Luka Garza #55 of the Detroit Pistons looks on against Philadelphia 76ers on October 15, 2021 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. Copyright 2021 Detroit Pistons (Photo by Chris Schwegler)

2021-22 Rewind: Pistons rookie Garza works to find his way in modern NBA

There was always a place for big men with smarts, shooting touch and toughness in the NBA that existed a decade and beyond ago. No matter their lack of lateral quickness or vertical explosion, near 7-footers who could shoot, rebound and bang with the best usually found a niche in the NBA.

Pistons fans of a certain age would point to Bill Laimbeer as the patron saint of big men leaving an enormous imprint on the NBA despite lacking a certain athletic profile. Forty years later, the challenge for Luka Garza is an order of magnitude greater. But Garza has defied the odds at every step to this point, so bet against him at your own peril.

Here's a look at Garza’s past, present and future:

PROFILE: 6-foot-11 center, 23 years old, 1 NBA season

2021-22 STATS: 5.8 points, 3.1 rebounds on .510 2-point shooting and .327 3-point shooting in 12 minutes a game over 32 games for the Pistons; 21.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, .517 shooting and .330 3-point shooting in 31 minutes a game over 21 games in the G League

STATUS: Garza has one year remaining on a two-year contract he signed with the Pistons prior to the 2021-22 season

DID YOU KNOW?: Garza swept the national Player of the Year awards as a senior at Iowa, winning the Naismith, NABC, Sporting News, Wooden and USBWA awards as college basketball’s most outstanding player. Garza also won the Sporting News award as a junior and was a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year.

A LOOK BACK:  Garza grew up in suburban Washington D.C., attended Maret Academy and was named Gatorade Player of the Year for the district as a senior.  He was a four-star recruit and the composite No. 93 prospect, choosing Iowa over Notre Dame and Georgetown. Garza started 118 of 127 career games at Iowa over a four-year career, averaging in double figures all four years and finishing with norms of 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds as a junior and 24.1 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior. Garza went from a .358 3-point shooter as a junior to .440 as a senior while taking roughly 20 percent of his shots from the arc each season. After a 14-win season as a freshman, Garza helped Iowa to an average of 21.7 wins over his final three seasons despite having his junior season truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic that saw it suspended at the Big Ten tournament. Iowa lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Garza’s sophomore and senior seasons. Garza submitted his name for the 2020 NBA draft but pulled out to return to Iowa for his senior season.

THE SEASON THAT WAS: Despite the gaudy college resume, there was some question whether Garza would be drafted due to questions about his fit in an NBA that puts a premium on big men with the ability to guard on the perimeter and get switched onto guards without becoming easily exploited by ballhandlers. The Pistons used the second of three second-round picks to select Garza at 52. After an impressive Summer League showing, Garza was signed to a two-way contract by the Pistons. In late September, the Pistons converted Garza to a standard contract. Garza found himself on the fringe of the rotation when Kelly Olynyk suffered a knee injury in early November that sidelined him for more than two months. Dwane Casey used Trey Lyles in many instances behind Isaiah Stewart, but worked Garza into the mix in select matchups, as well. Garza scored 20 points twice in a three-game span, both against San Antonio, when the Pistons roster was decimated by the COVID-19 Omicron surge in mid-winter, including a 14-rebound, 40-minute outing in a win over the Spurs. In the season finale, Garza again finished with 20 points at Philadelphia. Garza took one-third of his shots from the 3-point arc for the season and averaged 5.6 free throws per 36 minutes. In racking up impressive stats with the Motor City Cruise, Garza was voted third team All-G League.

A LOOK AHEAD: The mid-season trade to bring in Marvin Bagley III – a pending free agent but widely expected to return – gives the Pistons a viable backup behind Isaiah Stewart in addition to veteran Kelly Olynyk. The second year of Garza’s contract is reportedly a team option, which clouds Garza’s roster status. As he has proven at every step, don’t underestimate his ability to make an impression and beat the odds. Garza’s athletic limitations are well known, but his work ethic, IQ, willingness to sacrifice his body, scoring knack and irrepressible attitude make him a player with considerable appeal when filling out the bench. The Pistons got caught short by Olynyk’s extended absence last season and that limited their ability to keep Garza with the Motor City Cruise of the G League in the season’s first half. He made strides as a pick-and-roll defender as the season unfolded and showed promise as a scorer and facilitator, always putting a dent in the scoresheet even in limited minutes. What the Pistons accomplish in the traditional avenues of the draft, free agency and trade will shape the roster and determine how much space is left, but don’t bet against Garza making it too tough a choice to leave him out of the mix for 2021-22.

MONEY QUOTE:  “He grew in understanding the speed of the game. If you have some deficiencies in that area, you have to work at it. He did that. I thought he understood most of all how close he could get up in the pick and roll, how far he could get back without giving up the mid-range shot.” – Dwane Casey, in the season’s final week, on the strides Garza made as an NBA rookie