Detroit Pistons’ Luka Garza could be a cult hero if he sticks in the NBA. Just ask his dad

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — He retweets Einstein and his son’s workouts on the beach with similarly breezy vibes, already endearing himself to Pistons Twitter. Though if you’re looking for Frank Garza’s philosophy on the social media platform, you’re better off focusing on emojis.

He loves them and drops them almost daily, like affirmations, for his son, Luka, for anyone who shares their sensibilities on life.

From Einstein — “I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind” — to hip-hop poetry — “What up Doe?” — Garza the elder rarely hits the “Tweet” button without adding a little red heart.

They accompany nearly everything he posts or reposts, which makes sense, considering it’s his son’s heart that led him here, to the edge of the desert, inside UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, where on Tuesday night he damn near stole the show.

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Cade Cunningham vs. Jalen Green?

Yeah, that’s great for ESPN — and Summer League ratings, if there are such concerns. And, as advertised, the top two picks in the NBA draft compiled highlights.

Yet the loudest gasp — and cheer — of the night came courtesy of Luka Garza, the four-year, 278-pound menace from Iowa, who led the NCAA in scoring and led college basketball in draft-pundit skepticism.

He won’t be able to bully under the rim in the pros. He can’t jump. He’s slow. He can’t defend.  

That last one is true. Ask Garza the younger and he’ll tell you himself, as he did again after Tuesday’s game between the Detroit Pistons and the Houston Rockets.

“I know that’s my weak link,” he said of his defense after dropping 15 points from inside and out, combining improving footwork and balance with soft hands and touch.

Though let’s hold off on what he can’t yet do and discuss what he can. Because two games into Summer League, the 52nd pick of the draft looks like a minor revelation.

“We feel like we have a steal with him,” said Pistons head coach Dwane Casey. “He’s had an impressive week of work and shooting the ball well. One thing he will do is he will get adjusted to the speed of the NBA.”

We knew Garza could score. But like this? With moves that send his bench to its feet and the crowd to a roar?

Casey didn’t know. Not until this week, though he’d seen the distance shooting during the pre-draft workout.

Maybe his teammates knew from their practices over the past week, though Pistons Summer League coach JD DuBois would neither confirm nor deny if he’d previously witnessed the new-look pirouettes and fadeaways from the rookie.

All DuBois would say is that Garza is versatile and skilled. Then he smiled.

Basketball fans were smiling, too, after Garza unspooled a Dirk Nowitzki-style one-legged fadeaway from just inside the free throw line, followed by a two-handed bounce pass off the dribble to hit a backdoor cutter in stride.

They smiled at the 3-pointer that snapped the net, and the sprinting up and down the court, and the physicality in the paint; they rose to their feet when Garza was subbed out in the second half, almost chanting his name as he walked to the bench.

Tales of the prematurely coronated dot the history of the Summer League. (Much like they do spring training and even the NFL’s preseason.) And while Garza has looked good, he has much more to prove before securing steady regular-season minutes. (Casey envisions Garza splitting time between the Pistons’ G League squad, playing in Midtown, and the “varsity” team. “He will play,” he said.)

That’s something Garza knows and understands, which is partly what makes him endearing, and partly what makes him run shuttle drills in the sand, or run up and down stairs (check his father’s timeline), or shoot hundreds of seemingly rudimentary shots under the basket, ala George Mikan (again, check his father’s Twitter account).

Not that the workouts make Garza special — everyone works at this level — but the effort is the only way he will make the Pistons’ roster. He knows this, too.

“That’s the biggest thing I can bring to the table,” he said.

Well, that and self-awareness. Or self-reflection if you prefer.

Garza calls it self-evaluation, and insists he wouldn’t be here, a few blocks from the nation’s gambling mecca, if he hadn’t taken time to ruminate after a successful college career he knew wouldn’t translate to the NBA.

“When he came in for his interview, he did a great job of articulating who he was,” said Casey. “He’s a sharp young man. Really impressed with his knowledge of the game, the way he carries himself.”

So, the big man decided he was a little too big, and that while he’d made a name for himself at Iowa posting up, he needed to show he could score from anywhere.

“It was a process,” he said this week. “I was playing around 268 … about 272 for pre-draft workouts. I was posting up 47% of the time in college. I knew that wasn’t realistic in terms of the NBA game. I thought a slimmer me would be a better version.”

He began working with a dietician and a chef. He wore a waist trainer. He lost 27 pounds. He has never felt better. Though he lost muscle, too.

He is in the next phase of the Garza redevelopment plan, focusing on improving his muscle ratio and overall strength. His goal is to make it easier for him to slip on high-ball screens and shoot 3s and spin away from rugged interior defenders and loft one-legged fadeaways. The plan is also designed to help him gain a fraction more lateral quickness.

If he can do that, if he can find even a sliver more footspeed, he’ll radically increase his chances at finding a spot in the league.

“I know the better I am in that (area), the better my career will be,” he said.

It’s possible Garza finds a role even if he doesn’t get much better defensively, though a lack of improvement there is hard to imagine considering how much he has transformed himself since Iowa’s NCAA tournament run ended in March. Several teams still employ big men who can score off the bench regardless of their ability to keep others from scoring.

Yet that isn’t the goal. That’s not even a backup plan. That’s just a fact. Just as Garza’s offensive skill is a fact.

So, too, is the vibe that shoots off him when he’s playing.

“He’s a confident guy,” Cunningham said. “And that’s what we need. He can get to any shot he wants to get to. It’s what we like to see. He brings a different spark with his energy.”

Watch the bench when he makes a move and you’ll see. Intensity matters. Skill matters. Letting an opponent know about skill matters, too, as Garza did when he barked while backpedaling after his slick teardrop off one leg.

What did he say?

Something unrepeatable here. But you can imagine.

“That’s just me, that is who I am,” he said. “I’m from the “DMV” — D.C.-Maryland-Virginia — that’s how we play. We score, we talk, we have energy. I’m always gonna be that kind of player.”

His father is always going to post about it. Because that’s just him, too.

A father filled with pride. A son filled with self-awareness. It’s a combo that will be hard to deny.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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