Iowa's Luka Garza studies the masters in attempt to become elite scorer
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Ryan Kriener tossed in a running hook shot late in Iowa’s loss at Purdue last month, then turned to watch Luka Garza laughing on the Hawkeye bench.
“I kind of stole it from him,” Kriener said of a shot that Garza likes to use.
Garza was probably laughing for a different reason. He had to set the record straight this week.
“It’s not my running hook. It’s Kareem’s,” Garza said, speaking of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
You can’t blame today’s basketball players for not being familiar with the offensive arsenals of athletes from two generations ago. But Garza, Iowa’s sophomore center, is the exception. He grew up in Washington, D.C., obsessively studying the likes of Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon and Jack Sikma.
“Other people were watching Nickelodeon,” Garza said of his peers. “I was downstairs watching the cassette tapes of these guys. … I had a bunch of them in the old TV and I was just sitting down there and I’d get on the little mini-basket and try to re-create the moves.”
That’s what Garza still does. The 6-foot-11 kid with the unusually soft shooting touch is averaging 21.2 points in the last five games for the No. 20 Hawkeyes (17-5, 6-5 Big Ten Conference). He is shooting 61 percent from the field and 83 percent from the free-throw line in that stretch. He has elevated his game at the perfect time for an Iowa team looking to knock off Indiana (13-9, 4-7) at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The game will be televised on ESPN. You won’t need to drag out any old VHS tapes to study it in the future. Garza uses Synergy Sports Technology to get his video fix these days.
“It’s my life. It’s an addiction. It’s a passion. It’s all of that,” Garza said. “It’s something that drives me every day. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Garza developed his study habits from his father, Frank, who played at Idaho and apparently collected tapes of NBA post players to pass down to his son. Frank Garza taught Luka how to shoot a jumpshot, then prohibited him from attempting one from beyond the 3-point arc until the eighth grade.
“My dad didn’t want me to extend my shot too far to like mess up the form,” Luka Garza explained.
Garza wasn’t able to dunk the basketball until his sophomore year, this despite being 6-7 as a freshman at Maret School. Sure, this was a sign that he wasn’t much of a leaper. But it also made him a better player, Garza believes.
“A lot of people have to focus on that and they just want to dunk and they just want to get the highlight tapes,” he said. “I really focused on being skilled and being able to finish in different ways — jump-hooks instead of just trying to back people down and dunk on them.”
It’s something Iowa coach Fran McCaffery noticed and appreciated right away. Any discussion of Garza’s offensive skills ultimately leads to a comparison with someone who played in the NBA in the 1970s or '80s.
“He has an unbelievable knack for getting the ball in the basket. He will make a nine-footer while he's getting banged off the glass in traffic look like a layup. That's really hard to do,” McCaffery said.
“Then he'll step out and make a 3, then make a 12-foot jumper, an 18-foot jumper, a 23-foot jumper, a shot-fake, one-dribble pull-up. He has the total package when it comes to scoring the ball.”
Garza showed that in the second half of Friday’s Iowa victory over Michigan, its most significant to date. He scored 15 points, beginning with a spin move that was something he borrowed from Olajuwon. Later, there was a perfect bank shot in heavy traffic and then his 16th 3-pointer of the season, from the right elbow.
“He’s got two or three moves that you really can’t bother or block,” said Kriener, who often tries to guard Garza in practice.
And Garza isn’t finished studying. These days, he looks to Joel Embiid, DeMarcus Cousins or LaMarcus Aldridge for inspiration. He said he’s constantly on the prowl for new moves to try to perfect, new footwork to help him get to the rim.
“If I have an advantage inside where I feel like I’m stronger than the dude, then I’ll go at him and try to use more of my power,” Garza said. “Sometimes I have to use more finesse to get around guys and be crafty around the rim.”
And sometimes he needs to turn on some tape and see what he can learn from Hakeem or Kareem.