Film Don’t Lie: Learning about Luka as rookie big man gets expanded role

Detroit Bad Boys

Over the past 7-10 days, I have continually tried to look at the “silver lining” with so many Detroit Pistons players out due to either Covid-19 health and safety protocols or working their way back from injury. Again, I want to wish all of the best and HEALTH to those players and everyone dealing with Covid. Those absences have presented opportunities for expanded roles and closer looks at some of the Pistons further down the rotation, and it has provided the first opportunity we really have to see evaluate the game of rookie Luka Garza.

Yes, even a handful of games with extended minutes still represents a limited sample size, and he’s sharing the floor with 10-day contract players who are new to the team, the coaching staff, the terminology and with limited abilities. Also, it must be said that everyone, Garza included, is not playing a role that we would most likely see him play if in the regular rotation. Prime example, Garza played 39 minutes on Wednesday night vs the Knicks, and while you appreciate his willingness to do so, you could tell that he was getting tired and worn down.

Even with those caveats, I still wanted to take a look at Luka’s game and what we have seen. I tried to do it through a lens of what it might look like if he were playing with a healthy Pistons roster. We are going to take a closer look at Garza’s role offensively — particularly as a floor-spacing big man and his duties in the pick-and-roll attack — as well as defensively.

While this breakdown does not go into Garza’s rebounding, I will say while he shows really good anticipation offensively and the potential to be a good rebounder on that end, he still leaves plenty to be desired when it comes to defensive rebounding. He actually has more offensive rebounds this year than defensive (40 to 28).

Floor Spacing

I want to look at Garza as a potential floor spacer at the 5-position and what that could open up for an offense. Yes, while his perimeter shooting is supposed to be his calling card, I did say “potential” floor spacer. It has been a very small sample size but right now the floor spacing has been more about reputation for Garza than actual production, which as long as defenders continue to respect it that may be all that matters.

Through 22 games, Garza has only shot 11-of-32 from deep, and he is also only 23-of-35 from the free-throw line. Do I think Garza is a better shooter than what we have seen? Yes. Do I think we see him approach more of a 40% 3-point shooter? Idk. It is worth noting though that he only had one year in college over 40% (44% his senior year) and his career college FT% was 70%. The stats I was able to find for his time with the Motor City Cruise tell a similar story as they have him at 29% from 3 on 6 attempts per game and 74% from the free-throw line in four games played. Some people may say that it is hard to shoot good percentages in the limited minutes Garza gets with the Pistons, but his role in the NBA going forward is likely as a big man getting limited minutes so it is something he will have to learn to do.

On a more positive note, I do think Garza is providing that floor spacing for the Pistons when on the floor. It is about the pick-and-pop ability (to compliment the pick-and-roll we examine in the next section) as well as about opening up the lane by drawing his defender away from the rim. If Garza is able to continue to do that via reputation OR actual production it would be a major positive he could bring on the offensive end.

Pick and Roll

As good friend Keith Black Trudeau (THE Pistons Historian) loves to point out on Twitter, Luka Garza IS the best screen-setter on the team! As I like to say, this may not be the most “sexy” aspect of the game of basketball, but you should not undervalue its importance. I will not highlight his off-ball screening here, but in the breakdown, you will see what it does for his teammates when setting an on-ball screen.

We all know that Garza is never going to be that “jumpy jump” lob threat the Pistons so desperately need, but that does not mean he can’t be an effective finisher in the pick-and-roll. What it does mean is he is going to have to find a way of scoring from the ground level. Being in the right spot, creating the perfect passing angle, finding “crafty” ways to finish, AND finishing everything off misses from the primary ball-handler are all things within his abilities and accounts for his athletic limitations.

I’ve already talked about how good of an offensive rebounder he is but the determining factor here will be his ability to figure out how to finish through, around, etc. bigger and longer defenders at the rim. He is currently shooting 68% at the rim on just 25 attempts, according to Basketball Reference.

The final aspect in the pick-and-roll that will determine his success is in the short roll. For me, it is still TBD on how effective he can be. I do not think we have seen many opportunities for him to show what he is capable of as a short-roll passer with just 11 assists on the year. I do have questions about his ability, and willingness, to pass the ball, but I think it would be unfair of me to say it’s not within his skillset to become an effective short-roll passer.

Defense

We all know this is the most scrutinized and questioned part of Garza’s game and, honestly, rightfully so. I will never question the effort of Garza and what he is TRYING to do on the floor, but at the end of the day, the NBA is about what you actually accomplish in your minutes. I still have some worries about his ability to defend ball screens and feel like teams are going to see him come on the floor and immediately attack him over and over.

Starting with the “drop coverage,” which I thought was all we would ever see Garza do, he just hasn’t shown the ability to drop and then still contest a shot attempt from the roll guy. This is probably my biggest concern with him right now. If he is going to drop, Garza has to be able to move over and get between the roll guy and the basket without giving up an easy bucket.

This leads me right into his rim protection in general. Nobody is going to ask or expect him to be a high-level rim protector, but I do think to stay on the floor he has to show some ability to protect the paint. For me, I don’t care if that is via understanding the verticality rules, becoming a GREAT charge taker, using 6 fouls, or via straight-up blocked shots. Whatever path Garza ends up taking, or a combination of all, we are not seeing it right now, and I am intrigued to see how he is able to improve.

Back to defending ball screens. We saw in the game against the Knicks on Wednesday night the Pistons trap quite a few ball screens involving Luka. I thought this was a nice little wrinkle thrown in by Dwane Casey and staff that definitely worked at times … but as New York got more comfortable against it, you could see the weaknesses or cons that go along with defending them in this way. The major issue is it puts A LOT of pressure on your rotations, and while this fits the Pistons’ aggressive style of defense, it has caused more than it’s share of defensive breakdowns. I can’t help but wonder if a combination of drop, trap, ice, etc. might keep the offense guessing and help “hide” Garza’s limitations a little better.

I believe the absolute most realistic and fastest way to Garza being a “neutral” defender is by getting better on rotations, positioning, anticipation and understanding of what the offense is going to do. Being a great team defender, always being in the right position to help teammates, and taking away easy looks would be a major development to help counter the negatives in ball screen situations and rim protection. I am not sure we are always seeing this from him right now BUT he is a young player in his rookie season and it may simply be the speed of the game is too much for him right now and we will see this from him when things start to slow down.

While there are some intriguing skills and obvious flaws in Garza’s game, and his NBA future is very much an open question, it is important to remember that he is just 23 years old, 22 games into his NBA career, and by all accounts a tireless worker. I have to mention that to say that all of those factors mean what we believe his trajectory is today could radically change one month or one year from now.

Right now, I think Garza deserves to be on this Pistons roster as a developing prospect and situational player. I could see him being very good as the third center where his minutes are limited thus allowing him to utilize that hard work ethic at all times. If it all comes together for Luka and he is shooting 40-45% from 3, being effective in the pick and roll AND becomes a neutral defender then maybe he becomes your backup center. My more “realistic” outcome for him, as it stands right now, is that of a situational big who spaces the floor, sets great screens, uses up some fouls and outworks 2nd/3rd centers for easy buckets.

I am sure many fans will disagree from both directions with Luka Garza. I have come to find that the opinions on him range from being sent overseas to starting over Isaiah Stewart. As with a lot of things, I find myself somewhere more in the middle, but not quite as positive as a lot of people. I am just not sure I ever see him being anything other than a negative on the defensive end. Even if he does end up being “just” a 3rd center for this team, I don’t think that is a bad return on investment for the #52 overall pick.

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