Luka Garza Should Be Iowa's Starting Center Come November

By Matthew Lundeen on August 16, 2017 at 8:00 am
The 6'11" freshman brings a skillset that last year's team badly needed.

The 6'11" freshman brings a skillset that last year's team badly needed.

Unless you have been living under a rock over the past couple weeks, you probably are aware that Iowa basketball just wrapped up a four-game trip through Europe, playing Games in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Iowa absolutely blitzkrieged every single opponent they faced on this trip, and no one played a bigger role in the bloodshed than Iowa’s freshman big man, Luka Garza.

Over those four games, Garza led the team, averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes per game. His offensive skills were obviously well on display throughout the Hawkeyes’ Euro trip. We didn’t see much of the jump shot that we saw in the Prime Time League or in his recruiting highlight tapes, but it didn’t matter because he was a monster in the paint.

And when he wasn’t dominating on the block, he was showing off an ability to run the court and get to the foul line – a place he visited, on average, seven times a game (and shot a cool 81%, by the way) during this four-game stretch.

And while this was only four games against what looks like pretty suspect competition, it’s still always better to see these types of outstanding performances against cupcake opponents rather than ugly ones. But, fully acknowledging that these European “All-Star” teams don’t appear to be Big Ten caliber, I am saying right now that Luka Garza should be Iowa’s starting center when the season tips off.

The funny thing is, it isn’t even because of his offensive performances in the PTL (where he averaged 31 points and 11 rebounds per game) or during these last four games that I am calling for him to start. That doesn’t hurt, of course. But I really think he brings something that last year’s team really lacked: defense in the paint. With that on my mind, here is what I said back in April in the Season in Review for Cordell Pemsl:

“Personally, my way too early prediction is that Pemsl will come off the bench next season, as I think Fran may insert Luka Garza into the starting lineup in hopes that he becomes a lane-clogger and rim-protector. Similar to the way Nicholas Baer was handled this year, Fran may simply just love having a guy like Pemsl on the bench who can come into the game and make a real impact. It's no slight to Pemsl. Rather, Iowa just looks to be that deep that they can afford the luxury of starting him on the bench.”

I don't think I need to remind you, but last year’s team was really bad on defense. And while a large part of that was the fact that opponents made nearly 36% of their three-pointers against the Hawkeyes, another large part of the puzzle came inside the arc.

Season Block% Rank % of Shots at Rim Rank FG% AT RIM Rank
2017 9.4% 152 32.9% 117 67.2% 330
2016 12.3% 41 29.2% 41 64.7% 320
2015 13.1% 37 25.1% 13 61.9% 281
2014 13.5% 31 29.2% 32 61.8% 261
2013 12.6% 41 29.7% 79 62.2% 246

Note: Block stats were gathered from Kenpom, while the shooting data came via Hoop-Math.

The 2017 Iowa team ranked 330th in the country in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, as opponents scored on 67% of their tries. Making things worse, Iowa also gave up a larger percentage of shots at the rim than they had in the previous four years.

What was the big difference between last year’s team and the ones from years’ past? Size, mostly.

The point guard situation that forced Jordan Bohannon to play 30 minutes per night on Big Ten point guards as a true freshman was obviously less-than-ideal, but Iowa’s lack of a rim protector to help erase some of those mistakes also really hurt. For whatever reason, Iowa seems to always finish in the bottom half of field goal percentage at the rim, but when they had the 7’0” Adam Woodbury and the 6’10” Gabe Olaseni, they offset that issue by limiting shots at the rim. They also blocked a lot more shots when they had more height on the inside – an area in which Jarrod Uthoff was dearly missed last year.

Fortunately, Garza should be able to make an impact in that area pretty quickly as a freshman. He “officially” blocked three shots on this overseas trip, but I counted what appeared to be another one in the first game against Germany that wasn’t included in the box score.

In the clip, Garza is defending the 6’10” Robert Oehle, who just happens to be 10 years his senior. You’ll notice Oehle beats him baseline, but Garza is able to use his long arms to prevent his man from going up on the short side of the rim and forces him to try and go up on the other side, where Garza swats him.

Another issue Iowa had last season was defensive rebounding. According to Kenpom, they finished 296th in the nation in opponent offensive rebounding and dead last in the Big Ten. Cordell Pemsl qualified for 433rd in the country in defensive rebounding, and Ryan Kriener was better, but didn’t play enough minutes to qualify. But even if those guys are as good or better in 2018, it’s safe to say that Iowa could use Garza's help in this category. He certainly may have had a height advantage on the European big men, but the guys he was going up against were still 6’8”-6’10” and usually 10 years older (or more) with plenty of experience. And the fact that a guy fresh out of high school was able to average 6 defensive rebounds per game (and four offensive ones, to boot) is pretty damn impressive.

So altering shots at the rim and defensive rebounds should be a few areas where he can step in and help Iowa immediately. But can he handle everything else that Fran is going to demand of him? Well, based on the little bit of video evidence we have, he does appear plenty capable.

First of all, Garza has already shown that he is willing and able to defend ball screens in the aggressive manner that Fran requires.

As you can see, he is capable of jumping out on the perimeter and taking away the three-point shot and cutting off the dribble drive, all while being able to rotate back to his man. There is obviously a lot of teamwork involved on this play, as Bohannon bats down the pass inside. But even if he hadn’t, Dom Uhl was lurking, ready to poke his long arm in and knock the pass away. There are bound to be errors, of course, but if his veteran teammates can help him out, Garza should be fine. 

As for post defense, Iowa sorely needs someone who can deny the post and takeaway the entry pass from the wing. Last year, the Hawkeyes really missed Adam Woodbury and it showed with the success that bigger teams had in throwing the ball in over the top of the defender and punishing Iowa's terrible weak side help. But Garza’s 7’3” wingspan should make that much more difficult this year.

In total, Garza looks like an extremely long big man that can run the floor, defend ball screens on the perimeter, and go toe-to-toe with Big Ten caliber post players in the paint. Iowa had guys who could do some of those things last year, but no one that could do it all. Because of that, Garza should be Iowa’s starting center come November. Small sample size and questionable competition be damned. From day one, he should be able to help fix some of the defensive shortcomings that the 2017 team had, and if he can add in some offense, that’s only the cherry on top of the sundae. Put it all together, and hopefully we will see more plays like this in 2018. 

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