Racing mosquitoes: Inside the maniacal work ethic of Iowa’s Luka Garza

The father of college basketball’s best player had a diabolical reason for always beginning his son’s beach workouts at sundown.

Luka Garza’s dad wanted him sprinting back and forth across the sand at the time of day when the mosquitoes were most active.

Every summer, the Garza family travels to a tourist-friendly destination, but seldom do father or son take time to go sightseeing or work on their tans. Frank Garza instead puts his son through three punishing workouts a day for three straight weeks to build Luka’s endurance, improve his game and strengthen his resolve.

The setting for the most recent father-son bootcamp was a Delaware resort town known for its sun-splashed beaches and charming boardwalk. Only days after Luka withdrew from the NBA draft last August, the Iowa center joined his dad in Rehoboth Beach to chisel away at the weaknesses mentioned most often by league executives and scouts.

Each morning at dawn, Luka’s dad drove him to a nearby gym to complete a series of shooting drills, each of which he repeated if he didn’t hit a satisfactory percentage. Up next he sought to increase his lung capacity by swimming countless laps at the pool and doing breathing exercises in the salt air. Not until dusk when the mosquitoes were swarming did Luka go to the beach to do sets of agility drills, sprints and defensive slides.

“The reason I had him do it when the mosquitoes were out is you have no choice but to move fast,” Frank Garza told Yahoo Sports. “There’s no resting. If you’re standing still, the mosquitoes collect and you’re getting bit to death.”

Stories like that help explain why Luka Garza’s teammates and coaches are so adamant that NBA teams are making a mistake by underestimating him. Those close to Garza insist that his maniacal work ethic and relentless motor will help him outperform big men blessed with longer wingspans, quicker feet or higher verticals.

Garza is averaging 27.5 points per game this season for an Iowa team ranked fifth in the nation, yet many NBA scouts still don’t consider the heavy national player of the year favorite to be a surefire first-round pick. They’re concerned that the lumbering 6-foot-11 center lacks the mobility or athleticism to defend in space or alter shots around the rim, two prerequisites for a center to stay on the floor during the NBA’s modern pace-and-space era.

"Who does he guard?” one Western Conference NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “In space, it'll be a nightmare for him defensively. He's a plodder in transition and not a rim protector."

While Garza atones for any defensive shortcomings at Iowa by hitting 62.5 percent of his shots despite frequent double teams, some scouts aren’t convinced he’ll be able to score as efficiently against longer, taller NBA defenders. As proof, they cite Garza’s lone off game during his senior season, a 6-for-20 shooting performance against a North Carolina team able to throw four formidable big men at him.

If the skepticism over his NBA potential frustrates Garza, he does a remarkable job hiding it. He doesn’t appear to allow it to shake his confidence, nor does he even seem to use it as a source of fuel or motivation. Garza just keeps working hard and trying to get better like always, secure in the belief that will help him prove his doubters wrong as it has so many times before.

Dec 25, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes center Luka Garza (55) shoots the ball during the first half against the Minnesota Gophers at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports
Luka Garza is second in the nation in scoring, averaging 27.5 points a game for Iowa. (Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports)

Falling in love with the grind

Garrett O’Donnell was ready to go home.

The last game of the night at a Maryland AAU tournament had turned into a blowout. The eighth-grader whom O’Donnell came to scout had already left the game. Only the lingering fear that there might be an undiscovered prospect among either team’s benchwarmers kept O’Donnell from leaving the gym.

O’Donnell’s thoroughness paid off when a tall, gangly eighth-grader caught his eye after entering the game. The boy was by far the slowest player on the court, but he flashed some skill whenever he managed to make it down the floor in time to be part of the offense.

On one possession, the boy deftly caught a pass in the short corner, kept the ball nice and high and buried a baseline jump shot so pure the net didn’t even move. Minutes later, the boy snared another sharp pass in the same spot, set his feet and did the same thing.

Those two shots alone were enough to send O’Donnell scurrying to find out more about the kid. After the game O’Donnell introduced himself to Luka Garza and asked if he’d consider coming to play for him the following year at Maret Academy in Washington D.C.

“Maret had been a perennial loser for decades, and I was worried that if any other school in the area started recruiting him, we were going to lose him,” O’Donnell said. “Fortunately, he wasn’t athletic enough. That’s the only reason we got him.”

While Garza’s soft hands and feathery shooting stroke helped him make Maret’s varsity team as a high school freshman, he remained rooted to the bench for most of the season. Garza couldn’t yet jump high enough to dunk despite standing 6-foot-7, nor was he strong enough to hold his ground in the paint against older players. His repertoire of low-post moves at that time consisted of little besides a basic up-and-under.

It wasn’t until Maret’s other big men fouled out late in a key league game against St. James that Garza received the first meaningful minutes of his high school career. The freshman responded by sinking two corner 3-pointers over the outstretched hands of Temple-bound Obi Enechionyia, earning the trust of his coach and hinting at better days ahead.

The taste of success caused Garza to crave more. He dreamed of following in the footsteps of his dad and grandpa, both of whom played Division I basketball. Or of his mother and uncle, both of whom played professionally in Europe.

In his spare time, Garza would go downstairs to the basement, borrow a VHS tape from his dad’s extensive collection and watch clips of Jack Sikma, Kevin McHale or Hakeem Olajuwon. Then he’d spend hours emulating their signature moves on the mini-hoop in his room or on the 10-foot basket in the driveway.

Still, Garza was so slow running the floor as a freshman, O’Donnell urged him to join Maret’s track-and-field team to work on his speed and conditioning. Garza’s response? Volunteering to specialize in the 100-meter dash.

Much to the amusement of his teammates, Garza would typically stagger across the finish line a few seconds after his competition. But he didn’t care. He wasn’t running sprints to be Usain Bolt.

“He knew what the bigger picture was,” O’Donnell said. “Can you imagine how much courage that took? He was willing to take something he was weak at, put himself out there in front of everyone and try to get better at it.”

The combination of Garza’s hard work and a well-timed growth spurt accelerated his evolution into a high school standout. The former benchwarmer blossomed into Maret’s offensive centerpiece as a sophomore, averaging 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds and leading his school to a league title.

“Once I saw the results of my hard work, it made me addicted to continuing to work hard,” Garza said. “I fell in love with the grind. If something was going to help me become a better player, I was all in.”

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‘We were all in on him’

The summer after Garza’s breakout sophomore season, Maret underwent a coaching change.

The new coach wasted little time delivering a blunt assessment to Garza after watching him play for the first time at a Maryland AAU tournament.

Unable to train for weeks after undergoing surgery to repair bone spurs, Garza had ballooned up to 270 pounds as a result of the inactivity. Chuck Driesell encouraged the 6-foot-11 center to try to shed at least 30 pounds and increase his stamina, speed and explosiveness by the start of his junior season.

“I never thought he’d do it, but darn it if he didn’t show up to school 30-35 pounds lighter,” said Driesell, the son of retired Hall of Fame college coach Lefty Driesell. “I’m like, ‘Luka, you need to write a book on how to lose 30 pounds in one month!’”

The secret to Garza’s trimmer physique was the first of his dad’s basketball boot camps. Frank Garza took Luka to Hawaii to suffer through grueling three-a-day workouts and to soak in the basketball knowledge of Frank’s former college coach Bill Trumbo.

Every morning, Frank and Trumbo drove Luka to a nearby track, took out a stopwatch and instructed him to run farther in four minutes than he did the previous day. Luka would then do a series of sprints with little rest in between, from 220-meter runs on the track, to speed training and agility work on the football field.

After a healthy meal, the trio went to a gym and put Luka through all sorts of shooting, layup and footwork drills. Then in the evening, Luka had to showcase what he’d worked on that day during pickup games or risk the wrath of his father.

“Coach Trumbo and I would critique his every breath,” Frank Garza said. “Sometimes he’d be so terrible during the first game that we’d do a total mind thing with him and we’d get up and leave. That would always bring out the best in him when we came back.”

Asked why he didn’t rebel against his father’s training methods, Luka insists he knew Frank was only trying to help him get where he wanted to go. The younger Garza is also quick to point out that his dad’s approach produced results.

After averaging 24.5 points and 12.6 rebounds as a junior at Maret, Garza’s name for the first time began appearing at the tail end of lists of the top-100 basketball recruits in the 2017 class. Lefty and Sean Driesell tried to get the likes of Maryland, Duke and North Carolina involved in Garza’s recruitment to no avail, but scholarship offers did begin to pour in from the likes of Louisville, Alabama, Georgia and Georgetown.

In September of his senior year of high school, Garza committed to the school that was the first high-major to show interest in him. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery offered a scholarship early in the summer before Garza’s junior year after twice watching the big man display relentless effort on every possession against his son Connor’s teams.

At that time only Binghamton and George Washington had extended scholarship offers to Garza. Other coaches shied away because of concerns about Garza’s lack of quickness or subpar athleticism.

“For me, it was a no-brainer,” McCaffery said. “I never got caught up with who else is offering or who else is recruiting him. I trusted myself and I trusted my staff to make those evaluations, and we were all in on him. He was fearless, he made big shots late and he was in there competing for every rebound. He had qualities you just can’t teach and coach.”

It didn’t take long for Garza to validate McCaffery’s evaluation. He cracked Iowa’s starting five early in his freshman season, earned honorable mention all-conference honors as a sophomore and blossomed into a unanimous first-team All-American as a junior.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last season’s NCAA tournament, there was only one question on the minds of Iowa basketball fans: Had they seen the last of Garza in Hawkeye colors? Or would the NBA’s tepid interest persuade him to return for one more season?

IOWA CITY, IOWA- DECEMBER 22:  Forward Luka Garza #55 of the Iowa Hawkeyes talks with his teammates before their match-up against the Purdue Boilermakers at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on December 22, 2020 in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
Luka Garza talks with his teammates before their match-up against the Purdue Boilermakers. (Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

To stay in college or go pro?

If Garza had the chance to play in the NCAA tournament, attend the draft combine or work out in person for NBA teams last year, his college coach is convinced the skilled center might not be playing for Iowa anymore.

McCaffery argues that some NBA team might have looked beyond Garza’s athletic shortcomings and come to appreciate his blend of grit and skill.

“It’s one thing to watch him on tape,” the Iowa coach said. “It’s another to really get to know him and to see him up close and personal.”

Garza and his father had plenty of Zoom conversations with NBA executives, but the feedback they received was mixed. Some teams felt that he could accomplish no more at the college level and that his best option was turning pro. Other teams suggested that he could raise his stock if spent another year focusing on extending his shooting range, passing out of double teams and improving as a defender.

The one common thread? None projected Garza as a first-round pick.

In the end, Garza had three options. He could have remained in the NBA draft as a potential second-round pick. He could have returned to Iowa as the centerpiece of a preseason top-five team. Or he could have accepted a seven-figure contract offer to play in Europe, where his mother’s Bosnian heritage makes him especially valuable to teams not permitted to sign more than two non-European players.

Garza ultimately chose to stay in college because he believed he could work on his weaknesses while trying to lead Iowa to its first Final Four since 1980.

“More than anything, I saw the potential in the group we had if I came back to school,” Garza said. “A lot of people dream of playing in the NBA, but you also dream of making a run in March and playing on a great NCAA team. It wouldn’t have felt right leaving without seeing what this team could have done.”

In addition to training with his dad in Delaware and his AAU coaches back home in Washington D.C., Garza also worked with a Maryland personal trainer who helped Chase Young prepare for last year’s NFL draft. Marvin Gibson overhauled Garza’s running mechanics and sought to improve his lateral quickness and ability to change directions quickly.

When Garza worked with Gibson, his training partner was often Jalen “Stix” Smith, the versatile former Maryland forward whom the Phoenix Suns selected with the 10th pick in the first round last November. Gibson would often test Garza’s famous work ethic by giving the smaller, quicker Smith a head start in speed and agility drills.

“Luka could have gone in defeated, but he never did,” Gibson said. “Over time, as Luka’s mechanics got better, the distance that Stix was winning by would get shorter and shorter. I kept telling Luka, ‘You just have to keep believing in the mechanics. You can’t go back to your old bad habits.’ ”

Most mock drafts still don’t project Garza as first-round pick one month into his senior season, but it’s safe to say the Iowa center hasn’t done anything to hurt his draft stock.

He still hasn’t flashed much creativity as a passer, but his efficiency and versatility as a scorer has only improved. In addition to his usual array of low-post and mid-range baskets, he is shooting a career-best 48.5 percent from behind the arc. Last Saturday, he even torched a Rutgers defender off the dribble from the top of the key.

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Defense still isn’t a strength for Garza nor his Iowa teammates, but he has made some strides there as well. No longer are quicker players blowing by him quite so easily on ball screens or when he closes out. He’s also sustaining effort for longer and providing more resistance at the rim.

“Luka Garza is going to make a lot of money playing basketball somewhere, whether it’s as a hyper elite Euroleague player or an NBA player who comes off the bench,” said Sam Vecenie, who covers the NBA draft for The Athletic. “He has a legitimately fascinating skill set, but his lack of mobility is going to be a substantial liability in the NBA.”

With Garza content to keep working hard and hope that’s enough, it’s up to McCaffery to speak up on his behalf. The Iowa coach is tired hearing that Garza is a poor fit for today’s NBA, that a slow-footed 6-foot-11 center has no place in a league seeking big men with the mobility to defend in space and the athleticism to protect the rim.

Last November, McCaffery sat down in front of his TV for the NBA draft and came away “sort of confused to be honest.”

“There were some guys drafted who are great players,” he said, “but I didn’t think they’re as good as Luka Garza.”

Even with the NBA recently valuing more mobile centers who have the ability to run the floor, switch ball screens and alter shots in the paint, McCaffery is optimistic there’s still a place in the league for someone with Garza’s skill set.

“If you put this guy in an NBA game, he’s going to get buckets, he’s going to get rebounds, he’s not going to turn it over and he’s going to make winning plays,” McCaffery said. “Somebody is going to appreciate that before it’s all over. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

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