The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Luka Garza has gone from D.C. basketball star to college basketball’s leading man

Iowa center Luka Garza leads Division I in scoring with 34 points per game. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Luka Garza remembers the day his name appeared on ESPN’s list of the top 100 basketball recruits in the Class of 2017. He was No. 100.

And yet, that ranking signified another landmark for a player who had been a slow-moving bench resident just a few years before, had averaged four points as a freshman at Maret School in D.C. and had been told by numerous coaches that his best hope was becoming a role player.

Now, there was his name, listed on the screen among the biggest and buzziest prospects in the country. He looked at it with pride: “Luke Garza.”

“Yeah, it was spelled wrong,” Garza said recently. “And I was looking at that list and I knew there were a lot of guys ahead of me that I felt strongly I was better than. I was honored to be a part of it, but there were a lot of things that filled me with motivation as a player.”

Four years later, Garza’s name is well known to most college basketball fans. The Iowa forward might be the game’s biggest returning attraction this season, coming off a junior campaign in which he garnered national player of the year honors and earned a spot on all-American teams.

It has been a stunning ascendance for the 6-foot-11 Northern Virginia native.

In Iowa City, Garza has proved himself to be one of the D.C. area’s best alumni on the current college landscape. Last season, he averaged the same amount of points for the Hawkeyes as he did in his senior year at Maret. After opting to return to college this summer, Garza has continued to trend upward. He poured in 36 points in the first half of a Nov. 27 win over Southern, outscoring the Jaguars by himself. The senior is the leading scorer in Division I, averaging 34 points while shooting 76 percent as he leads No. 3 Iowa (3-0) into a showdown against No. 16 North Carolina on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

All of that from a kid who started out as a soccer player. His father, Frank, played basketball at the University of Idaho and remained a passionate student of the game. He thought soccer might teach the ever-growing Luka some footwork. But his size landed him in goal, the least mobile position on the field, and that idea was eventually abandoned. Soon, Luka turned all of his attention to the sport his father loved.

As his son became a teenager, Frank noticed that youth ball was guard-dominant. None of the taller players seemed to be receiving much attention or coaching. He thought that might provide a loophole for his large and lumbering son.

“In his early years, if he ran to half court they wouldn’t take out a stopwatch; they’d take out a calendar,” Frank Garza said. “But in watching all these AAU games, I’m sitting around going, ‘My God, they’ve eliminated the big man from the game.’ So I said Luka is going to be the best big man around, and because the big man has been ignored, his athleticism won’t matter as much because his fundamentals are outstanding.”

The summer after Luka’s freshman year at Maret, father and son traveled to Hawaii to train with Bill Trumbo, Frank’s old college coach from Idaho. They held three sessions per day, establishing a grueling and transformative tradition of summer work that would last for years.

“If he wanted to leave, the only way he could is if he swam,” Frank said. “He just had to be there, had to focus.”

He went from averaging four points as a freshman to 21 points as a sophomore. He became the focal point of Maret’s offense, and the Frogs started to hold their own against some of the area’s best programs. He earned second-team All-Met honors as a sophomore and a junior, and he received a first-team nod as a senior.

“His motor was the most impressive part of his game,” St. Andrew’s Episcopal Coach Kevin Jones said. “He was just relentless. Maybe came out once or twice a game. … He was the most dominant player I’ve coached against in this conference.”

Most opponents didn’t have the size to match Luka down low, so they did whatever they could to slow him down: double teams, triple teams, box-and-one, relentless physicality, outright hacking. Maret’s coach, Chuck Driesell, would ride the officials all game, looking for a whistle as other teams tried to rough up the big man. Luka himself almost never looked for a call.

“Not a word,” Driesell said. “It could have gone south many a game, very quickly. Because that was the only way they could really stop him. … But he would play through it, find ways to still get open.”

Driesell told everybody he could that Luka was underrated and under-recruited. Even the coach’s father, Lefty, got involved in spreading the word. After seeing the big man play at a high school tournament, the legendary former Maryland coach got on the phone with Mike Krzyzewski, Mark Turgeon, Roy Williams and others. None of them extended a scholarship offer.

At that point, Luka had already built a strong relationship with Iowa. Fran McCaffery had been among the first coaches from a high-major school to offer him a scholarship in June 2015. When more big names entered the process a year later, Luka’s mind was pretty much made up.

He started every game for the Hawkeyes as both a freshman and a sophomore, averaging 12.1 and 13.1 points. He would occasionally step outside and knock down a three-pointer, but he distinguished himself with an arsenal of low-post moves, including the occasional hook shot. As he and the Hawkeyes earned more attention, the coverage would often include some form of the phrase “old-school” in describing his game.

While some fans and pundits pointed to the label as a knock against Luka’s potential at the next level, he sees it as the ultimate compliment. As a kid, he used to sit in the basement watching his dad’s VHS highlight tapes of players such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird, hoping to emulate their games. To be told he has an old-school game is to be told his years of study are paying off.

“I love it,” Luka said of the description. “That’s where my game comes from, learning from that type of style.”

In the summer before his junior year, Frank watched as Luka drained shot after shot in training. He knew a breakthrough was coming and told his son to be prepared for such. Luka went on to average 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds, shooting 54.2 percent from the field. He became the first Hawkeye to win Big Ten Player of the Year honors, and six outlets named him their player of the year.

“As opposed to surprise that it did happen, my thought was there’s no way that it couldn’t happen,” Frank said. “Why? I’m in the practices with him. I’ve seen it. So I know what’s going to happen when he’s going to play.”

He sees that work come to fruition in real time. Over three years, Frank missed just one Iowa game, and that was because of a snowstorm. When Luka was a freshman, he liked to be there so his son could find a friendly face in a sometimes-hostile crowd. Last season, he wanted to be there so he could see his son take over the college basketball world.

The college basketball world now knows Luka Garza is an elite player. Frank just knew it first.

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