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Luka Garza was a superstar for Iowa, even if he wasn’t player of the year

How Luka Garza went from steady to superstar for Iowa basketball.

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The defining image of Luka Garza is one of the Iowa big man beaten, battered, and bruised. It’s Garza laying on the floor with blood gushing out of his mouth after getting hit in the face vs. Texas Tech. It’s Garza’s teammates looking for his tooth on the floor as he wallows in pain after fellow Hawkeye Joe Wieskamp caught him with an inadvertent elbow against Iowa State.

Both times, Garza returned to the game, and both times, Garza led Iowa to a victory.

The junior center is a throwback in every way. He’s a low-post behemoth in the era of small ball. He is quite possibly the most physical player in the country, often swarmed by two, three, even four defenders as he battled to establish deep position in the paint and finish through contact. He plays with a toughness often believed to be lost in a bygone era.

Few stories in college basketball were better than Garza’s development this season. Iowa knew it had a steady and dependable big man after his first two years of school. It did not know it would have a superstar in year three. That is exactly what he became.

Garza was named a first-team AP All-American, an honor a Hawkeye hadn’t achieved since 1952. His averages of 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game were not matched by any other high-major players in the country. He finished as the most outstanding player in college basketball in KenPom’s statistical model, and came in second behind Dayton’s Obi Toppin for AP Player of the Year. He was fifth in America in points per game, second in PER, and fourth in offensive box score plus-minus. He finished in the 96th percentile of points per possession.

Becoming perhaps the most productive star in college basketball is a spectacular achievement for anyone. It feels even more monumental for Garza, a player whose lack of foot speed is so apparent his own father told the Baltimore Sun this season “anytime he’s on the court, he’s the worst athlete out there.”

How does a player go from solid to special between his sophomore and junior seasons? For Garza, it was the manifestation of a brutal summer of conditioning to get in the best shape of his life meeting the on-court opportunity to own the paint all by himself. This is how Garza willed his incredible rise into existence.

Garza was a monster in the paint

For his first two years in school, Garza shared the paint with Tyler Cook. Cook led Iowa in scoring and rebounding both seasons, mostly operating near the basket. Cook was great at a lot of things, but shooting was not one of them. He hit only three three-pointers in three years of school.

With Cook turning pro after last season, Garza finally had the paint to himself this year. Iowa paired him in the front court with either a traditional wing (Connor McCaffery or Wieskamp) or senior Ryan Kriener, a 6’10 forward with some shooting ability. That gave Garza an ocean of space to work in when the ball was dumped into the post.

Nothing accentuates the strengths of an elite big man quite like proper spacing. Garza used it to his advantage all season, finishing in the 91st percentile of post scoring — opportunities that took up 42 percent of his possessions, per Synergy Sports.

Here’s a clip of Garza cooking Jon Teske — one of the Big Ten’s premier defensive centers — on a spaced floor.

Garza doesn’t owe all of his success to spacing, though. Iowa was not exactly a fantastic three-point shooting team, taking only 30.4 percent of their field attempts from three (No. 172 in DI) and making 34.7 percent (No. 101 in DI) of them. There are plenty of clips of Garza needing to power through multiple bodies to score. Here are two of them.

An underrated part of Garza’s post-game was his passing ability. He rarely turned the ball over even as defenses collapsed on him — his 10.4 percent turnover rate was the lowest of his career and ranked No. 78 in America. He also threw some absolute dimes, like this bounce pass to the cutter against Minnesota.

Garza’s dominance inside would have made him one of the country’s best centers by itself. What made him one of the country’s best players is he added another element to his game that had been bubbling under the surface for years but finally came into its own.

Garza’s three-point shot was lethal this season, too

Garza’s early scouting reports dating back to his high school days in D.C. always noted he had potential as a face-up shooter. That potential just took some time to translate into production. In his sophomore season, Garza hit only 29 percent of the 72 three-pointers he attempted. The proof of his shooting touch could be found in his free-throw percentage, where he hit 80.4 percent from the line.

This year, Garza’s three-point shot was a weapon from the very start of the season. He canned multiple three-pointers in three of his first four games. As his confidence grew, so too did his volume. In a February win over Illinois, Garza hit 4-of-9 shots from three-point range. Iowa eventually even started started running him off screens to get him open looks from three.

Garza ended the year making 39-of-109 attempts from deep — good for 35.8 percent. That made him the second-best long-range shooter on the team by percentage, behind freshman CJ Fredrick. Only Weiskamp attempted more threes on the team this season.

The list of players to hit at least 39 threes and grab at least 9.5 rebounds per game this season: Garza and three low-major players. He simply shoots an easy ball and rarely hesitated to fire this season.

This three-point shot is going to help Garza have a long pro career, whether he leaves Iowa this offseason or returns for his senior year.

What’s next for Garza?

Garza has one more year of eligibility left. Iowa will have the chance to bring back almost the entirety of its rotation next season, with Kriener exiting as the only senior. Garza’s decision to turn pro will be one of the most impactful in the country.

The Hawkeyes were projected to be a No. 5 seed this year before the coronavirus pandemic canceled March Madness. Should both he and Wieskamp return, there’s a chance the Hawkeyes are the class of the Big Ten. But does Garza really have anything left to prove at the college level after a historically good season?

ESPN has Garza ranked as the No. 84 prospect in the 2020 NBA Draft. Considering there are only 60 picks, that is not quite good enough. Garza’s lack of lateral quickness will be under an even harsher light in the pros, particularly when defending pick-and-rolls that make up the majority of NBA possessions.

But here’s the thing: Garza doesn’t need to get drafted or even make the NBA to have a great pro career. Garza has roots in Bosnia, with his mother once playing for the women’s national team. He would be a terrific prospect for European basketball, where he can make tons of money and not be exposed athletically as frequently.

Professional basketball is always going to be there for Garza, be it this summer or a year from now. What he did as a junior at Iowa can’t be taken away from him. It feels like Garza has achieved 99 percent of his personal potential — a testament to his storied work ethic both in terms of fitness and skill level. When fans and announcers called Garza one of a kind this season, it wasn’t a cliche — it was real.