IOWA CITY — When he was a not-so-little little kid in Washington, D.C., Luka Garza didn’t watch "Nickelodeon, stuff like that."
"I was downstairs watching cassette tapes of those guys."
“Those guys” being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon. Legendary NBA post players on VHS tapes collected by Garza’s father, former University of Idaho forward Frank Garza, who scored 14.3 points per game as a senior.
Frank’s son is a throwback in many good ways for the Iowa men’s basketball team. Luka is a 6-foot-11 sophomore center who plays a game like few his size in college ball, and plays it very well. He is the first Hawkeye to score at least 19 points in five straight games since Aaron White did it in the last seven games of the 2014-15 season.
Garza freely admits he hasn’t cornered the market on athleticism. But when it comes to preparation and desire to match his skills, this guy has 245 pounds of it. He watches NBA and college games whenever possible for education, not entertainment. Today he studies current pro stars like Joel Embiid, LeMarcus Aldridge and DeMarcus Cousins, looking for things they do that he can incorporate into his game.
“It’s my life,” Garza said Wednesday. “It’s an addiction, it’s a passion, it’s all of that. It’s something that drives me every day. It’s what I want to do the rest of my life. Since I was a kid it was just what I wanted to do.”
It was accepting limitations until you began to grow beyond them. Garza stuck a key 3-pointer in Iowa’s 74-59 over Michigan last Friday. He made three of them at Minnesota the game before. He didn’t start shooting from behind the arc as a youth until it felt right.
“All the way through elementary school, before that even, my dad taught me how to shoot,” Garza said. “I couldn’t shoot 3s until eighth grade, ninth grade. … My dad didn’t want me to extend my shot to mess up the form.
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“I was shooting 15-to-17 foot jumpers a lot in sixth grade, seventh grade. You’d see a bunch of kids always trying to jack 3s from 40 feet and it kind of messed up their form a little bit. It took a while, eighth grade, when I started shooting 3s in games.”
Garza looks like a “throw it down, big man!” guy with his size, but the dunk is only an occasional shot in his repertoire.
“Mind you, I was 6-7 going into my freshman year and I couldn’t dunk,” he said.
“I went from averaging like four points and barely playing — Coach didn’t trust me to put me in games my freshman year on the varsity — to my sophomore year averaging 20 and 10 (rebounds), me being 6-9 and able to do a lot more stuff.”
That stuff finally included dunking, but primarily consisted of offensive moves he had worked on for years, including on a mini basket in that basement as he copied the NBA legends he watched on videotapes.
“I really focused on being skilled and being able to finish in different ways,” Garza said. “I had the jump-hooks and different stuff like that instead of just trying to back you down and dunk it.”
“If you know his father you can understand why he’s like that,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “They have a great relationship. Frank’s a basketball historian. He’s a bright guy. He’s a thinker. He played himself, so he understands footwork.
“I think it’s valuable information that he’s gotten from his dad and from the tapes that he’s watched.”
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Watching is one thing. Working is another. An example: He began his college career last season making just 16 of his first 39 free throws. Since then, he is 138 of 169 for 81.7 percent. He is third in the Big Ten this season in free throw percentage in conference games at 86 percent. Seldom do 6-11 college sophomores shoot that well from the line.
“I know that I have a touch,” Garza said. “I can shoot the ball, so I shouldn’t miss free throws.”
Last summer, he tried to close every workout by making 50 straight foul shots.
“So even when you’re done with your workout you’re in there for 45 (minutes) to an hour longer trying to get that done.
“That’s just how I work out. When I have rests, my rests are free throws.
OK, there were occasional days when he didn’t always go until he made 50 straight.
“At least 25 if you couldn’t make 50 after a long time.”
But, “I wouldn’t give up. I’d hit at least hit 25.”
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