Luka Garza Deserves A Bigger Role Down the Stretch

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Garza is one of those basketball players. You know the type. Always playing a little too hard. Seems annoying. Probably a coach’s kid. And all of a sudden you look up, he has 25 points and 10 rebounds, and his team is beating you by 30. Garza built his persona at Iowa in the Christian Laettner, Tyler Hansbrough, and Joakim Noah mold. The kind of guy you want to elbow in the face when you’re playing them. However, you’d give him a kidney if he’s on your team. Garza took that energy and turned it into two Big Ten Player of the Year awards, and a Naismith Player of the Year trophy during his four years in Iowa City.

But that type of player rarely translates to the NBA. Making it in the league isn’t 10 percent luck, 20 percent skill, and 15 percent concentrated power of will. It’s more like 95 percent skill and five percent wingspan to be a high draft pick and get a real shot. Garza was the best college basketball player in the country. He led the Hawkeyes and his part-time head coach, part-time scarecrow Fran McCaffrey to a two-seed and a round-of-32 exit in the 2021 NCAA tournament. But Garza was never really on anyone’s NBA radar.

The reigning college basketball player of the year fell to the second round of the 2021 NBA Draft. The Detroit Pistons finally and mercifully took him 52nd overall, sandwiched between household names Brandon Boston Jr. and Charles Bassey. He bounced between the G-League and the NBA during his rookie season, playing alright during his spot minutes for the lottery-bound Pistons. The Wolves took a chance on Garza, signing him to a two-way contract in the offseason.

Garza came along slowly. He didn’t make his first appearance until the Timberwolves’ 18th game of the season, a 57-second scoreless garbage time appearance in a win over the Indiana Pacers. He saw the floor in only eight of Minnesota’s first 37 games, averaging just under four points in five and a half minutes per game.

But Garza has scratched out a real role in Minnesota’s rotation since the calendar flipped to 2023. With Karl-Anthony Towns still nursing a calf injury and Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid in and out of the lineup, Garza has become Minnesota’s emergency backup center and is doing the most with his extended time on the court. He’s averaging 8.6 points and shooting more than 41 percent from three while playing almost 11 minutes per game in 2023. He has appeared in 17 of 32 games since Jan. 1, including a three-game stretch in which he scored 17, 19, and 25 points.

The Timberwolves are in a fight to make the postseason in the Western Conference and are still missing their three-time All-Star power forward. Therefore, Chris Finch should turn to the man who was being showered with “we hate Iowa” chants just two years ago to help the Wolves make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2004.

Even with Towns still out, the Wolves have plenty of big bodies to throw at the opposition. Gobert is still an elite defensive presence when he’s on the court. Naz Reid has taken a similar path to Garza and built himself into one of the best backup centers in the league. And Nate Knight provides a better matchup for more athletic bigs. But Garza offers something a little different than all three, and that should give him meaningful playing time going forward.

He is a dynamic offensive big man who can score in the post, work for putbacks, but also bury you from behind the three-point line. Garza has Minnesota’s best offensive rating this season and the eighth-best mark in the league, albeit in a small sample size. His offensive RAPTOR has him in the company of the best players in the league and his offensive real plus-minus is right behind a guy named LeBron James. He’s played 232 minutes this season, but Garza is basically Nikola Jokic minus the passing when he’s on the court. Garza would provide an interesting contrast when subbed in for the offensively inept Gobert, forcing teams to change how they defend the Timberwolves.

Unfortunately for Garza, offense is only half of the game. As good as he’s been on offense, he’s equally as bad if not worse on the defensive end. He sports the worst defensive rating of any Timberwolf who has played more than two minutes this season and the 509th-best defensive rating in the league. His defensive real plus-minus falls right behind 100-year-old Derrick Rose. Teams are feasting in the paint whenever Gobert takes a seat and Garza checks in. If he was even just mediocre on defense, it would be easier to see a path for Garza to get regular minutes during the playoff push.

All things considered, the offensive upside he provides outweighs his defensive liability. The Wolves are full of competent defenders who can help when Garza is on the floor, but they have a limited number of players they can rely on to get a bucket. That will balance out more if Towns ever returns. But for now, Garza has worked his way into Timberwolves fans’ hearts and has done more than enough to work his way into Finch’s rotation during the playoff push.

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