IOWA CITY — Luka Garza had, by his own admission, a fairly unusual childhood.
He didn’t spend a lot of time watching regular television. He spent much more time going through the stacks of old VHS tapes of Kevin McHale, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon that his father had lying around.
“Growing up, other people were watching Nickelodeon,’’ Garza said. “I was downstairs watching cassette tapes of these guys.’’
When he saw a move he liked, he’d grab a ball, go to the little mini hoop the Garzas had in the basement of their Washington D.C. home and do what he could to emulate it. Then it was back to the tapes.
It’s paying off now.
All those old-school moves developed from years of study and practice have helped Iowa’s 6-foot-11 sophomore become one of the most devastating low-post scoring threats in the Big Ten.
Garza has averaged 21.7 points per game over the past five games and has raised his season scoring average to 15.1. If he had been healthy all season, there’s no telling what his average might be.
His season got off to a slow start because of a September surgery to have a nine-pound cyst removed from his abdomen. Then he missed three games and five starts because of a sprained ankle. His recent surge is primarily because the medical issues are behind him.
“That's pretty much all it is,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He was playing great before he got hurt … Now that he's healthy, he's doing what he's capable of doing.’’
Garza appears clumsy and awkward at times but the ball almost always seems to find its way through the hoop.
“He could always score,’’ McCaffery said. “He has an unbelievable knack for getting the ball in the basket. He will make a 9-footer while he's getting banged off the glass in traffic look like a layup. That's really hard to do. Then he'll step out and make a 3, then make a 12-foot jumper, an 18-foot jumper, a 23-foot jumper, a shot fake one dribble pull-up. He has the total package when it comes to scoring the ball.’’
There’s that pump fake and duck-under move he learned from studying McHale.
There’s the reverse pivot, mid-range jumper that became known as “the Sikma Move.’’
There’s the Olajuwon spin move known as the “Dream Shake.’’
And there’s the classic skyhook that Abdul-Jabbar made famous.
McCaffery admitted he doesn’t know of many other college players who have spent any time watching 1970s and 1980s video to get ideas on how to improve their game.
“He may be the only one,’’ McCaffery said. “But if you know his father you can understand why he's like that. They have a great relationship. Frank's a basketball historian. He's a bright guy. He's a thinker. He played himself, so he understands footwork.’’
Garza mixes all of those post moves with the ability to make 3-pointers. Frank Garza wouldn’t allow his son to even attempt 3s until the eighth grade for fear he would mess up his form. He now regularly wins 3-point shooting contests among the Hawkeyes’ frontcourt players.
And if that’s not enough, he is shooting 87 percent at the foul line. He only made 68.1 percent as a freshman but that was because he had the “yips’’ at the start of his college career.
“I couldn’t make one,’’ he said. “I think that was just part of my freshman adjustment.’’
During the summer, Garza ended each workout by vowing not to leave the gym until he had made 50 consecutive free throws. Sometimes, because of time constraints, he shortened it to 25.
What if he didn’t even get to 25? Did he just give up?
“I wouldn’t give up,’’ Garza admonished his questioner. “I had to make at least 25.’’
Junior Ryan Kriener, who has the task of guarding Garza in practice on a daily basis, said the variety in his younger teammate’s game makes him almost impossible to stop.
“He’s got two or three moves that you really can’t bother or block,’’ Kriener said. “When he shoots his jump shot, he shoots it straight up rather than out so it’s really hard to bother. He’s just a really crafty player.’’
Although Kriener hasn’t spent his life staring at VHS tapes, he has borrowed a few things from Garza. He tossed in a running hook shot a few weeks ago and is beginning to weave it into his own game.
“I did it at the end of the Purdue game and I looked over and he was kind of smiling and laughing,’’ Kriener said. “I told him I was going to do that move sometime soon.’’
What did Garza think of him stealing his running hook?
“It’s not my running hook,’’ he said. “It’s Kareem’s.’’
Garza isn’t done adding moves to his arsenal. He still tunes in to NBA games nearly every night, looking for something he can borrow from DeMarcus Cousins or some other pro big man.
“You’ve got to. You can always get better,’’ he said. “There are some moves I’ll see Joel Embiid make and think I need to add that to my game. I’ll see LaMarcus Aldridge do kind of a fadeaway, stuff like that. Always trying to add and build.’’
He said it’s an ongoing process that likely won’t ever stop.
“It’s my life, it’s an addiction, it’s a passion, it’s all of that,’’ Garza said. “It’s something that drives me every day. It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.’’