Iowa forward Tyler Cook discusses his offseason plan after his sophomore year ended at the Big Ten Tournament. Chad Leistikow/The Register
If indeed Iowa’s Tyler Cook keeps his name in the NBA draft, it’ll be a decision that won’t take Hawkeye players by surprise.
They’ve been braced for the possibility for months.
If indeed Cook lets next week’s May 30 deadline to return to college come and go, it’ll be a decision that will certainly be made with plenty of credible feedback.
Cook had at least six scheduled NBA workouts — including with the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets. There’s no doubt quality advice will be provided from proven franchises.
If indeed Cook has played his last game in Iowa City, Hawkeye fans should wish one of the most dynamic dunkers in program history nothing but the best.
In a sport where younger players are often more attractive and better rewarded, there would be no faulting Cook — who will turn 21 in September — for trying to jump into the pro ranks now … even if he never reaches his NBA dream.
If indeed Cook is done as a Hawkeye, coaches and players won’t panic — nor should they.
They’ve already got a big man to build around in 2018-19. And his name is Luka Garza.
Iowa players love Garza, who despite a groundbreaking freshman season was the team's No. 3 option at best behind Cook and Jordan Bohannon last winter.
No one will say Garza's the most talent-blessed guy in the locker room, but he might win a unanimous vote as having the most heart and grit on the team. Teammates would go to the wall for Garza, and he would do (and has done) the same for them.
And that’s something worth building around, especially after a deflating 14-19 season that blindsided a hungry roster that laughed at preseason projections that it wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament.
This program needs the tenacity and the fight that Garza constantly brings.
I'll take it a step further: Garza would be worthy of becoming the team’s focal point in 2018-19, even if Cook does decide to return as a Hawkeye junior.
He's got a solid, developing inside-outside game. Despite a gangly frame, he's surprisingly nimble and creatively effective underneath. He became an excellent free-throw shooter.
Though his 6-foot-11 frame was not yet filled out as a Division I rookie (he was a listed 235 pounds), Garza led all Big Ten Conference freshmen with an average of 6.4 rebounds a game and was third in field-goal percentage at 55.7.
If you recall, there was a feel that the Hawkeyes played their best basketball of last season down the stretch. They won the program’s first conference-tournament game since 2013, then pushed eventual NCAA runner-up Michigan to overtime before their season ended March 1 in Madison Square Garden.
In Iowa’s final six games? Garza was at his best, too. He averaged 17.7 points and 6.3 rebounds a game and shot 60 percent (42-for-70) during that stretch.
All that said, there’s no doubt Garza benefited from Cook’s presence last season.
So I’m not saying that, if Iowa is without Cook, he's going to have as much room to operate inside as he did a season ago. That depends on the jumps that can be made from the likes of Ryan Kriener, Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl — three big men with distinctly different styles and strengths.
Cook has declined media interaction since his post-Michigan game interview, in which he said "only God knows" whether he would be back as a Hawkeye. But the sense I get from those close to the program is that it's more likely Cook goes pro than stays in Iowa City.
If Cook does indeed return, the narrative coming from Iowa will be interesting to watch.
Coach Fran McCaffery told KCJJ radio in Iowa City last week that if Cook came back, “I’d be surprised if he doesn’t take his game to another level and move himself into the first round (of the 2019 NBA draft). I think that’s a realistic goal for him.”
That’s an optimistic quote, to say the least.
It's far-fetched to think Cook will ever be a first-rounder.
Only five college juniors are projected in NBAdraft.net’s latest mock first round, and only two are thought to go in the first 26 picks (compared with 16 freshmen, five sophomores and one senior).
It’s no doubt a young man’s draft.
Making the first round in the NBA — the only round that offers guaranteed money — is incredibly difficult, especially because international players are in the mix, too.
Two notable Big Ten players who have signed with agents — league player of the year Keita Bates-Diop (6-8, 224) of Ohio State and sensational big man Mo Wagner (6-11, 241) of Michigan — are departing, accomplished juniors.
Both are projected as second-round picks.
Cook (6-9, 255) didn’t make any of the all-Big Ten’s three teams despite leading Iowa at 14.0 points per game. He would have to become a prolific 3-point shooter (he is 3-for-15 in his 60 college games) and dramatically increase his defensive presence to jump into a first-round 2019 conversation.
That’s another reason it wouldn’t surprise me if Cook leaves now.
He could play in the G League (or internationally) for a year, make a little cash, and get to work on his game full-time, without worrying about school, for 12 straight months.
If and when his game is ready for the NBA, the NBA will find him.
Meantime, the Hawkeyes stand ready to move on without him.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.