Luka Garza may be the greatest player in the history of Iowa basketball, but many fans and analysts have questioned whether his game fits in the modern NBA. Garza ranks anywhere from 50th to 67th on prominent NBA Draft big boards, and his doubters and believers alike will get their first glimpse at Garza’s professional future during this Thursday’s draft. Will Garza’s historically great college production result in his name being called, or will his professional career begin either as an undrafted free agent or as an overseas prospect?
Any conversation about Luka Garza’s player profile must begin with his low-post scoring skills. Garza is an elite post scorer who dominated opponents on the low block throughout his collegiate career. Garza is a true student of the game who has mastered a dizzying array of post moves including his baby hook, his up-and-under move, and his Jack Sikma-esque reverse pivot jump shot in the midrange. Garza can finish through contact, contend with double teams, and create second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass. His soft hands make him an excellent pick-and-roll partner and his tightly controlled footwork allows him to maneuver through traffic well despite his size. Garza’s playmaking skills also improved as a senior, as he became increasingly adept at passing the ball out of double teams and creating open shot opportunities for his teammates on the perimeter.
However, with the modern NBA game moving away from back-to-the-basket centers, Garza’s perimeter scoring game will be even more appealing to NBA teams than his skill on the interior. Garza was a credible three-point shooter through his first three collegiate seasons but became a genuine weapon from range in 2020-2021 while shooting 44% from three on 3.2 attempts per game and draining nearly 80% of his threes during two NCAA Tournament games. Luka thrives as a pick-and-pop three-point shooter and flashed increasing aptitude at making transition threes as his career progressed. Garza could excel as a floor spacing big man in the NBA, and his ability to draw rim protectors away from the paint and punish teams who send smaller defenders out to contest his shots on the perimeter could help him carve out an important role in an NBA offense.
Garza’s intangibles should also appeal greatly to NBA teams that are considering drafting him. Despite being one of the biggest stars in college basketball last season, Garza remained a team-focused and unselfish player who showed the same willingness to dive for loose balls and beat his man down the court in transition that helped endear him to Hawkeye fans as an underclassman. He is also an aggressive rebounder who boxes out on every play and constantly fights for inside position.
Garza also worked hard to compensate for some of his defensive deficiencies by being a smart and willing help defender and a glass-cleaner on defensive rebound opportunities, two attributes which should endear him to GMs evaluating him. Opposing teams frequently attacked Garza on defense in an attempt to get him into foul trouble and play him off the floor, but Garza regularly managed to defend without fouling, averaging only 2.4 fouls per game for his career. Furthermore, while concerns about Garza’s lateral quickness are certainly valid (more on that later) his slimmed down frame (Garza dropped 30 pounds after the season ended in preparation for the combine) and surprisingly solid showing in the pro agility drill (11.9 seconds) may encourage some teams to believe he is less of a lost cause on the defensive end than his college tape might show.
Garza’s greatest struggles at the NBA level will come at the defensive end. Garza’s lack of lateral quickness and inability to change directions make it difficult for him to defend in space and will allow quicker NBA defenders to consistently beat him off the dribble. Garza frequently struggled as a pick-and-roll defender in college, and the elevated speed of NBA players combined with the pick-and-roll heavy offenses that have come to dominate the league could allow opposing teams to hunt Garza on switches and regularly target him when he is on the floor. As skilled as Garza may be on offense, he may struggle to stay on the floor if teams are able to consistently score against him on the other end of the court.
Garza’s inability to protect the rim also serves as a significant knock against him. While most NBA bigs struggle to defend guards on the perimeter, many centers can make up for this due to their ability to block and contest shots at the rim. Garza posted the worst publicly listed numbers of any 2021 combine prospect in both the standing vertical leap (24 inches) and max vertical leap (29.5 inches), and none of his college tape suggests an ability to defend at or above the rim. Garza was a decent shot blocker at Iowa but will struggle to replicate his college numbers (1.6 blocks per game last season) when regularly defending opponents whose size matches or exceeds his own. His lack of rim protection, combined with his weakness as a pick-and-roll defender, are major issues which could put a real ceiling on Garza’s NBA potential if he does not manage to improve them.
Luka Garza was born in the wrong decade. In years past, Luka’s low-post prowess, tenacity, and remarkable college production would have made him a high-floor prospect, a clear lottery pick, and the type of player any GM could reasonably expect to have a decade long career in the NBA. However, the marginalization of the post-up game, the explosion of outside shooting efficiency, and the greater emphasis on the ability to switch and defend multiple positions have all conspired to minimize the importance of Garza’s primary strength as prospect while magnifying the importance of his areas of weakness.
Still, Garza has enough tools to carve out a space for himself in the NBA and should hear his name called in Thursday’s NBA draft. Garza’s ability to space the floor on offense and get buckets in the paint when called upon could make him a valuable scorer off the bench, while coaches and GMs may believe enough in his work ethic to convince themselves that he can improve as a defender or, at the very least, that his basketball IQ will allow him to hide his defensive weaknesses as much as possible. Garza’s toughness and willingness to make effort plays on both ends of the court are the sort of attributes that will endear him to his coaches, and his unselfishness will allow him to devote himself fully to any role a team asks him to play. He may be an imperfect prospect, but in a league where flawed but skilled big men like Jonas Valanciunas, Enes Kanter, Nikola Vucevic, Hassan Whiteside, and Jahlil Okafor have still been able to carve out niches for themselves, on can easily imagine Garza being able to do the same.
Garza’s best fit would be on a team that can pair him with a versatile defender and rim protector at the four to help erase some of Garza’s mistakes on defense. Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies would be an interesting partner next to Garza, and Luka could give Memphis point guard Ja Morant another intriguing drive-and-kick option on the perimeter. The Grizzlies have the 51st pick in the draft, but also have a logjam in their frontcourt and may not be looking to add more depth there. The Celtics could be an intriguing opportunity at pick #45 due to their dire need for bench scoring, as could Philadelphia at #50. New Orleans is in desperate need of improved three-point shooting this season and also happens to have four picks in the second round, making them a potential landing spot for Luka anywhere from picks 35-53. Finally, Knicks head man Tom Thibodeau has a long record of coveting and rewarding toughness on his basketball teams, and it’s easy to envision him falling in love with Garza and believing that he can draw out some dormant defensive skills from the talented big man, making New York a potential option for Garza at either #32 or #58.
Draft Projection: Mid-late 2nd round.