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Luka Garza and the Need for Developing Identity Through Change

Luka Garza sat down with our Thilo Latrell Widder to discuss his basketball past and why he doesn’t let it get in the way of his basketball present and future.

2023 NBA All-Star - NBA G League Next Up Game Photo by KeShawn Ennis/NBAE via Getty Images

RZA once said, “the first person you have to resurrect is yourself.”

When the enigmatic producer of the Wu Tang Clan released his first solo studio album, “Bobby Digital,” it was his moment to step out of the shadows. RZA masterminded Wu Tang’s 1993 classic “Enter the 36 Chambers,” and was the trigger point for one of the greatest rap groups ever. But, despite the central nature of the Abbot, he wasn’t allowed to be the star. That’s what made Bobby Digital so special. In an era where producers weren’t expected to take the next step, and despite the fact that there would never be a more popular version of RZA than the one pushing killer bees, Robert Diggs changed and moved forward without losing his identity.

And I can tell you that, as I sat in the University of Utah’s Jon M. Huntsman Center watching him win the G-League Next Up Game MVP, it was clear there will never be a more popular version of current Minnesota Timberwolves center Luka Garza than the one who won National Player of the Year as an Iowa Hawkeye.

2023 NBA All-Star - NBA G League Next Up Game Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

However, the most prevailing feeling around that crowded, rowdy arena was not one of otherness, but one of similarity. Before Garza was a G-League Showcase Captain, or a Timberwolf, or a Detroit Piston, or even a Hawkeye, he was just a normal kid who liked basketball.

While his mother was the former professional athlete, it was his father who trained him. His father prided himself on his collection of VHS tapes, which became Luka’s pride as well.

“[I’d] go downstairs, I put in, whether it was Kareem or Hakeem or even Shaq or whoever it was, put in those VHS tapes and watched them,” Garza told Canis Hoopus. “And then I’d go outside or I’d go on the mini hoop and I tried to emulate those moves.”

There’s a sweet spot in human growth where we’re the right size for a mini-hoop, a perfect moment when the indoor sky hooks don’t bounce off the ceiling, but also when a dunk is a real achievement. It’s those childhood moments that some of us chase in open gyms or wherever we see a hoop. For most of us, that lasts until someone inevitably goes tumbling into the plaster wall and leaves an unfixable crack, but also a perpetual story for guests. For Garza, that moment of fierce invincibility was even more fleeting. By the time he was 14, Garza was 6-foot-7 and leading Maret High School into the high school hoops gauntlet of Washington D.C.

Like many of us, the big man’s high school career came and went. Unlike many of us, however, the now-6-foot-11 center had an opportunity. There comes a time in any man’s life where they are told they can no longer play the children’s game. For Luka, that time hadn’t yet come. Although he received honor after honor, and left Maret as the school’s all time leading scorer, the respect was not simply given. When ESPN published their top 100 prospect, Luka Garza did not make it. Instead, a non-existent “Luke” Garza had managed to supplant the Virginia native as the last name on the list.

I’m sorry to return to the mini-hoop scene, but I just really want to push this image. There was a kid that couldn’t be past than 10 years old using a mini-hoop, which, by all accounts, is a tool for nothing productive — to learn post moves. As a fifth grade teacher, I can tell you that a fifth grader committing so heavily to research and improvement is unique. It takes a rare attitude for someone to misuse a toy for learning, but like many of us, the mini-hoop eventually became ineffective.

However, when the workouts required staying out in the driveway in pitch black night or traveling to a nearby gym, Luka committed to that as well.

Garza’s arrival at Iowa was nothing out of the ordinary. He met the upperclassmen, most notably former Timberwolf Tyler Cook, whose mentorship he would depend on going forward; Garza also planned out workouts with trainers, put in hours in the weight room, and got ready to play any role he could as a freshman. In fact, it was the underclassmen that would drive the next era of Iowa basketball after Cook departed for the NBA. Garza would man the middle, with Joe Wieskamp next to him. Connor McCaffery and Jordan Bohannon would manage everything outside. It was that slow build throughout a few recruiting classes that led to sustainable success.

Iowa v Wisconsin
Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

And when the time came for Garza to become not just a part, but the face of this rise, he relied on a familiar figure.

“I learned a lot from [Tyler Cook] ... just still being in college and hearing from him and knowing a lot ... I learned so much from him through that and especially playing with him. We’ve always had really, really good players and he had to deal with a lot of double teams and eventually, I had to deal with double, triple teams, all of that,” Garza said. “So being able to see up close and in front of me how someone deals with it, and how he consistently dealt with it, but still was able to be very successful, that kind of helped me learn and grow within that experience of watching so when it was my turn, I was ready to be able to figure it out.”

After improving with consecutive 20-win seasons in 2018 and 2019 after a lackluster 14-19 in Garza’s freshman year, it seemed that all signs pointed to Iowa becoming a regular March Madness entrant. The missing piece was not on the court, but in the locker room. The players loved each other. They loved Hawkeyes Head Coach Fran McCaffery (how could they not? For two of them, that was their dad). But how would they move forward in a conference without having someone at the front? So, without much fuss but with all required intentionality, Luka filled the void. He mentored a freshman Keegan Murray, and toured him around campus in the way Tyler had done for him. He was the first one in and the last one out of the gym. He once again changed his game, becoming a more capable passer from the post. What followed was nothing short of amazing.

The 2020-2021 season was a masterclass for Luka. A 22-9 record, a No. 2 seed, and a career-high in points, 3-pointers, assists, and, without fans in the crowd due to COVID, something to cheer for so loudly that the players in the Carver Hawkeye Arena could hear it. That’s a team that deserves some real accolades; finally, the roses were draped at Luka’s feet. NABC National Player Of the Year, consensus All-American, Big Ten Player of the Year, USBWA Player of the Year, and heaps of other awards were presented to Garza as part of a ridiculously huge year made possible by smaller ones before it.

Grand Canyon v Iowa Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Before the whirlwind of the previous year could be mortared into a foundation for him, Luka began to make preparations for the NBA draft. As someone who had been crowned as the best player in college basketball, the uninitiated would think that Garza was a guaranteed top pick, or at the very least a first round selection. However, after workouts for almost every team, it became clear that Luka was a question mark to even get drafted. He began focusing on teams with multiple second round picks. So, on July 29th, 2021, Luka Garza became the next member of the Detroit Pistons.

Going from the 100th ranked prospect to the 52nd overall pick is still a fantastic honor. In Luka’s own words, “being the 52nd Pick was something that, first of all, I was proud of just make it to the NBA. It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of something that a lot of people didn’t think was possible.” But, as a second round pick, Garza was by no means a lock to make the active roster.

Luka entered Summer League without a contract for anything after the month of July. That changed after five games. Garza averaged 15 points a game with almost 10 rebounds, while also shooting over 40% from three point range, made second team all-Summer League, and signed a two-way contract. “A couple of months later, right before training camp, I was able to get a two year deal. So for me, it’s kind of been the story of everything. Wherever I end up I have to continue to show and prove that I that I belong there. And for me, there’s nothing better.”

To this point, two main things had defined Garza: his attitude and his environment. However, whereas his time at Iowa was wonderfully secure, with four years of the same coach, multiple returning starters, and a slow transition into the spotlight, Garza’s entrance to the Motor City area was nothing short of destabilizing. His leadership skills — passed down from the brother-like Tyler Cook — didn’t immediately translate as a two-way player playing only 12 minutes a night. The post game made even less sense in a league that played fast, exposing Garza’s near-three hundred pound frame and lacking foot speed. Quite simply, if Iowa had been Garza’s Eden, this was his Purgatory.

Thus began a change most athletes must make when they take a jump in talent level. In college, Luka had feasted on mismatches both inside and on the perimeter, much to the success of the team around him. But, with the encouragement of a Pistons organization pushing him to change who he had been to that point, he embarked on a journey of erosion and rediscovery.

“I just understood it was a necessary change and I had to change my body ... the way I was playing and the guys I was going against, it’s not what you see all the time in the league and for me, I needed to try to maximize my athleticism and my foot speed within the NBA,” he said.

And it was a change that worked out. Garza made the G-League All-Rookie team, along with being listed as one of the G-League’s 15 best players as a member of the all-G-League third team. In his final NBA game of the regular season, Garza set multiple career highs with a 20-point, 10-rebound, four-assist performance. He was starting to figure it out, just like he had in high school, just like he had in college. Luka Garza was changing who he was, while still being himself. And yet...

The Pistons unceremoniously cut Garza on June 28th. But, he shockingly (or un-shockingly at this point) took it in stride.

“I didn’t know if I was gonna be on a two-way on a regular deal or shipped overseas,” Garza said. “I wanted to (be) somebody with the same mindset I’ve always had and I was able to show everyone that I belong at this level.”

Two years after he earned the Wooden Award, which crowns the best player in college basketball, one year after his career-saving masterclass at NBA Summer League, and just months into a full transformation of body, style, and role, Garza was cut loose. Even with his Iowa number 55 set to be retired into the rafters in February, an honor only three other players have ever earned, Luka spent his offseason without a roster spot.

“He’d known me since I was in high school and stuff like that. So for me, it was a familiarity there. And, I was happy that I got an opportunity to come here for training camp,” Garza said on the hero of his summer, Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly.

The head of the Wolves’ front office is a Baltimore, Maryland native who knows the D.C. high school scene well. While Connelly spent the summer leveraging the team’s future on a different big man, the opportunity he created for Garza has to be seen as an unabashedly good move during in his first year at the helm.

But, that can only be said because of the player Garza became on the court. Throughout nightmarish spans of injury luck, it has been Garza, and development track twin Naz Reid, plugging holes and exposing doubters. When injured, it’s a rotation with depth and players willing to step in and contribute.

When healthy, well... “you have an NBA starter playing rotation minutes, and that’s Naz Reid. Most of the teams in the league, he’d be a starting five. ... Karl Anthony-Towns, Rudy Gobert, you have the best shooting big in the league, you have the best pick and roll finisher,” Garza said. “You have the best offensive big in KAT and the best defensive big in Rudy. Me and Nathan Knight ... for us to be the four and five of that group is pretty special.”

Sioux Falls Skyforce vs Iowa Wolves Photo by Dave Eggen/NBAE via Getty Images

Maybe part of that equation was the return to Iowa. The Timberwolves G-League affiliate’s arena sits in Des Moines, just two hours from where Luka used to dominate in Iowa City. Location shouldn’t have the most on-court impact, but what stood out to Garza, and what has helped in this new environment, is finally playing in front of the Hawkeyes fans he hadn’t been able to see for three years.

“One of the most special parts about this year is being able to go back and play in the state of Iowa. I didn’t think I’d ever have that chance again. So, to be able to do that, it means a lot for me, especially because my senior year there were no fans at our games. So to get a chance to go down there and play in front of the Hawkeye fans and have a pretty good crowd down there at Wells Fargo Arena, that was definitely really important to me be able to do that.”

What struck me most when speaking with Luka was the combination of reverence but also fierce confidence he had for his teammates and opposition. Any comment of praise was never left without a statement of self-belief. No measure of pride went without another of humility.

For a 24-year-old guy who has never been afforded the respect that a player of his caliber deserves, it was amazing to find that not only was he not jaded, but also not deluded. The first question I had asked Luka was whether he had a chip on his shoulder, whether the lack of respect had bothered him, whether he thought he should’ve gone higher than 52 in the NBA Draft or been ranked higher than 100, or even whether he should still be on the Pistons after doing everything they asked of him and more.

He paused, thought about it a little, before describing in depth what his mentality was.

“You got to figure out how to fit in and how to be yourself within a team of such talented players and I think that’s one of the biggest adjustments, and I think I’m doing a lot better job with that this year,” he said.

“Bobby Digital” was panned not because it was a bad album. It’s actually quite a fun blind listen looking back. No, it was panned because it wasn’t Wu Tang. Just as every album that follows an all-time great EP or tries to change the artist’s style without completely sticking the landing is immediately called terrible, the Abbot simply couldn’t avoid his past as the Staten Island superstar, the producer of the greatest ever six song span on any album, in any genre, ever, or as the RZA.

Garza was seemingly headed for the same place. Half measures of change spurred on by those who guarantee they can set you up for success. Ultimately, NBA General Managers and music label A&Rs are not that different. Whereas lottery picks and those with first-round prestige will always be asked “how can we make you comfortable?” and “how can we tap into who you are?” it becomes the curse of those in the G-League and on the fringes of rosters to be hammered into a square peg to fit some idea of a prototype of who they could be. These players are not maximized. They are tumbled in a concrete mixer until their edges are dulled and their strengths are reshaped. To some, this is an affront, an insult to who they were. To Luka, this was a reasonable ask, and parallel to his mentality.

Luka Garza will never stop being an Iowa Hawkeyes legend. He’ll never stop being the kid watching VHS tapes and practicing on a mini-hoop. And he’ll certainly never stop being a supplier of his father’s favorite sky hook. But, in carrying those past versions of himself, Garza has found both the things he is and the things he can change. To find such security of self in a place of insecurity takes a truly impressive mindset, and if his modernized version of old-school center play is any indication of the player Luka strives to be, then his game is not the only thing developed beyond its years.