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Luka Garza unplugged: Hawkeye hoops star on hopes for season, pandemic, and one star-struck moment


Mark Emmert   | Hawk Central
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Luka Garza is at his family home in Washington, D.C., these days, doing his coursework online and working out three times a day with his father, Frank.

But his mind is firmly fixed on an Iowa Hawkeye basketball team that he is convinced will have a season to remember this winter.

“I don’t think there’s a better offense in America,” Garza, the all-American senior center, told the Register on Tuesday. “But we’re going to make it or break it on the defensive end. With the experience that we have coming back, it feels like a team that can be really good on that end. And that’s exciting for us.”

Earlier: Big Ten basketball star Luka Garza staying at Iowa, forgoes NBA draft

It should be exciting for Hawkeye fans, too. Iowa is a probable top-five team in the country heading into the season, with Garza surrounded by proven shooters like Jordan Bohannon, Joe Wieskamp and CJ Fredrick.

But the COVID-19 pandemic casts uncertainty over all sports these days, and Garza is aware of that threat, as well. He is at home now because all Hawkeye practices have been suspended for a week after 93 positive tests for the coronavirus among athletes and staff. The men’s basketball team earlier had a two-week hiatus after at least three players came down with the novel coronavirus.

In a 20-minute interview with the Register, Garza offered some advice for his fellow students about their role in stopping the spread of COVID-19, described what improvements he is hoping to make this year as he prepares for the NBA, and spoke of a conversation with a basketball legend that left him tongue-tied.

Excerpts:

Des Moines Register: Would you feel comfortable going into a classroom if you had to right now?

Luka Garza: I think it’s a little hard. I told all my teachers that I didn’t want to come for the first couple weeks so I could just stay here. I felt more comfortable here. So maybe once I get back (on Monday), I think I’ll start going, but I don’t even know if we’ll have in-person classes by then.

DMR: You’ve seen that there’s an outbreak in Iowa City. What would you tell your fellow students about how to behave during this pandemic?

LG: Wearing a mask is just a huge thing. It’s a simple thing that you can do that can prevent you from getting it or spreading it to other people. And honestly just stick to the quarantine rules. If you have been exposed, stay away from other people. And if you do have it, at least wait 10 days (before going out in public). I know some people who have it and aren’t following that, which is causing it to really spread.

DMR: I saw you and (Iowa wrestling star) Spencer Lee both went on Twitter urging people to wear masks. How did that come about?

LG: Both of us, as captains, as leaders, people look up to at the University of Iowa, we thought it was a good idea to do that. We both want to play this year, so we want the best opportunity to do that.

DMR: Are you still confident that there will be a college basketball season this year?

LG: Yes, I am. Obviously, they’re trying to figure out football as well. But I think for us, we have a little more time than football and I think in that time the NCAA and the Big Ten are going to come up with some sort of plan to make sure we’re safe and able to play the season. Whether that means they extend it, or we go in a bubble, or whatever happens, I think there will be an opportunity for us to play. And everyone’s really confident that there will be an NCAA Tournament because I feel like the NCAA wouldn’t want to cancel it twice.

DMR: Are you OK going into a bubble if that’s what it takes?

LG: I’ll play outside. I’ll play on a mini-hoop. I really don’t care. I’ll play anywhere.

DMR: You’d play outside in Iowa in January?

LG: I might think about it. And wear some gloves.

DMR: We know you work hard every offseason on something new. What are you hoping to add to your game this year?

LG: The main thing I’m working on is just my lateral movement, my lateral quickness. I’ve been working with a trainer and my dad, just working on getting better with my feet, being able to defend ball-screens at a higher level.

More: Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

DMR: Was that the biggest knock you heard about you from NBA personnel?

LG: Yeah, I think just in general, the lateral movement, the lateral quickness. I think teams saw my defensive improvement from my sophomore to junior year, and they see I could be a guy that could continue to improve on that end. All of them recognized I’m never going to be the guy that’s going to be the quickest guy out there. But they know how hard I play, and they just want to see me make strides in that area.

DMR: Do you get angry when you always hear that you’re too slow for the NBA?

LG: I’m always open to criticism about myself. But I know it’s something I make up for once I get on the court and I feel like at every level I’ve been doubted because of that. When I do continue, it’s another thing I’ll blow through just by playing hard and playing smart, because I feel really confident in my game.

DMR: You’re always working on new offensive moves as well. Is there an NBA player you’re patterning yourself after?

LG: In today’s game, I look at Anthony Davis (of the Los Angeles Lakers) a lot, looking at his face-the-basket moves and his mid-range. He’s really good at getting himself open in different ways.

DMR: After the gaudy numbers you put up last year (23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game), do you think there’s any way to top that?

LG: I think it’s always possible to improve. When I look at last year, there’s a lot of things I’m critical of. When I look at my free-throw percentage (65.1), there’s a lot of points there. And just my overall field-goal percentage. I shot 54, but I feel like I’m a guy who can shoot even better than that. And so I think with improved efficiency, no doubt in my mind I think I can improve on those numbers. But for me, that’s not the most important thing about this year. I want to win. So if that means I average 17 and whatever and we win a lot of games and we make it to the Final Four, I’d take that over averaging a lot of points on a team that doesn’t make it that far. So I don’t really care. I have no expectations of myself on the offensive end. I know I’m going to do my job.

DMR: You spoke with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after winning the award named after him as best center in the nation. What was that conversation like?

LG: He’s just an amazing person. He knew a lot about me and he knew how much it meant to me to be able to talk to him. So he was so nice to me and just asked me a lot of different questions about my experience and my career and everything I had been through in high school. I was very excited, very nervous. I had a list of questions to ask him, but I ended up being too nervous to ask them. … He liked myself and my game. And that was the biggest thing for me. For someone like that to consider himself a fan of me, that was awesome.

DMR: Does he know you’ve been working on a skyhook (a shot Abdul-Jabbar made famous)?

LG: Yeah, he knew.

DMR: In the first game of the season, you need to come out wearing a pair of Kareem goggles and shoot a skyhook from the right corner.

LG: Yeah. From 3.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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