my opportunity and took advantage. I wouldn’t say I was shocked or surprised. I just trust in what I was able to do.”

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, “It is impressive watching Jaime play. He is strong, physical and very skilled. Obviously, he comes with experience. He has made a huge impact.”

Toscano-Anderson said Jaquez could be the first player of Mexican heritage to become an NBA star.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Toscano-Anderson said of Jaquez to Andscape. “Mature player. He was NBA-ready, and Miami was the perfect place for him to go, based on their culture. I think him playing so well and being in the [rookie of the year] chase, it enhances the magnitude/impact. He has more face time, more coverage, more support. So, it’s different. The previous Mexican players have all been role players. He has the chance to be more than that.”

Heat forward Kevin Love told Andscape: “His personality is not like a rookie. He makes rookie mistakes out there on the floor. But as far as his personality, he is one of us and blends in with us well. And with his game, he has been very impactful.”

Chicago Bulls forward Torrey Craig (left) and Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (right) compete for a rebound during the third quarter of the game at Kaseya Center on Dec. 14, 2023, in Miami.

Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Jaquez comes from a basketball family starting with his grandfather, Ezequiel, who played at Ventura Community College and Northern Arizona. Jaime Jaquez Sr. played at Concordia University in Irvine, California, where he met his wife Angela, who also played college basketball there. Jaquez’s sister Gabriela is a standout basketball player in her own right, averaging 12.7 points per game as a sophomore for UCLA.

Los Angeles Sparks guard Evina Westbrook became the first Mexican American drafted in WNBA history in 2022 when she was selected 21st overall by the Seattle Storm (Westbrook is also African American). Gabriela Jaquez also has WNBA potential. Jaquez says that his sister regularly gets approached by Mexican basketball fans as well.

“She is growing as her own basketball player, her own star. She is having her shine with me out of the picture in Los Angeles and at UCLA. She’s enjoying her time and doing well,” Jaquez said.

Jaquez answered questions in Spanish after the loss to the Clippers and said that he wants to become more fluent. He says he has been using the Spanish learning application Duolingo to improve and is learning naturally living in Miami. Jaquez also plans to spend time in Mexico next offseason and has been to Mexico City, Guadalajara, Cancun, Baja, California, and Monterrey. He added that he has had conversations about potentially playing for the Mexican men’s national basketball team.

“My Spanish is getting better living in Miami. I’m using Spanish a lot more,” Jaquez said. “I think that is important. You got to understand the way I was brought up. My mother [who is white], tried to speak Spanish. But it was more so my father who spoke Spanish. Growing up, it wasn’t spoken in the household.

“I took [Spanish] in college and in high school. I’ve been to Mexico. My grandparents speak Spanish. I am going to spend some time in Mexico this summer and try to integrate and learn the language the best I can. I plan on going all over to Mexico City and Guadalajara.”

Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (center) poses with Miami Heat mascot Burnie and Miami Marlins mascot Billy the Marlin before the game between the Miami Marlins and the Colorado Rockies at LoanDepot Park on July 21, 2023, in Miami.

Jasen Vinlove/Miami Marlins/Getty Images

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he has considered Mexico City as a possibility for expansion. The G League Capitanes are in the midst of their second season in Mexico City and playing in an NBA-ready arena with 22,300 seats. The NBA has been playing games in Mexico since 1992, including the Atlanta Hawks’ 120-119 win over the Orlando Magic on Nov. 9, 2023, in Mexico City in front of 19,986 fans.

Becoming an NBA star could also become lucrative for Jaquez in Mexico, Latin America and other Spanish-speaking markets. As of 2023, Mexico had the world’s 10th largest population at 128 million people. There are also 21 countries and territories where Spanish is the official language.

As the NBA continues to grow in popularity, a Spanish-speaking star player could take advantage of those markets.

“That is something that my father and I have seen from a very long time ago, even when I was in high school,” Jaquez said. “Just understanding that basketball isn’t really that big in Latin America and South America, there is an opportunity for them to embrace the sport with the right person and the right people. Myself, I know I am making a big impact trying to spread the game.

“It’s all about the love of the game of basketball. The more [people] from Mexico, South America appreciate and see the game, the more they will be able to fall in love with it the way everyone in America and Europe has as well. It’s the best game in the world.”

The NBA entered the 2023-24 season with a record 125 international players from 40 countries and territories. None, however, were natives of Mexico. The last native of Mexico to play in an NBA game was Ayon during the 2013-14 season.

Perhaps in time, with stellar play, Jaquez can inspire a new generation of Mexican NBA players and followers.

“The league is becoming more and more diverse,” Jaquez said. “Europeans are coming over. People are coming from all over, from the Bahamas to Mexico, all the way to Finland. It has become such an international sport. As the NBA grows and grows, you’re going to see more Latino players come in and make an impact.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.