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Mick Cronin has to work to get UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. rest

There are times when Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s coach tells him to get off the practice court, not because of any mistake or change in UCLA’s player rotation.

It’s the college basketball equivalent of load management.

Jaquez is a freshman logging more minutes than any other Bruin since the start of Pac-12 Conference play, leading coach Mick Cronin to closely monitor his workload.

“You’ve got a young kid playing all those minutes, it’s hard,” Cronin said Tuesday. “We need him, so I’ve got to keep him fresh at different times.”

Cronin was only half-joking Sunday when he said that Jaquez could use a week off after completing a two-game stretch that earned him a selection as Pac-12 freshman of the week. The small forward has averaged 30.3 minutes per game in conference play after taking on a much larger role starting with the Maui Invitational in late November.

Jaquez has become indispensable for his savvy, relentless play that includes fearlessness attacking the basket. He’s averaging 11 points and 4.3 rebounds to go with a team-high 1.6 steals in Pac-12 games. Many of Jaquez’s mistakes, Cronin said, come as a result of fatigue.

“You’re not alert on defense,” Cronin said, giving one example, “because you’re trying to catch your breath.”

Cronin said his holding Jaquez out of some practice situations is his version of a coach keeping a player out of games in the NBA, where the 82-game schedule is more than twice the length of a college season.

Jaquez said he tries to stay fresh by drinking lots of water and squeezing in extra sleep whenever he can.

“I wasn’t really a nap guy when I was in high school and growing up,” Jaquez said, “but now I feel like it’s something that I need to do so I get my body in the best shape possible.”

Cronin recently felt like holding Jaquez out on principle after learning that Jaquez was unfamiliar with a certain Dodgers legend. Jaquez was spinning shots off the backboard with one hand when his coach told him to “lose the Fernando Valenzuela screwball and shoot the ball with two hands.”

Jaquez’s blank expression let his coach know that he was not aware of the Cy Young Award winner, who sparked Fernandomania while leading the Dodgers to the 1981 World Series championship, despite their many similarities.

“He’s Mexican American and he’s from L.A. and he’s a pitcher,” Cronin said of Jaquez, who played baseball at Camarillo High and considered trying out for UCLA’s baseball team. “I mean, how do you not know who Fernando Valenzuela is? It’s like me not knowing who Pete Rose is.”

In his defense, Jaquez noted that he was born in 2001, though he conceded that he was a big Dodgers fan and needed to brush up on his history. Jaquez has done a better job when it comes to learning the best way to push through fatigue so that he can be ready come tipoff.

“It’s the only thing I care about,” Jaquez said. “If something’s hurting, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Chris Smith ends every workout the same way. He’s not finished until he makes 25 free throws in a row.

It’s a routine the junior guard started last summer and has helped him dramatically improve his free-throw accuracy, from 58.5% as a freshman to 71.9% as a sophomore to 85.4% this season. His current percentage ranks third in the Pac-12.

“He’s got a soft touch, a very soft touch,” Cronin said. “He’s got his routine, he’s got an easily repetitive routine if you watch his form.”

That form could be challenged Thursday by Arizona State’s Curtain of Distraction, that display of wackiness in which students draw back a curtain positioned behind the opponent’s basket whenever they shoot free throws in the second half to reveal visual disruptions that have included cows, zombies and ballerina dancers.

Smith doesn’t expect to be deterred.

“I don’t see anything,” he said, “but the rim.”

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