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Big Ten basketball star Luka Garza staying at Iowa, forgoes NBA draft

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 currently forgoing a professional career in order to remain a Hawkeye.

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.

But that 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 two 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.

“COVID went up to him and slapped him twice in the face: ‘Pay attention to me,’” Garza’s father, Frank, told the Register last week. “There’s a message there. How can this not impact you when it’s right on your doorstep?”

Iowa center Luka Garza (55) gets high-fives from teammates while heading to the bench during a NCAA college Big Ten Conference men's basketball game, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

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 said 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 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. If he were to lead Iowa to a Final Four appearance, that could also change the opinions of NBA decision-makers who have been largely lukewarm, his father believes.

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.

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 …”

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

Frank Garza said Luka truly did not make up his mind until Sunday morning. He was hoping to meet with his teammates and coaches first 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, who said he wanted his son to make his own decision.

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.

“I told him not to let emotion or ego take over. He’s taking everything in,” Frank Garza said of Luka.

“We don’t know what’s going to come tomorrow. How could you know?”

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