There was a time – and not all that long ago – when the guy good enough to sweep the major Player of the Year awards in college wouldn’t have lasted to the fifth pick, never mind the 52nd.
So the Pistons didn’t have to bet much – because the history of the 52nd pick says they rarely leave a lasting impact in the NBA – but they’re betting on Luka Garza to defy the odds.
And when you’re betting, bet on a guy with the all-world combination of determination, willpower and self-awareness that Garza has displayed in the scant few months since capping his four-year, record-setting career at Iowa. To win every Player of the Year ballot – Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, Associated Press, The Sporting News, Oscar Robertson Trophy, Lute Olson Player of the Year, NABC – and look in the mirror and say, hmmm, better reshape my body to make the NBA is an All-American statement in humility, reasoning and adaptability.
“It started after the season, having some self-evaluation of how am I going to be able to transition to the NBA,” Garza said prior to his Summer League debut for the Pistons on Sunday, when in 13 minutes he scored nine points, grabbed four rebounds and didn’t look at all like he was on the NBA’s endangered species list. “What can I do to make myself quicker to be able to impress people to want to draft me?”
Garza played at 268 pounds on his 6-foot-11¼ frame at Iowa last season. After taking a week or two off when the season ended in the NCAA tournament in March, he was up to 271 or 272. When he stepped on the scales at the NBA draft combine in Chicago three months later, he weighed 243.
Let’s be clear: It wasn’t like Garza was sloppy over the course of his college career. You don’t average 24 points and nearly nine rebounds a game in the Big Ten without being physically fit and disciplined.
But what he was asked to do at Iowa – use his rare combination of brute force and deft touch to overpower mostly smaller players inside – required one body type and what he’d be asked to do in the NBA – help space the floor on one end and hold his own against the ubiquitous pick-and-roll attack prevalent in today’s game at the other – would require another. And Garza, reflecting his intelligence and maturity, understood and accepted that rather than doubling down on the formula that paid handsome dividends for him in the transition from high school to college.
So he sought a dietitian and a chef and radically changed his diet, cutting out carbohydrates altogether, eating a plant-based diet with chicken and fish for protein. He wore a weight-training vest – “like the Kardashians,” he said – and shed a full 30 pounds at one point before looking to build up a little more strength. He came into Summer League at “245, 246, which feels better and now continue to improve my strength and be able to have a mix of being able to move better than I ever have before and keeping some of the strength.”
The offensive end won’t be Garza’s challenge. His shooting touch caught Dwane Casey’s eye immediately when Summer League practices began last week at the Pistons Performance Center.
“One thing I didn’t know was how good a shooter he is,” Casey said. “I didn’t know how it would transition from Iowa to the NBA. But he’s knocking ’em down, making plays as a five man. So far, so good for Luka.”
Garza drained his first 3-point try of Summer League and it was no cheapie, hitting from the top of the arc. He also showed his nose for the ball in grabbing four offensive rebounds, converting two into put-backs.
“What I see from Luka didn’t just show tonight. It showed in his approach leading up to practice,” Summer League coach J.D. DuBois, a Casey staffer since their days in Toronto, said after Sunday’s opener. “One of the first ones there, one of the last to leave. He’s always talking. He’s a guy I know will continue to improve. He’s dialed in and bought in to what we’re looking for as an organization. I’m excited to see his growth over the next week and a half.”
Still to be determined is what Garza’s role for the 2021-22 season will be. Waiving Tyler Cook and Deividas Sirvydis, both of whom remain on the Summer League roster, cleared some roster space. Isaiah Livers, drafted 10 spots above Garza, was signed to a standard contract over the weekend, increasing the possibility that Garza would have a spot on a two-way deal. If he’s on the roster as opposed to finding an international home for a season to further develop his game for the NBA, Garza is likely to suit up plenty for the Motor City Cruise, who debut in a new arena under construction on the campus of Wayne State.
There would be challenges enough in making the leap without having to adapt to a newly streamlined physique and foreign means of applying your skill set after a lifetime of playing a different way. But Garza feels the early promise of his leaner frame as he figures the rest out.
“One hundred percent. I’ve noticed it a lot,” he said. “I feel more comfortable moving, just moving better in general. It’s not only just losing weight, but all the work I’ve done in this process and working on my lateral movement. Still not a world beater, but getting better and better.”
There are other traits Garza brings to the Pistons that are timeless and give him the profile to succeed against the considerable odds that face players drafted in the back half of the second round.
“The way I play in terms of how hard I play, just hustle and crash the glass, get offensive rebounds. That will always translate,” he said. “I feel like no matter what level you play at, if you play hard, good things will happen.”