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Projecting Luka Garza’s NBA Game

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Luka Garza’s is an immoveable object who will set punishing screens for the Pistons

NBA: Detroit Pistons Press Conference Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY NETWORK

Meet Luka Garza, the Iowa center the Detroit Pistons snagged in the second round of the NBA Draft. For those of you unfamiliar with college basketball generally or Garza specifically, here is a quick rundown of his collegiate accomplishments. He was last year’s NCAA leader in points, total made field goals, made 2-point field goals, player efficiency rating, offensive wins shares, offensive box plus/minus, and points produced. Garza won AP College Player of the Year, Big Ten Male Athlete of the Year, Big Ten Player of the Year, First Team All-American, the Pete Newell Big Man Award, the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, the Lute Olsen Award, the Senior CLASS Award, as well as being First-Team All Big Ten. And many of these awards he also won the previous season too!

But what exactly will he bring to the Pistons now that he is in the D? Well, I’ll break down what he projects to do well at an NBA level, the aspects of the NBA game he is going to need to work on, as well as give a player comp to give you all an idea as to what type of player he can become. Let’s get started.

What He Projects to Do Well

In his final two seasons at Iowa, Garza shot 39.7% from three on 3.4 attempts per game. While the talk is of Garza being stiff and slow, he also worked a lot on his jumpshot the past four years to become a very good stretch five in college. Whether spotting up or as a pick-and-pop threat, Garza will drain open looks and require a defender who is tall enough or can jump high enough to alter a 6-foot-11 jumper. He is also a career 70.1% free throw shooter so he has form and touch there as well.

Garza will also continue to be a Brick House in the NBA. I don’t mean he’s going to be shooting bricks, I mean he is actually, physically made of bricks. Garza is not only big, he is also stout. At the NBA Combine, he measured in at 6-foot-11.25 and weighed in at 242.8 pounds. One of the reasons he was so productive in college is there was almost no one in the country who was able to handle Garza’s physicality. Not only is he strong and skilled, he stays planted to the ground and you just cannot move him.

In looking at the film, often when he sets a screen the defender did not want to even have the possibility of contacting Garza so they chose to either go under or take a trailing path with the ball handler. That’s how much intimidation factor Garza had as a screener. This will serve him well in the NBA to help his teammates get more space to operate and send a message to the opposition that you gotta be physical whenever Garza is on the court.

I think Garza will also be a fantastic second-unit scorer who will get you end of the shot clock buckets. He is surgical with his post moves and utilizes his elbows to rip under and through defenders to carve out space to get the looks he wants. He has drop steps, spin moves, up and unders, you name the move and he has it in his arsenal. I don’t know how often his number will be called to do this in today’s NBA, but rest assured he will be ready if that happens.

Aspects of His Game That Need Work

Defense is the obvious answer here as Garza is stiff and lacks the fluidity to most likely ever be even a decent switch defender. BUT, this does not mean he will always be a bad defender. I think Garza should be in the film room with his coaching staff to better understand team defensive concepts and drop coverage. Iowa tried to cover up Garza’s lack of fluidity on defense by keeping him out of switching situations, but what they chose to do instead bears noting to understand how Garza projects on defense.

Instead of either switching with his teammate to keep the man-to-man coverage intact or staying back and protecting the rim while letting help defenders do their thing, Iowa had Garza and his teammate double the ball handler, which allowed Garza’s man free.

I don’t like to openly criticize college coaches since they know way more than I ever will, but this choice of defense seemed not so good. This drove me bananas as clearly the team did not want Garza matched up on small, quicker guards … but if that’s the case then why not just run drop coverage?

Garza and the coaching staff should be studying the way San Antonio runs their drop coverage with Jakob Poeltl or Denver does it with Nikola Jokic to see how successful NBA teams do it even with guys that are less athletic and fluid than their peers. I don’t say all this to handwave Garza’s defense—it is objectively bad and there is little chance Garza becomes a difference-maker on D even with major tweaks to his body and game. But there are things from a scheme and technical standpoint to keep Garza out of switch situations and closer to the rim where he can at least use his immovability to alter shots at the rim.

To me, the thing that is much more worrisome than Garza’s defense is his lack of passing. For someone that dominated the ball as much as Garza, he passed it at an alarmingly low rate. His senior season was the only one where he posted an assist percentage better than 9.7% —and even then this senior year “career high” was 12.2%. In the meantime, he has had a usage rate of 24.4% or higher in all four years at Iowa—and the last two years he posted a 32.5% or higher rate!

Again, he HAS TO get in the film room with the coaching staff immediately to understand how to not look for his shot first and foremost. Whether it is running some DHOs or hitting shooters on his side when backing guys down in the post, Garza has to start with easy reads that play off of what he already does well. To me, if he cannot start creating more opportunities for his teammates in these two easy situations then his NBA career is most likely sunk as there is no team in today’s NBA who is going to give him 10-20 minutes per night just to back guys down in the post and slow the game down.

NBA Comp and Projected Role

Garza reminds me most of former Minnesota center Nikola Peković. Garza has three-point shooting in his arsenal, so that obviously separates him from Peković in that aspect, but otherwise, I think they have similar skills and mentality. Both are incredibly strong and stout to get their shot off inside almost at will and both set devastating screens to erase any defender.

The comp to Peković is a little difficult in that you will have to imagine if a player like Peković came up in this era and had to develop other aspects of his game other than just being a bully down low to play in the NBA. Pek only played in the Association six years partially due to injuries, but also because by 2015-16, the game became much more perimeter-oriented and was phasing out his style of play.

While he won’t have to reinvent his game completely in the NBA, Garza will be asked to be a specialist to start his career with the Pistons as a stretch 5 and as a screener. I honestly think he could be a Steven Adams level of screener because of how immoveable he is on film. It DID NOT MATTER who was on the other side of the court, they could not move Garza and he backed all of them down.

Garza will most likely see second unit minutes and second unit minutes ONLY in his first season as he works on his defense and court vision. What he will be able to do, however, is stretch the floor for guys like Saben Lee, Hamidou Diallo, Sekou Doumbouya, and Josh Jackson who are not consistent three-point threats. Garza will also add to a great shooting rotation of Cade, Saddiq, Jerami, and Isaiah Livers as well as Frank Jackson and Wayne Ellington should they return.

You may be wondering why I did not post any film of Garza to this point. Well, I wanted to save it for this point as I think the following game against Ohio State on February 4, 2021, is a great example of how Garza will fit on the NBA floor.

He is not posting up the whole game. He sets fantastic screens. You will hear the commentary team make many remarks about how he is bullying the Ohio State big men. Iowa also keeps him out of switching situations on defense and lets him stay in a drop-type coverage closer to the rim to effect more shots.

His final stat line is 16 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 0 turnovers. His shooting splits are 50/33/50. He will definitely shoot it better from the free-throw line as evidence by his overall percentage, but I can see Garza inhabiting this type of role on the Pistons anywhere from 10-15 minutes per game. I don’t know if he will always be able to crack double digits in scoring, but this game at least flashes what Garza looks like in a supporting role rather than just getting fed post up after post up.

Let us know what your predictions are for Garza in the comments! Next time, I will break down the game of the other center drafted by the Pistons, Balsa Koprivica.