This year, of course, has been all about Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren. These are two players that have broadened the imagination for what success as rookies in the NBA can look like, and for what basketball players in general can look like. As far as I’m concerned, they had reasonable cases as All-Stars, and you can still make that case for the All-Defensive teams. For the aesthete, they’re even more profound because they’re players of an ilk we’ve never seen before, making plays we’ve never seen before on a daily basis. At first, it was natural to wonder how players this skinny would translate to the NBA. Now, and basically since their first games in the league, I feel like I’m watching the future every time I watch these guys play.

Even in a year like this, I can’t help but to have fallen for another rookie – a 23-year-old with such nondescript physical and athletic attributes that he stayed in college for four years before finally generating enough draft interest to go in the middle of the first round to the Miami Heat. Jaime Jaquez Jr.’s greatest trait is that he plays with the polish of someone ten years his senior. His footwork and range of moves – and especially his self-assuredness in executing them, which belies his years – has been as delightful, to these eyes, as the absurdities taking place in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Like Chet and Wemby, Jaquez has been a plus player for his team from day one, and the league’s most consistent rookie under 7’1 this season.

Right now, Jaquez is starting for the Heat in the absence of Jimmy Butler, who went down with an MCL sprain in the first game of the play-in tournament. His 35 minutes in the win-or-go-home game against the Chicago Bulls were a team-high, and his 21 points crucial to winning instead of going home. Likewise, he was one of few bright spots in Miami’s Game 1 loss against the Boston Celtics. It doesn’t feel like anything new or surprising; Jaquez has been doing this all season long. Butler missed 22 games in the regular season and Jaquez was a featured player for almost all of them, starting in 19. His best game of the season – a 31-point, 10-rebound masterpiece against the Philadelphia 76ers – came on the Christmas Day stage with Butler on the sidelines. He’s been a rotation fixture for Erik Spoelstra since the season opener and he’s given us no reason to think this wouldn’t carry over to the playoffs. In fact, since this is the Playoff Heat we’re talking about, Jaquez is probably going to become a 40 percent three-point shooter for the next few weeks or something.

Certainly, it’s easier to contribute as a rookie when you have four years of collegiate experience instead of one or two. Jaquez didn’t profile as your classic NBA prospect, without the traditional qualities of quickness, verticality or three-point shooting that suggest professional upside at the wing positions. He could bully smaller defenders and blow by the bigs in college, but how about in the NBA where the smalls are bigger and the bigs are faster? Was it clear which position he would defend, and could he play a complementary role off the ball? It took time for teams to buy into his skillset, and by that time, he was three years senior to the player that went first overall in his draft class – another ding against his stock.

That extra time in school allowed for Jaquez to marinate and master his particular craft as a player. He’s strong as an ox, first of all, and a true technician who uses the full spectrum of fakes, pivots, turnarounds and stepthroughs to create windows of opportunity that others may force open with pure blow-by speed or the threat of a pull-up jumper. Young players can thrive in all sorts of ways, but it’s rare to see those that find their early success in the bump-and-grind tedium of the low post. Most rookies are rushed through their motions on the block, or overcommit to one particular move. Whether or not they possess the strength to jostle with time-tested professionals is another thing altogether.

Four-year college veteran or not, Jaquez is already one of the NBA’s cleanest footwork scorers who consistently gets to where he wants. He weaponizes his slowness into a syncopated tempo all his own, and he cannot be rattled off his rhythm; even the pros haven’t been able to track his changes of direction. His shoulders are bruising blunt instruments in his endeavors to the rim, and he has a refined turnaround jumper that he favors against defenders that overplay the contact. He likes to set up in the mid-post or duck into the paint with off-ball cuts and deep seals, which makes him a natural fit for the Heat’s preferred system or even as a sort of Jimmy Butler Lite. That his three-point percentage came in at a workable 32.2 percent in his first year almost feels like playing with house money.

This makes me wonder if craft has perhaps become an underrated quality in the draft, compared to more traditional traits such as wingspan, athleticism or shooting. The draft is a chaotic science and I certainly don’t regard myself as an expert, but the success of players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (drafted 11th in 2019) and Jalen Brunson (33rd in 2018) – players that I didn’t really buy into at first, to be honest with you – has made me recalibrate my priors towards more subtle aspects of skill. To extend this idea, two guys that I like in the draft this year are Nikola Topic and Tyler Kolek.

It feels like little surprise that, of all teams, it was the Heat scouting department – which has unearthed multiple gems in former Division II and III players, and the undrafted market in general – to find hidden value in Jaquez; he seems a perfect fit for the perpetual underdog grindset of Heat culture. His on-court impact has been immediate, and by drafting an older and more seasoned college player, the Heat have locked themselves into a cost-controlled rotation player for the next four years before his next contract kicks in, which is a win in itself for a team on a win-now timeline.

Perhaps the idea is that, for Jaquez’s NBA readiness, the trade-off lies in a relative lack of long-term star potential – he is, after all, already 23 years old. Here, though, I’ll draw comparison to similar things that were said about Desmond Bane and Keegan Murray, who also entered the league as ‘older,’ skill-first rookies and are perfectly desirable core players today. Even Butler himself was a college senior taken with the final pick of the first round in 2011. My sense instead is that we’re finally dismantling some of these old notions around the perceived upside of upperclassmen, and that might be even more relevant with this year’s upcoming draft class, which is especially low on standout one-and-dones.

Really, I’m just happy for Jaquez, a non-traditional prospect who has finally found his way to the NBA after four years in college and translated his success to the next level right away. Idiosyncracy weighs like an anchor in the draft, where archetypes reign supreme. Even players like Wembanyama and Holmgren, who are like nothing else we’ve seen before, were graded on their capacity to subvert the traditional big man. Against this backdrop, Jaquez is a gentle reminder for us to meet each player on their own terms. There might be money to be found where no else is looking.