For many, basketball is the game that we played when we were young and a sport that we genuinely enjoy to watch. For University of Iowa star Luka Garza, basketball is more than just a hobby.
“Basketball is a lot of what I do. When I go home after practice, it’s what is on the TV, what I’m watching. It’s what I’m always thinking about.”
Coming from a basketball family (his father played in college and mother played professionally), Luka Garza knew that basketball was the sport he was going to want to play. Once he grew to 6’7 his freshman year in High School and then 3 more inches that following summer, he knew that it would be a realistic possibility to play at a high level. Many players like Anthony Davis grow over the course of their High School career, but Luka hit that growth spurt early.
What that meant was that Luka knew he was going to be a big when playing basketball. So, what’d he do? Along with learning from his dad, he watched and learned moves from the greats. While LeBron was his favorite player growing up, the bigs are the ones he studied.
“I grew up watching cassette tapes of all of the greats and that’s where I was able to learn. Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin McHale, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and all of those guys. Learning from what I saw, the beauty of the back to the basket post-game, and then obviously with guys like Jack Sikma, who has a big imprint on what I do. I think I just try to take lessons from all of those guys and learn as much as I could.”
Not often today will you hear collegiate and high school players spending the time to study players like Jack Sikma. But, that reverse pivot that Sikma used in the post so often, Luka aims to emulate.
He just truly is a student of the game. Garza says he loves to watch the game whenever he can. Whether it is playing it or competing against the best of the best, he is up for the challenge. In fact, I asked Luka who he thought was the best player he had ever played against and the answer may be a bit surprising to the casual basketball fan.
“Markelle Fultz, I played against in High School and still till this day…he’s up there with some of the best I’ve played against. So far in college I think, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, Cassius Winston is one of the better players I have ever played against.”
Luka is one of the first people to give respect and to credit others before himself. Along with being respectful, he gives off the vibe that loyalty is one the most important qualities for himself. Early on in High School, there weren’t many premier programs that were looking at Luka. The one Power 5 conference program to show immediate interest?
The school he decided to attend.
“Coach McCaffery started recruiting me when I was a sophomore in High School, during the summer before my junior year. He watched me play a couple times and then he offered me after the Nike Elite 100 Camp. Developing a relationship with him for three years was the main attraction to the University. I felt comfortable and that he was the coach for me, you know?”
“Throughout the course of the process, there was a plateau in terms of my recruitment where I wasn’t getting many high major offers. Going into my last summer of AAU, I had 10 offers and Iowa was the only Power 5 conference that had offered me. That next summer was the summer in which I kind of blew up and ended the summer with 30 offers, with most being high major offers.”
“I think I just rewarded the loyalty in the end. I took 3 visits here and I loved the campus, loved all of the people here and could tell that the culture here is something I wanted to be a part of.”
Loyalty…it’s a phrase that Luka brought up throughout our conversation. To his family, his school, his team, and to perfecting his craft, he was loyal to it all. That loyalty extended to taking the leadership role that the team needed once Tyler Cook had left for the NBA this past summer.
“After the season, I knew I had to step up into that role. I had learned from Tyler for two years on how to handle yourself in that position and I think I took that and was able to do the best job I could. That’s why this summer I had such an intense focus on improving because I knew that I was going to be stepping into a role I hadn’t had before in college. And I needed to be someone that the team could rely on and count on in any moment of the game.”
That intense focus on improving he spoke on was something that has been apparent to all Iowa fans and even the typical college basketball fan.
In now his junior year, we are seeing Luka averaging almost 10 more points and 6 more rebounds per game on 54.6% shooting from the field and a full 9% increase on his 3PT% (He’s now at 38.2%). In fact, as I mentioned to Luka over the phone, he is on pace to be the first player in the Big Ten since Kris Humphries in the 2003-2004 season to average over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season.
The production on the court doesn’t go unnoticed. Luka told me how, despite NBA scouts and executives watching him more closely this season, he is putting blinders on to keep the team and himself focused on what they can achieve this season.
The game of basketball has been so important to Luka Garza and he recognizes what it means to himself and to everyone. When asked about what basketball means to society, Luka gave me a terrific answer that even left me a bit speechless:
“Basketball brings people together. It allows individuals to express themselves on the court. It’s a game that is full of passion and emotion and something that is truly amazing to watch when you are playing at the highest level. You can see with the recent stuff with Kobe Bryant, may he rest in peace, you have seen how the game has allowed people to grieve with each other. You see how basketball affects the world and not only as just a game. It really isn’t just a game, it is more than that: It is a way of life.”
He gets it.
You simply won’t find many players quite like Luka. He is intelligent, gifted physically, and is an extremely humble person. Luka Garza is beginning to become a household name and sooner rather than later, he’ll be playing basketball professionally. The one thing that is quite clear, is that the humility and loyalty he showcases now, will never go away.