Luka Garza is back on campus now, spending time with his Iowa teammates, getting shots up in the gym and participating in voluntary workouts during these unusual times thrust upon us by a global pandemic that's ravaged our country and economy while killing more than 116,000 Americans in a matter of months.
"It's very unusual," Garza, a consensus First Team All-American, told me by phone. "We have to get our temperatures taken and wear a mask every time we enter the gym. We enter and exit one way. You're getting taped, and your trainer has a face-covering on. And the coaches can't really come near us. So it's a different world we're living in right now. But, I think, all of us are just grateful to be back on campus."
So there you go, Iowa fans. Your star is back on campus!
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But will he also be there next season?
That, of course, is the big question that remains -- for both Iowa and the sport of college basketball in general considering Garza, a 6-foot-11 center, should be the preseason national player of the year if he returns for his senior season after averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds during a breakthrough junior campaign. But if you were expecting to come here and read a quote from Garza announcing he's definitely ready to make one final run through the Big Ten, well, I'm sorry. We talked for a while but he said no such thing. He is, he insisted, still weighing his options.
As he should.
Garza has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft because there's no downside to him doing it. And since the deadline for underclassmen to withdraw has been pushed to August, because the draft has been pushed to October, it's unnecessary for him (or any other underclassman) to definitively decide anything for a while.
So he likely won't.
But after talking with Garza and listening to him discuss the pros and cons of everything in front of him, I left the conversation convinced he's as clear-eyed as anybody could possibly be in his position. Sometimes, when you talk to prospects, they come across as delusional about how NBA front offices view them. But that couldn't be further from the truth with Garza. He knows he would not be selected in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft. He knows he might not be selected at all. Even though he was a statistical monster last season, someone who had the nation's highest Player Efficiency Rating (35.11) and finished No. 1 in the KenPom Player of the Year standings, he understands that guarantees nothing in the NBA.
So he's using this process to learn.
Garza was, last season, along with Dayton's Obi Toppin, one of the two best college basketball players in the entire country -- and there is a case to be made that he was actually the best. But Garza understands simply being the best college basketball player does not guarantee him a spot in the NBA, where he's always dreamed of playing, so he's hopping on Zoom calls with front-office executives and answering whatever questions they have but also taking advantage of the time allowed to him before everybody signs off.
"At the end, they leave room for me to ask questions — and I always ask the same question: What do they think I can improve?" Garza said. "And then I write [their answers] down and make sure it's something I work toward."
So what is Garza hearing he needs to improve?
"Lateral quickness — being able to guard ball-screens better," he answered. "And being more vocal. A lot of the focus is on the defensive end and the athleticism side. The teams I've talked to understand I'm not the most athletic player, and I never will be. But I can make improvements and find a way to get it done."
Garza made it clear to me, before our conversation was complete, that he's "not trying to force anything here." If he gets to the point where he's convinced there's a spot in the NBA for him next season, I got the sense he'd seriously consider it and possibly prefer it. But, over and over again, he said he knows "what it would mean to come back" to Iowa, and, yes, he's aware of all of the possibilities. Again, if he withdraws from the draft, Garza should be the consensus preseason national player of the year and centerpiece of an Iowa team that's currently ranked, which makes the Hawkeyes the favorite in the Big Ten and a legitimate candidate to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1980. It's one thing to pass on that when you're a projected top-10 pick; players do it every year. But it's much more difficult, Garza more or less acknowledged, when the professional alternative is less certain, and, all things considered, he admitted, "it would be hard to walk away" from Iowa under these circumstances.
"After my freshman and sophomore years, I don't think anybody thought I'd be in this position, and be talked about this much, and be [somebody] everybody's so concerned about what decision I would be making," Garza said. "It's something that I really didn't see for myself. But I worked as hard as I could to make sure this happened, and, honestly, now it's just a blessing to be in this position. And I know, at the end of the day, that I'm going to make the right choice."