Next step for Tyler Cook: Lead the Hawkeyes on the defensive end

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

It’s easy to envision Tyler Cook putting up better offensive statistics in his junior season as an Iowa basketball player.

But what the Hawkeyes really need is leadership and a renewed commitment to defense from the 6-foot-9 forward.

And that’s precisely what Iowa coach Fran McCaffery expects to see from Cook, who announced Wednesday evening that he was returning to Iowa City instead of pursuing a professional career.

“He wants to lead the team, and that’s what I love about him. He recognizes that we lost 19 games last year and he’s got to be the guy that leads in the locker room, leads in the weight room, leads on the floor,” McCaffery told reporters Thursday. “I’ve encouraged him to be that guy.”

Iowa's Tyler Cook reacts after drawing a foul during the Hawkeyes' game against Grambling State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.

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Cook, speaking later on the teleconference, said it’s also one thing he heard from the six NBA teams with which he had private workouts over the past three months. They seemed familiar with what he could do on the court after a sophomore season in which he led Iowa with 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

“How we carry ourselves. What kind of teammate are we?” Cook said of the NBA scrutiny. “That was one of the things that most shocked me about the process is how much they pay attention to what goes on off the court just as much as they do on the court.”

'I'm always the first guy in the gym'

Cook felt he took a step forward as a team leader last winter, when the team frequently had no upperclassmen in the starting lineup. It was a trying season, however, as Iowa struggled to a 14-19 record. Cook said he was primarily trying to set an example, rather than overtly rallying his teammates around him. That may need to change.

“I’m always the first guy in the gym and I’m always the last one to leave,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do that, continue to try to bring other guys in with me. Trying to motivate others guys to be the best that they can be is something that I’ll do a better job of this year.

“I want to be the guy that leads this team in every way possible.”

That will start with convincing his teammates that he’s fully invested in being a Hawkeye. Cook conceded that he didn’t decide to play at least one more college season until Wednesday morning, the last day he could withdraw from the NBA draft. It was a difficult choice, he said, because he did have at least one opportunity with an NBA team.

“People seemed to think that I was holding off making my decision as a chess move,” Cook said, adding he had reached out to a few teammates already in the first 18 hours after revealing he was coming back.

“We’ve got a lot to talk about in terms of things that we’ve got to change both in our locker room and on the court,” he said.

Wieskamp sees benefit in playing alongside 'strong and physical' Cook

Cook’s return was greeted with enthusiasm by incoming freshman Joe Wieskamp, who figures to battle for an immediate starting role on the wing. They are the two highest-regarded recruits in Fran McCaffery’s tenure at Iowa.

“I’m excited to play with him,” Wieskamp told the Register on Thursday. “He’s just so strong and physical inside that he’s going to draw defenders, and that hopefully will open up me on the outside more.”

McCaffery sees Cook’s return as a “win-win.” Cook has heard blunt assessments from NBA personnel about where he needs to improve his game. In taking that to heart, it will in turn help make Iowa a better team, McCaffery believes.

“He’s going to take that information and go to work. He’ll be diligent in his pursuit of his dream,” McCaffery said. “But at the same time, he has always put winning above everything. He’s never been a guy that hunts shots and (says) ‘I need to get more points today.’ If somebody’s open, he throws the ball. He’s a team guy first and foremost.”

The team needs Cook to continue to be a ferocious low-post option while also extending his shooting range. It needs him to gather every defensive rebound that comes near him.

Iowa's Tyler Cook grabs a rebound during the Hawkeyes' game against Wisconsin at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.

But it also needs him to set the tone for a defense that was too often easily scored upon last winter. Doing so will also dovetail with what NBA teams want to see from Cook.

Cook must take the next step on defense, and he knows it

“Nobody plays traditional defense anymore in the NBA. They switch everything,” McCaffery said. “So a guy like him with his incredible athleticism and ability to move his feet and stay in a stance, they told him this is critical because you’re going to have to guard a center, you’ve got to guard a power forward, you’ve got to guard a small forward, you’ve got to guard a two-guard, you’ve got to guard a point guard. Because it’s positionless basketball in the NBA, so he fits well with that mold.”

Cook said showing he can be an above-average defender would help his current team and his NBA prospects. He knows scoring points is not enough to make a deep impression on pro scouts. He wants to prove he can be a “dirty-work type of guy” as well.

Northwestern's Bryant McIntosh and Iowa's Tyler Cook fight for the ball during their game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018.

“When I get there, chances of me being option 1-A (on offense) are very slim,” Cook said of his potential NBA future. “I’ve got to be able to play whatever role I need to do.”

At Iowa, at least for one more season, that role is team leader.