Las Vegas — As with many things, something big can start small and just continue to grow to become something major.
For Pistons rookie Luka Garza, a 6-foot-11 center, the issue began early in his college career at Iowa after a small bump on his side developed into something bigger: a cyst on his spleen that grew. And grew.
And grew some more.
“The splenic cyst was life-changing for me. I had a bump on my side, and I didn’t really know much about it. I’d ask people and they thought I had a rib popping out or some bone structure that pushed that out, because I didn’t have any pain in that area,” Garza told The Detroit News. “A year later, I started to feel pain, and they discovered a nine-pound cyst — about the size of a collegiate volleyball — and it was crushing my organs.”
The question wasn’t whether Garza would play basketball again; the cyst was threatening his quality of life and whether he’d be able to survive it. Luckily, Garza and his family found one of the top experts in the world in removing huge cysts locally at the University of Iowa — and the doctor was able to remove it successfully.
That proved to be a defining moment in Garza’s development, both on and off the court. It made him appreciate life and the blessing to be able to play basketball.
“It was a tough time for me because basketball was put into question, and it had never been put in question before. Going into surgery, (the cyst) was connected to my spleen, so was I going lose my spleen?” Garza said. “If I lose my spleen, what does that mean for my career — and do I have cancer? All the questions that went through my head at the time, and I was just very lucky I didn’t have cancer.”
A few weeks later, Garza was back on the court, playing for the Hawkeyes early in his sophomore season. The ordeal took an emotional toll on their family because it wasn’t just back to business as usual.
“I spent four days in the hospital and not being able to walk and having to have my dad hold me up to shower, to a month and a half later standing at Madison Square Garden, winning the 2K Classic with (current Piston) Tyler Cook, my teammate, and I was the MVP,” Garza said. “It was a life-changing experience in terms of pushing through adversity, and it changed my whole outlook and changed the direction of my career and my life as a person.”
Having gone through that experience, Garza sees everything through a different lens, so trying to make it in the NBA is just another of life’s hurdles. Garza was a two-time All-America and the national player of the year as a senior, but that didn’t guarantee him a clear path to an NBA roster.
Garza isn’t very fleet of foot and his defense was a major concern in college — though there never was a concern about his ability to score the ball. He posted 24.1 points and shot 44% on 3-pointers as a senior, and he became Iowa’s all-time leading scorer, passing Flint’s Roy Marble.
Even with his impressive resume, Garza was the 52nd overall pick, and is scrapping his way on the Pistons’ Summer League roster to try to get a spot on the regular-season roster or maybe a two-way contract to play in the G League.
Always a plan
With his father, Frank, as his development coach, Garza always has had a plan for his trajectory. That went back to high school, where Garza played in the Washington, D.C. area and competed against Saddiq Bey.
Garza wasn’t highly recruited out of Maret High School, but they found the perfect match in Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
“We had to find a coach and a program that could see past to the (normal stats). He doesn’t run that fast or jump very high at all, yet he’s the first (big man) down the court every time,” Frank Garza said. “He can’t jump very high, but he’s a leading rebounder. That doesn’t make sense yet because it’s intangible and you can’t see it with your eyes, and you can only see it empirically through the stats. We needed a program that would see that.”
Garza had a decorated career at Iowa and considered leaving after his junior year, but returned to continue working on his game and to try to pave a way for him in the NBA. That meant losing 30 pounds before the draft to try to make him more agile and making him more than an offensive-minded player.
Looking at his game, Garza realized that being a traditional back-to-the-basket center wasn’t sustainable in the NBA and that he would have to make changes to his diet and his game to adapt. He switched to a plant-based diet to help reshape his body.
It also meant a change in his game.
“When I self-evaluated myself, I was posting up 47% of the time, and the post-up is not as utilized in the NBA as it was back in the day,” Garza said. “For me, I knew that style wasn’t going to translate as much; I knew I wasn’t going to be able to post up as much as I wanted to, so the biggest transformation I made there was a change in my body.”
Garza said he feels better playing at a smaller weight and he’s adjusting to the new role he’ll have with the Pistons’ Summer League team. He’s hoping to get a longer look in training camp, but there’s more to be sorted out with the roster.
Until then, it’s just taking the challenge that’s in front of him and running with it.
“When I play for an organization, I want to do everything I can to help that organization win,” Gaza said. “That was the same way I was in college when I was at Iowa and the same way I was when I was in high school and now it’s the same thing being an NBA — I want to be a guy who can positively impact this franchise.”
To the next level
Garza’s impact is showing in the early part of the Summer League, where he scored 15 points in 16 minutes against the Rockets — and made a case for getting a closer look for the Pistons’ roster. His work ethic in Summer League is drawing attention, and it’s contagious.
“Honestly, what I’ve seen from Luka didn’t just show tonight; it’s shown in his approach leading up to it in practices. He’s the first one there and one of the last ones to leave,” Pistons Summer League coach J.D. DuBois said after Sunday’s opener. “He’s always talking and looking to figure out what we’re trying to get from him. He’s a guy who I know will continue to improve, like the rest of our group, because he’s dialed in and bought into what we’re looking to do as an organization. I’m excited to see his growth over the next week and a half or so.”
Garza made the highlight reel with a one-legged fadeaway jumper in Tuesday’s game against the Rockets, something of an homage to Dirk Nowitzki. It’s not a shot that he works on consistently, but he’s just showing more of his arsenal.
The move drew the attention of No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, who had some impressive moves of his own. Seeing that kind of move from Garza is impressive and shows the growth in his game from college and making the next step to the NBA.
“He’s a confident guy, and that’s what we need. He’s so talented that he can get to pretty much any shot that he wants to get to, so him playing with that confidence is what we’d like to see and what we need from him,” Cunningham said. “He brings a different spark with his energy, whenever he’s getting things going. I love to see that play, it was tough.”
Things can grow to become bigger than they were. Garza hopes that his career can follow that same path.