The 2021 NBA Draft has come and gone. For quite some time, that sentence may have come as a surprise for Iowa basketball fans. Since Dr. Tom Davis departed Iowa City in 1999, the Hawkeyes had only one player drafted in the 11 years that followed under the two subsequent head coaches. It took a few years for current head coach Fran McCaffery to build from the ashes left behind by Todd Lickliter and the drought on draft picks continued until Devyn Marble was selected in 2014.
With just one selection in nearly 15 years, it’s easy to see why the draft had become a day to forget for Iowa basketball fans. But that should be changing and with it, McCaffery’s pitch on the recruiting trail.
Last week, the Hawkeyes had not one, but two players selected in the NBA Draft as Muscatine native Joe Wieskamp was taken 41st overall by the San Antonio Spurs and Luka Garza was taken 52nd by the Detroit Pistons. It marked the first time in 23 years the Hawkeyes have had multiple players selected in the same draft and just the 14th time ever (8th since the merger). It was only the third time Iowa has had multiple players taken in the first two rounds (1989, 1998).
Beyond that, Joe Wieskamp became just the second Iowa player to leave early and be drafted in the last 50 years. He joins former superstar Ricky Davis, who left after his freshman season in 1998. With the two selections this year, Fran McCaffery’s teams now account for nearly 20% of all players selected in the top two round of the NBA Draft in Iowa basketball history (4 of 21 total).
Importantly, Wieskamp and Garza represent a blueprint for Iowa and McCaffery both in terms of the types of players they should be targeting and now how they can sell them.
Take Wieskamp, who came to Iowa as a top-50 recruit nationally. It’s a rarity under any coach for the Hawkeyes to land a top-50 player, but when that player is within the state’s boarders, Iowa should have a chance. In the past, that hasn’t always meant a win as players like Marcus Paige, Harrison Barnes, Nick Collins and more have opted for bigger name programs. But McCaffery has made Iowa a viable option for those players once again, demonstrating not only that he can build a team capable of competing at a top-5 level nationally, but that he can send those talented prospects to the NBA.
With Garza, Fran went well outside the historic recruiting footprint for Iowa, dipping his toes in the water on the east coast in Washington, DC. He got involved early, built a relationship and offered him as only a sophomore before any other high major program pulled the trigger. As Garza continued to refine his game and ultimately became a borderline top-100 recruit.
That should sound familiar to Iowa fans as McCaffery has made a name for himself as a coach who identifies talent very early on and is widely regarded for building strong relationships with prospects throughout the process. The issue has been closing on those recruits when they start to really take off and the bigger name programs come to the same conclusion as Fran a year or two later.
Iowa is never going to be able to sell the historic success or blueblood nature that some programs around the country can sell. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to sell and that Fran can’t compete with those programs for the right type of recruit.
Early in the cycle for the class of 2022, we’ve seen a number of those battles already come to the forefront. Duke grabbed a commitment from 4-star forward Kyle Filipowski late last week. That was one of Fran’s top early targets that seemed to fit the mold of a player McCaffery identified early and built a relationship with, only to lose him to a blueblood. He was also a top-50 player nationally when it was all said and done, not just outside the top-100.
That’s where the success in the NBA Draft may be able to close the gap. Where Fran has fallen short with a number of top-50 type prospects from outside the state’s borders, he hasn’t been able to sell them on making it to the league. That’s changing with the two draft picks this year and freshman sensation Keegan Murray being hyped as just the third Hawkeye to leave early in 50 years if he can sustain his momentum into next year. He’s also projecting as Iowa’s third first round pick in the last 30 years.
As we saw with Garza, who wasn’t a top-50 player, just one player can change the entire identify of a basketball team. If Fran can begin to sell the recent success on the court as well as the NBA Draft prospects while sustaining his success in landing in state recruits (Xavier Foster, who cited Iowa State’s success putting players in the NBA as his primary reason for not landing with his childhood favorite team, is one of very few top prospects from the state to not end up a Hawkeye or at a blueblood) and borderline top-100 prospects from outside the state, we could be re-entering a level of success last seen in the mid-80s. If not, it may be time to start wondering what needs to change.