Leistikow: Luka Garza has unselfish plans to generate more Iowa basketball production

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When Fran McCaffery spent 35 minutes on a video conference call with media members last week, it took until the final question for Luka Garza’s name to be mentioned.

Perhaps that is testament to Garza’s remarkable consistency — Iowa basketball followers know what to expect when it comes to the returning, consensus all-American center.

I would contend, however, that some of us may be surprised at what’s in store for Garza’s senior season.

“I think it'll be interesting to watch him this year and see how he performs with a different team around him — certainly in a unique year, to say the least,” said McCaffery, in his 11th season in Iowa City. “But I can tell you this: He’s really, really put the time in. He’s not rested at all on his accomplishments. He's hungrier than he's ever been.

Luka Garza faced physical and often swarming defenses all last season and still averaged 23.9 points per game. What might he be able to do this year with more offensive firepower around him?

“There’s quite frankly no better example for these young guys than Luka Garza.”

Garza and the Hawkeyes will hit a key checkpoint Wednesday afternoon inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, as they’ll hold their first official preseason practice ahead of college basketball’s Nov. 25 start date for games. There’s still no official schedule (it could be weeks away), but the Hawkeyes (like all other Division I teams) can now practice up to 20 hours a week; the NCAA sets a maximum of 30 practices over the next 42 days.

Of course, Garza’s year-round, aggressive training regimen is well-documented. While seriously mulling a professional future, Garza continued to work on what he viewed as weaker spots in his game: defense, creating his own shot, passing, free-throw percentage and deeper 3-point range.

McCaffery said we could see a dip in Garza’s 23.9-point scoring average from last season, but that he "has a substantially better year, because all that kid cares about his winning and his teammates.”

For example, we might see Garza's assist numbers spike. He has 99 career assists in 96 games. But his primary job last year was to score the basketball, as a consistent barrage of injuries left the Hawkeyes with only a few offensive threats.

This season, he shouldn't feel the burden to do everything himself. If Iowa can consistently deploy sharpshooters Jordan Bohannon, CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp, Garza can make opponents pay for double- and triple-teaming him — something he couldn’t do (for example) with Bohannon and Fredrick sidelined in a humbling January loss at Nebraska.

I think you’ll see Garza’s efficiency increase. He shot 54.2% from the field last season, but 58% to 60% is doable with fewer forced shots.

He also had more free-throw attempts (195) than any big man in the Big Ten Conference a season ago. And he unofficially led the league in bloody lips, bloody noses and crashes to the floor after hard contact. However, he converted just 65.1% of his free throws after making 80.4% as a sophomore.

One thing he and his father, Frank, have discussed is taking more time to recover after sustaining contact; to meditate before it's time to shoot foul shots. A player is allowed 10 seconds to attempt a free throw after receiving the ball from an official.

“Luka’s free-throw percentage will be in the 80s, and by virtue of that, his scoring may simply be the same,” Frank Garza said. “Overall, the key is to recognize that we are focusing on the ‘we not me.’ We are here to take the prize, and that is the operative issue. All behaviors flow from that core.”

There’s another way Garza could be more dynamic as a senior, too: by playing less.

Two memories of road games I covered sprang to mind as I thought about this topic and Garza’s junior season.

One, a Jan. 14 game at Northwestern after he picked up a third foul just 22 seconds into the second half. He sat for almost eight minutes. Then, he returned with 11:45 to go and went on an unstoppable tear. He scored Iowa’s next 14 points in a span of 4:06 to extend Iowa’s lead from 51-46 to 65-50.

Two, a Feb. 25 game at Michigan State, after which he acknowledged a new foot/ankle injury. He was mauled much of the night, including getting kicked in the head by the Spartans’ Xavier Tillman, and scored just two points in the last 15½ minutes. I distinctly remember Garza repeatedly picking himself off the floor and hustling back to play defense with barely a break. He played all but 24 seconds in that 78-70 loss.

Garza played 34-plus minutes in almost half of Iowa’s games (15 out of 31), including six of the final seven. McCaffery is confident there will be more depth than a year ago — assuming COVID-19 pandemic cooperation, of course. In addition to the returning core eight players (Bohannon, Fredrick, Wieskamp, Garza, Joe Toussaint, Jack Nunge and Connor and Patrick McCaffery), the head coach sees at least two, if not three, true freshmen adding to the rotation.

Fran McCaffery thinks overall defense and rebounding will improve with increased depth, though he does need to primarily stick to his veteran core.

“Those guys were playing a lot of minutes (last year), and that's great. And they were comfortable in their role, and they all played extremely well,” McCaffery said. “But a little more depth enables you to endure a longer season or enables you to be a little bit more physical defensively. When you're not deep, maybe you're resting a little more on defense.

“So maybe we can be a little more physical defensively and on the glass, which I think would translate to even better offense.”

And probably Garza's best Iowa version yet.

“He will be more versatile,” McCaffery said. “He’s a guy that keeps working on his game. His game keeps evolving.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.