For the past four years, they’ve battled each other as Big Ten rivals. Now Isaiah Livers and Luka Garza team up with the Pistons to battle the perception that players who exhaust their college eligibility are likely to have limited NBA futures.
Garza will get a head start on that endeavor as Livers recovers from spring surgery to repair a foot injury that ended his Michigan career before the NCAA tournament in March. Through two days of Pistons Summer League practices, Garza has Dwane Casey intrigued.
“He’s had two really good days,” Casey said of Garza, not taken until he 52nd pick despite sweeping the national college Player of the Year awards. “Luka’s a competitor. He knows how to play. One thing I didn’t know was how good a shooter he is. I didn’t know how it would translate from Iowa to the NBA, sort of like last year with Saddiq (Bey). But he’s knocking ’em down, making plays as a five man. So far, so good for Luka.”
Garza and Livers have a combined 246 college games under their belts, 127 of them for Garza, and 187 combined starts. Garza was Big Ten Player of the Year and Livers was one of three Wolverines to make All-Big Ten second team. Livers – recruited to Michigan by John Beilein, now Pistons senior adviser for player development – was taken 10 spots ahead of Garza.
Drafting both in the second round might have been something of a “Moneyball” move for Pistons general manager Troy Weaver. He spotted a market inefficiency in draft strategy – the undervaluing of older college players – and exploited it to put two players who could conceivably help sooner than later in the Pistons feeder system.
“He had a tremendous career,” Livers, who expects to be cleared for full basketball activity by Nov. 1 at the latest, said of Garza. “Great leader. I think Weaver and Casey were looking for leaders. You have your typical NBA teams that want to go after young guys, but the problem with young guys is they lack experience. Garza obviously brings his leadership, his toughness, his skillfulness of mismatches on big guys guarding him. He’s got the touch – it’s Luka, Luka Garza. For me, shooter, Big Ten four years, played under coach Beilein, coach (Juwan) Howard. I learned a lot between those two coaches, so you can understand why four-year guys like us would get drafted.”
Both players provide 3-point shooting, as does No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, a 40 percent 3-point shooter in his freshman season at Oklahoma State. Livers, 23, shot 41 percent for his Michigan career from the 3-point arc and took 53 percent of his career shots from beyond the arc. Livers averaged 13.1 points and 6.0 rebounds as a senior and knocked down 87 percent of his free throws. Garza, 22, was a 37 percent career 3-point shooter at Iowa but stepped it up to 44 percent as a senior, when he averaged 24.1 points and 8.7 rebounds while attempting 20 percent of his shots from the arc.
There’s a decent chance that Livers and Garza wind up playing side by side often in the 2021-22 season as teammates for the Motor City Cruise. Both Weaver and Casey highly value the benefits of G League experience and prioritized moving the Pistons G League affiliate to Detroit for the greater opportunity to utilize that option such proximity allows.
After knocking heads with Livers for the past four years – Michigan went 6-2 against the Hawkeyes – Garza is happy to link up with him as Pistons.
“I’m excited to be able to play with him,” he said. “I’m tired of going against him. We had some battles. One of the best shooters I’ve been around – his release, his arc. It’s tough to guard. He’s more than just a shooter. He can score in a lot of different ways, score at the rim. He’s big, he’s a great defender, he’s a high IQ player and a high character guy and that’s what coach Casey and Mr. Weaver were talking about in (last week’s) press conference. They were bringing in high-character guys. Obviously, he’s a great player but an even better person. You can tell that just by playing against him and now getting to know him a little better.”