JaQuori McLaughlin is UCSB’s calm eye in the storm that’s rocking college basketball.
The senior known as “JRoc” navigates the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic with the same smooth, purposeful ease that he handles a basketball.
“We’re all we’ve got right now, living in this bubble,” he said. “This is big for us, respecting each other and not doing stupid things off the court that will get us sick. We don’t hang out with anyone unless it’s with our team.
“It hasn’t been hard for me. I don’t party, anyway.”
McLaughlin does have the Gauchos (7-3, 4-2 Big West Conference) angling for a twirl in the Big Dance, otherwise known as the NCAA Basketball Tournament. UCSB, which travels to Cal State Northridge this week for a Friday-Saturday doubleheader, hasn’t punched its ticket to March Madness in a decade.
“We’ve had a few bumps, but we still have the same goal of winning the Big West championship and going to the NCAAs,” he said. “Nothing has changed our mindset.”
It’s why he feels positive that the Gauchos, who have yet to quarantine this season, will keep testing negative for the coronavirus.
McLaughlin, a 6-foot-4 point guard, leads them in both scoring at 15.7 points per game and in playmaking at 6.0 assists. He ranks 21st in the nation in assist average and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.62.
He’s mastered the art of knowing when to shoot and when to pass.
“It just comes from all the work I’ve put in, knowing who I am as a player,” McLaughlin said. “I’m conscious of that.
“And it’s also about my teammates and coaches trusting what I’m going to do with the ball.”
Coach Joe Pasternack only holds his breath when he gives the sure-handed veteran a breather. McLaughlin averaged 34.2 minutes per game last year. He played all but two minutes of UCSB’s Dec. 28 game at UC Irvine.
“He’s my security blanket out there,” Pasternack said.
No sweat, McLaughlin said.
“I worked on my conditioning over the summer,” he pointed out. “I feel I can do whatever coach wants me to do.”
He is the rhythmic heartbeat to UCSB’s offense. Devearl Ramsey, his explosive running mate in the backcourt, accelerates its pulse. Ramsey, who averages 3.6 assists, is ninth in the nation with his own assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.44. The Gauchos rank fourth as a team.
McLaughlin likes to wade deep into an opponent’s defense, zig-zagging like a Navy destroyer, before triggering a wide arsenal of passes. They include no-look lobs, back-handed flips, and two-handed bouncers.
“I’m trying to be aggressive because it opens things up when the defense collapses,” he said. “We have so many weapons — I can really hit anyone to get a bucket.
“I’ve been playing at my own pace ever since I was young. I’ve watched a lot of Jason Kidd, and Steve Nash, and Chris Paul, and have tried to imitate their games.
“And it also comes from my dad, who instilled into me the right way to play this game. He was a point guard, too.”
James Silberman, who covers Seattle basketball with a website known as “Emerald City Swagger,” noted how JaQuori and his three brothers all “live, eat and breathe the game.”
“(Their) father, Jason McLaughlin, has used basketball as a way of creating community and keeping kids off the streets in Tacoma and the surrounding areas,” he pointed out.
Jason is now an assistant coach at Tacoma Community College where JaQuori’s younger brother, Elijah, plays point guard.
Another website which studies basketball analytics ranks JaQuori McLaughlin’s performance this year as the best of any Gaucho since it began collecting data in 2008.
Barttorvik.com computed his scoring and playmaking along with his shooting percentages (48% overall, 38.5% from three-point distance, and 88% from the free-throw line) as well as rebound average (3.4 per game).
Orlando Johnson ranks second with his performance in 2011 — the last year that UCSB went to the NCAA Tournament — as well as third with his 2012 season. Alan Williams was fourth (2014) while Max Heidegger, McLaughlin’s teammate the previous two years, was fifth with his 2020 season.
“I definitely took a lot away from playing with and against Max every day, guarding him in practice, with the different things he could do,” he said. “He was really good coming off screens without the ball, and things like that.”
Heidegger now plays for Maccabi Tel Aviv, an Israeli Premier League power which also plays in the elite EuroLeague.
McLaughlin has become the lead Gaucho ever since his departure. He even arranged with the other seniors to have the team sign a social contract to take no risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was pretty worried that we weren’t going to have a season,” he said. “But this team is super-close, and everyone has bought in. Everyone is locked in.”