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55ish Days Until Iowa Basketball: Luka Garza

The elite of elite Hawkeye big men figures to have a strong 2020-21 campaign

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

There’s 49 days left until the college basketball season starts but we’ve yet to gain clarity for when the Hawkeyes’ season begins. Let’s round up and begin the countdown with the best player Iowa’s had in my lifetime (1990).

What is there to write about Luka Garza which hasn’t already been written?

After a good, but overlooked, sophomore season in which he averaged 13.1 points on 53.1% shooting and 4.5 rebounds in 23.7 minutes he BURST onto the scene in 2020, averaging of 23.9 points on 54.1% shooting and 9.8 rebounds. The season, cut short by the emergence of COVID-19, still yielded 740 points, an Iowa Hawkeyes record.

Game after game in the nation’s toughest conference, Garza posted mesmerizing stat lines, with the only game where he posted less than 20 points was a January tilt with Nebraska who sold out to defend him. He was named conference player of the year in addition to his first team all-conference and consensus All-American selections.

The Iowa basketball offseason was rife with speculation as he declared for the NBA draft to gain feedback and did not announce his return until the 11th hour. With his return, he established Iowa as a conference favorite alongside Wisconsin and Illinois and Final Four contender. He’s the runaway preseason favorite for player of the year and is only adding to his game.

Which begs the question: what does a successful 2020-21 season look like for Garza?

First: wins. These Hawkeyes have set high goals for themselves and will need to back up the talk with a push for a Big Ten Championship. Their offense figures to be as tricky as any to defend on short rest, which should enable them to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

Second: records. Garza is 557 points off of Roy Marble’s 2,116 as the career leader at Iowa. If Iowa plays only the minimum 27 games, it would mean Luka needs to average a shade over 20.6 per game to tie the record in the regular season. That pace would have him at 2,177 career points in 30 games (9th in conference) and 2,301 in 36 games (4th in conference). With the free season, Garza could, in theory, return and play a full 2021-22 season and smash Calbert Cheaney’s record of 2,613 career points. This seems unlikely.

Third: draft stock. In my mind, Garza has already shown enough to be a value bench contributor to an NBA squad. Does his pick and roll defense leave a little to be desired? Certainly, but in an 82-game season, teams need points from a variety of ways and Garza would absolutely be able to provide that to the average NBA team. But if he’s going to take himself from likely undrafted NBA free agent into the first round, he’ll need to demonstrate significant improvement in defense and show a consistent ability to stretch defenses with his three point shot.

So what might that look like?

It might mean a bit of an inverted role for Garza throughout 2020-21, with him serving as the nominal power forward when playing alongside Jack Nunge. If he can be a consistent, higher-volume, three point shooter, not only does it make Iowa’s offense damn near unstoppable in 5-out lineups but it will pose defenses with the conundrum of who to guard with their best post defender: Garza or Nunge?

Perhaps ideal stats for such a scenario would be 21 points on 14 shots (split evenly between 2s and 3s) with an eFG% of 60% and a return to his sophomore year free throw percentage of 80%. Now that may seem unlikely considering even Jordan Bohannon has never averaged 7 three-point attempts per game in his career but if there is anything we’ve learned from Luka Garza in his three years here it’s this:

Doubt him at your own peril.