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2021 GBB NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Luka Garza

The Grizzlies have a thing for guys that played well in college basketball despite their age. Why is Luka Garza different?

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Oregon at Iowa Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next month, GBB will be profiling various players the Memphis Grizzlies may target in the 2021 NBA Draft. This year we will be breaking it up in to three sections - five to likely trade up for, five potentially available right around pick #17 where Memphis is slotted to pick, and five that surely will be there or perhaps the Grizzlies could even trade back and still select.

Luka Garza, Center, University of Iowa

  • 6’11.25” (7’1.5” wingspan) 243 lbs 22 years old from Washington, D.C.
  • Four seasons at Iowa: 27.1 minutes per game, 18.2 points per game, 59.2% field goal percentage (36.7% from three, 70.1% from the free throw line), 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1.5 turnovers.
  • ADVANCED STATS OF STRENGTH (per Tankathon) - .197 three point rate, 35.5 PER, .283 win shares per 40 minutes
  • ADVANCED STATS TO IMPROVE: .392 free throw rate, 100.5 defensive rating
  • AWARDS AND ACCOLADES: 2020-2021 AP Player of the Year, two-time consensus All-American, Wooden and Naismith Award winner, two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, two-time 1st team All-Big Ten
  • CURRENT BIG BOARD PLACEMENTS: 55th (Tankathon), 56th (ESPN), 67th (CBS Sports), 61st (SI)

This past season, Luka Garza of Iowa posted a top-10 best season based off of the statistic PER in college basketball since 2009-2010 according to Sports Reference. He has so many accolades over the last two seasons in particular (his 2019-2020 season ranks in the top-20 in PER since 2009-2010, the only player in the top-20 listed twice) that one would assume that Garza would be a lock to be at the very least a solid NBA rotation player. Surely a player who dominates the Big Ten so mightily is destined for a long and productive professional career.

Look at the NBA Draft big boards, however. 55th. 56th. 61st. 67th. You will be hard pressed to find a big time big board that has Garza in the top-50, much less as a first round pick. Guys that are taken in the final 10 picks of the draft night festivities are usually not longed for the league. But again - Garza, despite his age and style of play, is one of the greatest college basketball players in history. He produced...but he’s old.

Sound familiar?

While the fit isn’t perfect, the Memphis Grizzlies could do a lot worse in the second round than take a player that, while flawed, has proven he can produce offense at a highly efficient clip. He’s almost certainly a finished professional product given his athleticism and build, but he has the skill set to be at worst an NBA end of bench player. And if you can get a guy who, when called upon, can help your team in the final ten selections in the NBA Draft?

You might want to grab him.

What he does well

In a word? Score. He was borderline unguardable in the paint the final two years at Iowa, showcasing a highly impressive arsenal of low post productivity. And no, this style of play (back to the basket/face up low post isolations) is not as prevalent as it once was in the NBA, but there are some teams that still showcase it at times. Like the Memphis Grizzlies with Jonas Valanciunas. As a backup center to Jonas, you could insert Luka in similar looks and not skip a beat.

Garza also sets himself apart from end of the draft bigs with his shooting stroke. His final two years at Iowa Luka shot almost 40% from beyond the arc on over 200 attempts. He projects to have the ability to put the ball in the basket from both inside and outside the paint. Combine that with his above average rebounding and pedigree as one of the better college basketball players of all time? There usually aren’t players with this kind of ability available this late in drafts.

NBA: NBA:Combine David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Where he can improve

In a word? Nowhere - and that is why Garza is not coveted by most. He certainly is an offensive weapon in the realm of college basketball, but the NBA may have different ideas. While Luka has shown some screening/pick and roll possibilities with Iowa his lack of athleticism and foot speed makes him a less than desirable roll player at the rim. He is not a transition threat beyond being a rebounder who kicks out on outlet passes. Defensively, he is at best a liability that will be attacked in pick and roll variations. Worst-case? He is unplayable against certain teams because his offensive talents are limited to specific situations and his defense is abused nightly.

He’s not going to be able to defend in space. Switching, or even hedging, is not an option. Drop coverage would be his best bet, but even then he struggles moving his feet and being able to react quickly enough off of it.

Garza’s NBA hopes are very dependent on NBA fit.

The fit and the verdict

Garza’s fit on the Grizzlies almost directly corresponds with the future of Jonas Valanciunas on the roster. Memphis has a good number of bigs currently on the roster, and Jonas has a legitimate argument for being the best player on the team in general. But Valanciunas has shown that he has similar issues to Luka Garza at times defensively (although not to the same level). The point is that if Jonas is sticking around, and drop coverage defensively remains a prominent part of the defensive scheme plans, you could do worse than Luka Garza as a 3rd center/5th-ish big behind Valanciunas/Jaren Jackson Jr./Brandon Clarke/Xavier Tillman.

However, if the team plans on moving on from Jonas in the next year or so via trade or free agency, the “bigs” that will remain are all much more capable of defending on the perimeter and switching/working in space than Valanciunas, much less Garza. A change in defensive plans would doom Garza - again, his abilities being fully realized in the NBA have about as much to do with where he goes, and who selects or signs him, as his actual play on the court.

Jonas is a very good basketball player, but is limited laterally on defense. So is Garza - even more so. But the Grizzlies have the pieces and plans in place to try to negate that. As long as those are there, there’s a fit for Luka with Memphis. At #51 Garza would be a selection of a player who almost certainly is what he is at this stage. He can score. He can rebound. He probably cannot do much more than that in the NBA. Is that enough?

Depending on how the board sets up, yes. The Memphis Grizzlies have shown they’re willing to forsake age issues in the name of production. And few have produced as much as Garza. He’s a fatally flawed prospect as a starting caliber big man in the modern NBA. But he had a remarkable college career and, in the right situation, can make a team better. Memphis could be such a spot (if Jonas Valanciunas remains a key cog in the Grizzlies machine).

At #51 overall Memphis decides to prioritize veteran production but does so at the point guard position. The Grizzlies have enough bigs as currently constructed. Garza will get an NBA chance - perhaps with Denver or Charlotte - but it won’t be with Memphis.

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