Iowa’s Luka Garza is having a season for the ages. The Hawkeye big man is a virtual lock to be the player of the year in the Big Ten and has established himself as a serious candidate for the Naismith Award given to the top player in all of college basketball (Dan Dakich, Dick Vitale, and Indiana’s Archie Miller have already endorsed his frontrunner status, while several ESPN experts recently picked him as their favorite to win the award). Garza’s candidacy is largely based on his offensive production, which has been basically unprecedented among post players in the modern Big Ten. Garza’s 26.2 ppg against conference opponents ranks him 4th among all players since the 1985-86 season, and the fact that he is doing it against constant double and triple-teams and with many other top offensive options injured makes this feat even more impressive.
Garza’s offense is more than deserving of acclaim, but what about his defense? Fran McCaffery has praised Garza as being underrated on that end of the floor, but as a squad the Hawkeyes rank 13th of 14 teams in points allowed, opponent field goal percentage, and opponent 2-point shooting percentage during Big Ten play. Can a player who anchors one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten really be a candidate for national player of the year?
In a word: yes. Garza’s offensive output is not only incredible enough to justify his Naismith candidacy in and of itself, but his defensive contributions have actually been very underrated this season. Nobody will confuse Luka Garza with Dikembe Mutombo or Rudy Gobert, but a closer look at Garza’s important role in Iowa’s defensive scheme shows how much worse the Hawkeye defense would be without him on the floor.
Garza is certainly an imperfect player on defense. His vertical leaping ability leaves plenty to be desired and limits his ability to contribute as a true rim protector, and he is not quick enough to guard smaller perimeter players if switched onto them in the pick and roll. He is an intuitive help defender who has developed a real knack for knowing where he needs to be, but sometimes struggles to get to his spot in time to help contest a shot when one of his teammates is beaten on a drive to the basket. Garza has noticeably improved in each of these areas during his time in Iowa City, but he certainly isn’t elite in any of them at this stage.
But while Garza is not a flawless defender, his contributions on the defensive end have been extremely impactful this year. Garza not only leads all regular contributors on the team in defensive rating (a statistic which measures the points allowed per 100 possessions with a particular player on the floor), but he leads all Hawkeyes in defensive win shares. Garza is also frequently tasked with covering the opponent’s best post player, which in the Big Ten has forced him to play against several of the country’s best interior scorers, including Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, Maryland’s Jalen Smith, and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis. Iowa may not be a great defensive team, but they are certainly worse on that end of the floor when Luka sits on the bench.
Garza’s growing proficiency as a shot blocker is one of the biggest reasons for his improvement on the defensive end this season. Garza leads the Hawkeyes with 1.6 blocks per game (up from only .5 per game in 2018-19) and accounts for nearly 50% of his team’s blocks on the season. Luka’s leaping ability hasn’t improved enough to put him on the level of someone like Jalen Smith, but he’s compensated for this limitation through intelligence, excellent form, and an impeccable ability to properly time his defensive contests. Garza’s unselfishness also allows him to excel in an area where many great shot blockers struggle: blocking shots so that the ball stays in play and can be rebounded by other defensive players. Garza may not show up on many defensive highlight reels by sending shots sailing into the fourth row, but his heady play in this area is once again representative of the unselfish way in which he plays defense.
Garza’s shot blocking prowess allows him to impact the game even when his shots aren’t falling. In a rare game against Cincinnati in which Garza struggled offensively, he absolutely took over on the defensive end, imposing his will in one-on-one matchups and serving as a constant nuisance with his help-side defense. By the end of the game, Garza had totaled five blocks, altered countless other shots, and helped hold the Bearcats to a measly 34% shooting performance from the field. Garza’s performance that night embodied the famous quote by Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp: “Your defense will save you on the nights that your offense isn’t working.”
Garza’s physical strength is also a hallmark of his defensive prowess. Opposing post players struggle to back him down on the block, and his ability to absorb contact without flinching makes him a difficult player to shake in one-on-one matchups against players his size. Garza’s imposing size also makes him a beast on the defensive glass, helping him to limit his opponents’ second-chance scoring opportunities. Iowa has excelled at limiting opposing offensive rebounds this season, and Garza has been the driving force behind this.
It’s also important to put Garza’s defensive performance in the proper context. Garza has shouldered a herculean load on offense this season, touching the ball on nearly every offensive possession and accounting for significantly more offensive win shares (4.2) than Iowa’s other scoring options like Joe Wieskamp (2.4) and CJ Fredrick (1.7). Garza’s physical style of play and willingness to score through double and triple-teams has also made him a magnet for punishment this season, and there’s arguably no player in college basketball who has taken more blows to head and torso this season than Luka has. As easy (and frankly, forgivable) as it would be for Garza to completely coast on the defensive end, Iowa’s big man exerts maximum energy on both sides of the court every game while setting the tone for Iowa’s defense.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that Garza is forced to play defense with an absolute aversion to fouling. Given Luka’s importance on the offensive end and the Hawkeyes’ short bench, Iowa simply cannot afford to have him in foul trouble without risking a complete collapse of its offense. When a team’s primary rim protector and best interior defender is forced to play conservatively at basically all times to avoid picking up fouls, it prevents that player from gambling as frequently when contesting shots or being as aggressive in denying his opponent the ball. The best ability is availability, and the fact that Garza has been able to play 31 minutes per game while averaging only 2.5 fouls while STILL being one of the most physical defenders on the team reveals just how far he has come on the defensive end.
Luka Garza is not an elite defender, and his defensive weaknesses happen to be magnified by Iowa’s team-wide struggles on that end of the court. However, Garza’s defense has improved as much over the offseason as any Hawkeye player in recent memory, and his play on the defensive end has been one of the few bright spots for a team who gives up 75 points per game to conference opponents. Garza’s defensive abilities may not come close to matching his offensive prowess, but his underrated contributions on defense do more to make the case FOR his player of the year candidacy than they do to detract from it.
(All stats via SportsReference unless otherwise indicated)