Luka Garza to stay at Iowa: Hawkeye star spurns pro deal, with eye on winning a national title

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Luka Garza is holding on to the hope that his Iowa men’s basketball team can compete for a national championship this winter, announcing Sunday that he is forgoing a professional career in order to remain a Hawkeye.

"We all feel strongly that there will be some sort of college basketball season," Garza said on a Zoom conference call with reporters. "I didn't want to make a decision based on an unknown. ... If I would have had to watch the team play without me, I would have been upset and regretted that decision a lot. Whatever happens, I made the right decision and I won't regret it."

Garza, an all-American center, will open as a front-runner for national player of the year in college basketball and make Iowa a top-10 team entering the season.

"It would be the best team that I've ever played for and possibly one of the best teams that Iowa's ever had. That was a very determining factor for me," he said.

The NCAA had a Monday deadline for basketball players to declare whether they were remaining in the NBA Draft process or returning to college.

But the college season is in doubt of being completed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a point that was hammered home last week for Garza when three of his Iowa teammates tested positive for the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Ominously, Garza had to make his announcement while being quarantined for that reason. In doing so, Garza passes up a lucrative offer to play in Europe and the chance to be selected in the next NBA Draft.

"I felt strongly that if I were to keep my name in I would have been drafted. I had a lot of opportunities in the NBA as well as in Europe for a lot of money. But at the end of the day I feel like the teams that like me this year will like me next year and they'll like me even more because I put in a lot of work over the summer," Garza said. 

Luka Garza announced Sunday that he intends to rejoin his Iowa basketball teammates for what he hopes is a championship season this winter. The senior would likely be considered the top player in the country heading into that season, which is in danger of being disrupted again by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 12, the college basketball season came to an abrupt halt when postseason play was canceled as COVID-19 was beginning its spread in the United States. The Hawkeyes heard the news just before they were about to leave their hotel in Indianapolis for their opening game in the Big Ten Conference Tournament.

That put an end to one of the most remarkable seasons in Iowa basketball history. Garza averaged 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds to lead the Hawkeyes to a 20-11 record, becoming the program’s first consensus all-American since 1952 in the process. The junior was named Big Ten player of the year.

Frank Garza, Luka's father, told the Register last week there was one primary motivation for his son to play his senior season at Iowa.

“He wants to win it all, to accomplish something that has never been done (at Iowa), to forever be part of folklore,” Frank Garza said. “To do something for his family, his home, his Iowa family. He’s a Hawkeye. He knows what that would mean.”

With Garza, plus senior guard Jordan Bohannon’s return after hip surgery, Iowa would likely be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten. Those two would join Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick, Connor McCaffery, Joe Toussaint and Jack Nunge to give the Hawkeyes a versatile, talented and experienced core of players. Iowa led the Big Ten in scoring last year at 77.7 points per game and would almost certainly exceed that.

Garza will be backed up at center by incoming freshman Josh Ogundele, a native of England who arrived in the United States just as Garza was making his announcement Sunday. Ogundele had been in limbo for months while waiting for a visa that allowed him to travel to Iowa.

Garza already ranks 12th on Iowa’s all-time scoring list with 1,559 points and would be poised to overtake Roy Marble’s 2,116 if a full season is played. 

Garza said he made his decision to return after a Wednesday evening conversation with his father. They agreed that he should get a rare good night of sleep and see how he felt afterward.

"I woke up the next morning feeling just as good and as excited as the night before," Garza said. "We knew the opportunities I had and everything was laid out, and I looked at it and it just wasn't enough for me to leave."

Garza informed his head coach, Fran McCaffery, of his decision Friday. He told his teammates Sunday morning.

"That bond is really why he ended up making the decision he made," McCaffery said of Garza's relationship with his fellow Hawkeyes.

The dilemma Garza faced: Pro money vs. college dreams

But Garza’s decision comes with risk, and his father said the family is well aware of it.

Frank Garza said he worked this summer with Luka’s uncle, Teoman Alibegovic, to secure an offer to play in the EuroLeague, complete with a shoe contract. Alibegovic is the all-time leading scorer for the Slovenian national team and a longtime star on that continent. Two of Luka’s cousins are playing professionally in Europe. His mother, Sejla, is a native of Bosnia and Luka has traveled overseas frequently.

The family believes Luka would have a support system over there, and that a basketball season is more likely to be played in Europe, where the coronavirus has been better controlled. Plus, Frank Garza said, the contract would be for only one year, meaning his son could return to America to pursue any NBA opportunities at age 22 if he chooses. He could finish his economics degree at Iowa online.

“We liked that scenario,” Frank Garza said.

But it became apparent to the Garzas that Luka wasn't really focused on money. Frank said he asked his son this summer what he would even buy with $1 million and Luka hesitated as if he'd never thought about it before. Maybe a house, he finally said.

"It came down to principle over material things," Frank Garza said of his Wednesday conversation with Luka. "The principle was loyalty. It was love for his teammates, guys he's going to know for the rest of his life."

Frank Garza said Luka had not been getting much sleep in recent days, as the NCAA-imposed deadline for his decision loomed and there was no clarity about how the COVID-19 pandemic would be curtailed in America. They were hoping the NCAA would extend the deadline and were frustrated by the lack of guidance they were receiving from its leadership.

It put his son in a difficult situation, Frank Garza said.

“If you leave, and there is a (college) season, then that’s how you’re remembered,” Frank Garza said. “Or if you stay and there’s no season and you left a million dollars on the table …”

Garza grew up in Washington, D.C., and played basketball at Maret School. After his sophomore season, he had surgery to repair bone spurs and ballooned to 265 pounds during the inactivity that followed. He had already been nicknamed “Pudge” as a child, and his bulk and limited mobility kept many college scouts from seeing what McCaffery had. McCaffery offered the heavyset Garza a scholarship in June 2015 after an AAU tournament in which he revealed a polished offensive game at 6-foot-11. Only George Washington and DePaul had offered Garza scholarships before that. He didn’t forget.

Garza spent that summer working out in Hawaii, shedding 30 pounds in the process, and soon was getting attention from the likes of Georgetown and Notre Dame. He became a four-star recruit. He repaid McCaffery for his early belief in him by committing to the Hawkeyes in September 2016. Eager to get started at Iowa, he flew in the evening of June 12, 2017, after going through his high school graduation ceremony that morning.

Earlier:Luka Garza's path from overweight high schooler to Iowa center

Not even a nine-pound cyst could disrupt Garza's rise as a Hawkeye

Garza quickly became a starter in McCaffery’s frontcourt as a freshman, planted alongside star forward Tyler Cook during a trying 14-19 season. He averaged 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, and really showed the promise of things to come in his final six games, all against Big Ten competition. Garza averaged 17.7 points, on 60% shooting, in those.

His sophomore season was nearly over before it started. In September 2018, doctors discovered a nine-pound cyst in his abdomen that needed to be removed. It had been there, undetected, for awhile. The cyst was benign, but the surgery left Garza weakened just as training camp was beginning. Remarkably, he was in the lineup from the opening game.

At Madison Square Garden that November, NBA scouts showed up to take a look at Oregon center Bol Bol, Garza’s teammate Cook and others competing in the Empire 2K Classic. It was Garza, two months removed from surgery, who was named MVP of that event after scoring 34 points and hauling in 13 rebounds to help the Hawkeyes win the title.

Frank Garza said that was a pivotal moment in putting his son on the radar for NBA teams. Garza finished his sophomore season averaging 13.1 points and 4.5 rebounds. Iowa went 22-11, defeating Cincinnati in its NCAA Tournament opener before falling to Tennessee. Garza scored 33 points in those two games as well. He was honorable mention all-Big Ten. He became just the third Hawkeye to have at least 800 points and 350 rebounds in their first two seasons.

Still, only Garza and his closest confidants could have predicted what he was about to accomplish. With Cook gone to the professional ranks, Garza became the focal point of Iowa’s offense, showing off a new array of moves that forced teams to double-team him in the low post or watch him step outside to drill face-up jumpshots. He scored 740 points to set a single-season Hawkeye record. Garza was held below 10 points in a game only once all season, despite the defensive attention he was getting. In that one, he finished with nine points in a November loss to San Diego State.

Garza scored 44 points at Michigan, 38 at Indiana and 20 or more in each of his final 16 games. He was runner-up to Dayton’s Obi Toppin in voting for both the Naismith and Wooden awards given to the best player in college basketball.

In-depth:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

Iowa center Luka Garza celebrates after one of the 39 3-pointers he made during a stellar junior season.

Garza gets a few NBA teams to believe in him, led by Denver Nuggets

Still, NBA scouts needed convincing that his athletic ability could translate to that level. His lateral quickness and leaping ability are both questions.

Garza announced in April that he would explore his NBA options, an obvious decision that in a normal year would allow him to work out for select teams, and potentially the NBA Combine, and otherwise get feedback on how he was viewed as a pro prospect. But COVID-19 has rendered this year abnormal. Garza never got to visit NBA facilities, although he was able to participate in a number of interviews that allowed him to show off his understanding of the sport, Frank Garza said.

Luka Garza said he's convinced he would get drafted by an NBA team if he went that route. He is not considered a first-round pick, however.

"There was a question that people had if I could improve my stock anymore," Garza said. "That's not a question for me. I'm always confident in myself."

He added that the only way he would change his mind is if an NBA team told him they were selecting him in the first round. The NBA has an Aug. 17 deadline for players to declare for the draft.

Frank Garza said, with the NBA season shut down as well, teams started looking at all of his son’s film from Big Ten play last winter. When they had questions about Luka, Frank would take him to the gym and produce new film, showing his son working on his quickness or his outside shot, whatever he thought needed to be documented.

Frank Garza said veteran Denver Nuggets scout Herb Livsey first saw Luka working out in Hawaii five years ago. That team has been following him closely since, and seems interested in bringing him on board. Coincidentally, it’s also the team that currently employs Bol Bol and Cook. Frank Garza said the Milwaukee Bucks and the San Antonio Spurs have also been in frequent contact.

“They really love him and understand he can plug and play. He’s not just a draft and develop guy,” Frank Garza said of his son’s primary NBA suitors.

How a decision was reached: Garza personally selected 'board of directors'

Frank Garza said Luka was hoping to meet with his teammates and coaches in person Sunday to break the news to them. But the team’s 14-day quarantine made that impossible. That message had to be spread by phone instead.

Frank Garza said Luka created a “board of directors” that he leaned on for advice this summer. This did not include Frank.

Instead, Garza has been speaking with former Hawkeyes and current pro players like Cook, Peter Jok and Nicholas Baer. Fran McCaffery is on the board. So is former Iowa assistant coach Andrew Francis, who is now at California coaching. Garza’s former high school coach, Chuck Driesell, has been offering his guidance, along with his father, Lefty, a Hall of Fame coach who won 100 or more games at four different Division I schools. Garza has always had a close bond with his grandfather, James Halm, who played at Hawaii and still coaches in California.

After all that feedback, Garza made his decision to stay and hope that the COVID-19 situation gets better, cross his fingers that there is some version of March Madness in 2021. If so, he’s confident his team will be in the thick of the hunt.

"We're going to work as hard as we did after that 14-19 year when we set out to prove everybody wrong," Garza said.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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