Luka Garza explains why he turned down Team USA, leaves Europe's door open

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2023-07-20 13:33

Luka Garza and his father Frank recount how the Minnesota Timberwolves center came to pick Bosnia over USA. Luka also breaks down his relationship with European basketball and reveals when and on which conditions he would pursue an overseas career.

Credit: Nic Antaya/Getty Images
Credit Nic Antaya/Getty Images

It's been a belated debut, but better late than never. Luka Garza is getting ready to join the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team ahead of the Olympic Pre-Qualification Tournament, which will take place in the Polish city of Gliwice from August 12 to 20.

The Dragons are in Group B alongside hosts Poland, Hungary, and Portugal. The first two teams from the group will advance to the semi-finals, where they will play the best two teams from group A (Czech Republic, Israel, Estonia, and North Macedonia). The winner of that tournament goes on to compete in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Training camp starts July 23, but Garza will be there a bit earlier to get used to the time zone and get acclimated to his new teammates.

His name was brought up quite frequently even before Bosnia made it to the 2022 EuroBasket, amid enormous financial and organizational hardships.

Eventually, Bosnia, spearheaded by Dzanan Musa and Jusuf Nurkic, delivered a more than decent performance in Cologne, where their group was played. They didn't qualify for the knockout stage but gave everyone a good run for their money, including Luka Doncic's Slovenia. 

Garza says the process of obtaining the passport was concluded in early 2022 and adds that it was long, but not that difficult. He filed the first petition when he was a lot younger, but he didn't have the time to finish that process earlier. 

Under normal circumstances, Garza wouldn't even need to occupy a naturalized player's spot. The Washington-born big man is the nephew of the former Slovenian captain Teoman Alibegovic, who is married to Lejla, the sister of Luka's mother, Sejla Muftic.

Credit Stephen Mally/

His cousin, Amar Alibegovic (Teoman's son), chose to play for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but his brothers chose a different path – Mirza played for Italy, and Denis for Slovenia.

Garza visited the Alibegovic family in Ljubljana and watched his cousin in action in one of Cedevita Olimpija's matches. "I've talked with Amar about the experience of playing with the national team. Yusuf [Nurkic] and I have become friends over the years, just from us both being in the NBA," Garza continues. 

Garza, 24, comes off a solid season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he didn't stay there before heading to Bosnia. He also visited Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, and Las Vegas to support his teammates playing Summer League. He even went to France to have workouts with another of his teammates, Rudy Gobert. 

The American-born center recently signed a new two-way contract with Minnesota, which means that, like last year, he might spend part of the 2023-24 campaign in the G League.

Players on two-way contracts do not occupy one of the 15 spots on the roster but are generally considered the 16th and 17th players. NBA teams are allowed to play them up to a maximum of 50 out of 82 games. If they play more, the franchise must give them a real contract and open up a roster spot for them.

Financially, two-way players fare significantly better than their counterparts from the Development League who are not under any kind of NBA contract, but still twice less than the minimum earned by NBA rookies – $462,629.

"This year, signing with Minnesota and being in a way more comfortable position, allowed me to come out and play," he says. 

Last year, it wasn't only about getting the passport, but also of figuring out the right time.

"The Summer League was a huge priority for me because I needed to go over there to find a new team," Garza reflects. "I wasn't with Detroit anymore. My priority was figuring out where I would play next and continuing my journey in the NBA."

It is important for athletes to have solid backing from their parents. Luka Garza is lucky in that regard as his father Frank devotes a great deal of his time in trying to make his son a better player. 

"He's more than a dad to me. He's a coach, and he's kind of a best friend," Luka Garza said about his father.

Frank played college basketball for the Idaho Vandals but was unable to carve out a successful career afterward. Now, he's ensuring that his son scales great heights that he missed out on achieving as a professional athlete. Apart from standing by his son since his early days in basketball, he also ensured that Luka would join a healthy basketball environment, where the major problems have been resolved -- at least, temporarily.

"We talked about that," he says referring to Bosnia's financial hardships.

"Things have been repaired and in good position. It was tough when they didn't have enough money for insurance, or all the other things," he admits.

Over the past months, Paolo Banchero's choice of national team was the subject of much speculation. Ultimately, the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft chose Team USA over Italy, where he would have played as a naturalized player. However, for Garza, the question of which country to represent was never there, as it had previously been the case with the members of the Alibegovic family.

"For me, the only other option I could have taken was play for the USA team," the Timberwolves' center says.

"Obviously, there were opportunities mid-year and during the summer time, like playing in the qualifiers. But for me, there was never a doubt in my mind where I wanted to play for and who I wanted to represent. It has been that way since I was a kid. Just being around my grandfather, my grandmother, and my mom, it was an easy decision."

Frank, sitting next to his son during the interview, recalls the conversation USA Basketball had with the two of them. 

"They had been calling us, saying 'Hey, we need Luka on the team.' That was last year (2022), the year before (2021), and the summer before that."

Nevertheless, Luka had promised his mother Sejla that he would play with Bosnia. Ultimately, that's what counted the most when the phone rang. 

"I told them, 'Listen, we raised our son in a certain way. When he makes a commitment, he sticks to his promises. That's what we've taught them. So, coach, do you want me to tell him to break his promise to his mother? That isn't happening and is never going to happen.'" Frank recounts with a chuckle. 

"He said, 'You will excuse me, Frank, if I don't you again for a while.' I said I understand." 

Credit Frank Garza

As Luka is looking forward to having his first practices with Bosnia, the squad coached by Adis Beciragic will need all the help it can get from vets like Musa and Nurkic to get the job done in Poland. For one, Garza thinks he has all it takes to be a good fit for the national team.

"It has always been easy for me to fit with my new teammates and adjust my game, whether it's to play the post more or play the perimeter and stretch it out," he says.

"And obviously, alongside Nurkic, there's going to be a little bit of both for both of us because he's a skilled guy who can score from the perimeter as well. So, I think it will be a smooth transition because I can adjust my game. We have to just wait and see what training camp is like and figure it out from there, but I believe so."

Throughout his two-year NBA career with Detroit and Minnesota, Garza has shot 34% from the perimeter. His father's biggest dream as far as his son's progress is to be able to see him become the first big man to break 50% from three in NBA history.

"It's not so much of a dream because I think it's coming true based on our practice," Frank says. "I just wish he had more playing time."

Based on the time he spends on the court, Luka is one of the NBA's most efficient players. Last year, he averaged 6.5 points and 2.3 rebounds in less than nine minutes. Knowing what to do in such a limited span is a virtue highly regarded, as it requires mental toughness and readiness to play whenever one's number is called. 

"You got to make the most out of your opportunities. It's just a mindset," Luka says, and goes on to recall a game while he was with the Pistons, when he entered the court in garbage time. His team was down by 30 with nine minutes left in the game.

He played really well and ended up in the rotation for the next games. That's how quickly things can change. It happened again this year against the Magic, when he scored 17 points in 10 minutes and was able to play the next three games for more than 20 minutes.

"Going into the game, you have to expect to play. Because there will be a situation where you're going to have to play, especially in the NBA with 82 games. Everyone on the roster will get a big opportunity at some point. Everyone on our team got a real opportunity last year. The more you understand that, the more you take advantage of those moments," Luka argues.

"You go into the game knowing that something can always happen. We've seen the craziest stuff in those two years. Guys get suspended or ejected. My first two starts in the NBA were after Isaiah Stewart was suspended two games for fighting LeBron James."

Sometimes, parents tend to be intrusive when their children are playing sports. For Frank, learning where to draw the line has been a process as he keeps alternating his roles from father to collaborator and vice versa. 

"I'm one of the few guys that know his game at a level that only time can provide," he claims. "What I do now isn't coaching, but suggestions back and forth. That's where the growth occurs. We're talking about his game and finding the holes in the NBA where he can fit."

Luka will be coming back to Minnesota, a place he says he enjoyed being at and where he was able to show his value. 

"Through early conversations, it seemed that the front office wanted me back. It was about figuring out the terms of the contract and what the situations was going to be like," he describes. 

On the other hand, given his impressive G League season, a two-way deal looks like the minimum he could get. Luka averaged 30.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 35 minutes and over 15 games for the Iowa Wolves. Numbers indicate a dominant player who should at least land a guaranteed deal. 

Luka confirms that his expectations were higher than a two-way, but notes that the contract can always be converted.

"It's not set in stone. For me, it doesn't mean that much. It's about being with the organization and the team. I feel like the rest will take care of itself as I continue to play and show my value," he utters with confidence. 

Frank Garza thinks it all went down to the Wolves trusting Luka and showing that they're counting on him. 

"The coach (Chris Finch), the president (Tim Connelly), and the front office are impressed by him. They're looking out for him and investing in him. Those are all the signs you need for a long-term relationship with an organization," he affirms.  

Heading into his third NBA season, Luka is confident that he knows much more about what it takes to make it in the league compared to when he arrived there in 2021.

"The difference between last summer and this summer is astronomical, in terms of my confidence and how much I know," he says and adds that after being cut by the Pistons, he struggled mentally. Being given several opportunities both in the NBA and the G League has allowed him to understand that he's a solid NBA player.

He also believes that confidence is a factor hugely underrated in terms of what people talk about. "It's not the physicality, the speed of the game, or athleticism. It's really about being actually there," he points out.

"I was a confident player and a scorer and I struggled to find myself in Detroit. I was more worried about going there and not making a mistake, while this year I understood that the only way to make the most out of the opportunities given to me was by having no regrets for how I played -- whether I missed or made shots.

But if after a game, I feel like I left something on the table, that's when regret sets in. So, the biggest thing for me was being confident in myself and understanding that some might get paid a lot more money than me."

As a kid, Luka used to sit in the basement watching his father's VHS highlight tapes of players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Larry Bird, hoping to emulate their games. Hence, he came to develop a unique sense and mastery of basketball fundamentals, even though his 2.08-meter frame is of the heavier sort. 

The lack of mobility and quickness can be a debilitating weakness in the NBA, which features many of the best athletes in the world and continues to break new ground when it comes to the pace of play. A center's chances of sticking in the NBA hinge less than ever on back-to-the-basket skills. Post play has been described as a dying art, but teams seem to have simply become more selective about which players will receive paint touches.

How can a big man with a traditional style of play, relying mostly on fundamentals and less on athleticism, earn a spot in today's NBA?

Garza thinks the best player in the league, Nikola Jokic, is the prime example. Obviously, not everyone has his passing ability and vision. But being able to stretch the floor is an important piece now, especially if you're not very athletic big.

"You need to be able to shoot the ball and that opens the floor for everyone else," Minnesota's center maintains.

"Guards want to play with you because you're pulling the big man away from the basket and that allows them to get downhill. Being able to pass, positionally rebound, and play hard are all important.

People don't talk about that so much, but Jokic is an elite big-man defender, especially in pick-and-roll. He forces guards to make quick decisions because of how quick his hands are. Even though he can't really move that well, teams couldn't take advantage of that in the playoffs because of how smart and sound he is defensively," Luka comments. 

Credit AP Photo/David Zalubowski

As the former 4-star recruit was growing up, cartoons were gradually replaced by HOF centers displaying their signature moves. Hakeem Olajuwon has probably been the most influential for the way he was able to spin in the post and get defenders off.

"That became my favorite move," Garza remembers. "But also Kevin McHale with the up and under, Jack Sikma, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I fell in love with the beauty of the game in the post and how those guys managed to perform at such a high level. That really inspired me, as I was trying to do those moves and imagine myself performing."

Luka is watching YouTube videos to this day, just to observe some moves that he likes.

"Then, I'm going to practice with my development coach and tell him, 'I watched a move I want to work on.' I'm constantly adding things to my game. Even the greatest players of all time weren't perfect," he notes. 

The 52nd pick in the 2021 NBA Draft thinks Kareem would still be as dominant just because of the skyhook, inarguably the most unguardable shot in the history of the game. 

"With his size and also as a defender, he could protect the rim and move really well. Hakeem is another one who would dominate as well. You see Joel Embiid's moves. Most of them or all of them come from Hakeem.

When they played, there were no defensive three seconds. In this era, with more spacing on the floor, those guys would dominate on isolation," he reflects. 

Coming from a family with close ties to the former Yugoslavia, Luka Garza couldn't help watching some of the all-time great European players. He mentions Arvydas Sabonis, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, and Drazen Petrovic.

But more so than even watching, what fascinated him the most was hearing stories from his uncle, Teoman Alibegovic, who shared a locker room with some of those legends.

"This explains how lucky I was in terms of my family," he reflects.

"We spent a lot of time together and learned from each other. All of us are extremely skilled, but I think the other side of the family is a bit more athletic than myself."  

In a recent interview, Dwane Casey, the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year and former Pistons coach, credited Serbian basketball – and Serbian coaches in particular – as pioneers when it comes to training, practices, and game preparation. He mentioned that Partizan were the first to pay attention to measurements of body weight and body fat percentage while using different types of training.

Casey specifically named Zeljko Obradovic as the primary example of the Serbian basketball school. "He is the winner. Whether he is here in Partizan or earlier in Fenerbahce," he said.

Luka says his ex-coach was definitely unique in the way he approached the game and coaching.

"He was one of those guys who absorbed information from everywhere and put it all together into his own unique style. It doesn't surprise me he said that because it makes a lot of sense.

When I heard what he was like before I got there, guys told me he's more of a traditional, old-school coach. But I liked that. Being coached by him was tremendous fun.

He's coached everywhere -- overseas, college, NBA. Dirk Nowitzki was on those benches when they won the finals. He had a unique perspective that he transmitted to his players."

Credit Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Speaking of the European influence, Luka admits that he was tempted to pursue an overseas career "at different points." Nothing came to fruition, as his dream and priority have always been to play in the NBA and stay there for as long as he can. 

"When I first entered the draft from my junior year, there were some opportunities there. Even last summer, after being cut by the Pistons, I didn't have any contracts besides Exhibit-10s or training-camp deals. Different teams reached out to me, but I felt like I hadn't finished my story in the NBA," he reveals.

Garza felt like he needed to find his way back to the NBA and that's what he did. Now, he's in a completely different position.

"I've always had big respect for European basketball. It's amazing the way the game is played over there. At no point have I said, 'Oh, I don't want to play in Europe.' That's something that's on the cards for me, but not until I'm done chasing my dream in the NBA."

Luka thinks there's so much that you learn and gain from the NBA, in terms of the connections. That's one of the main reasons why he's so willing to exhaust all options to play in the NBA.

"If I get to a point where all options have been exhausted, then I'll make that transition," he stresses.

Over the past two summers, some teams from the EuroLeague and China reached out to his agent to ask about Luka's intentions. 

"I didn't do a huge dive into it. There was interest, but it wasn't me telling my agent, 'Go talk to these teams.' It was more like, 'You can let people know that the door is open and that we can have a conversation.' But nothing got too serious," the Bosnian international clarifies. 

Garza was only 23 at that point and had training camp opportunities with NBA teams that liked and respected his game. He knew his rookie year wasn't as good as it could have been. Hence, he came with a different mindset and approach to convince people in the league that he belongs there.

"Maybe in the future, the right decision will be to start a career in the EuroLeague," he reflects. "When that time comes, I'll be ready." 

Garza is trying to keep up with the EuroLeague and the EuroCup, where his cousin played last year, as much as possible. Watching the EuroLeague Final Four that was held in Kaunas, there was one thing in particular that he found interesting.

"The fan support and how the crowds are was shocking to me after playing in the NBA. No matter where you go, whether it's Partizan, Greece, or Tel Aviv, it's just insane when you compare it to the NBA."

That's why he wouldn't necessarily prioritize one specific team over another if he was to play overseas.

"I grew up watching teams, but I didn't care where I play in the NBA. When I was drafted, there wasn't a list of teams I wanted to go to. My approach is very similar to European teams. It seems that you can't go wrong in terms of the places and the countries those teams are from. European basketball is fun to watch."

However, he does have a favorite player in the EuroLeague -- and that's his soon-to-be Bosnia NT teammate, Dzanan Musa.

"He had a tremendous year and he was an All-EuroLeague First Team pick. He was with a different team in Spain before stepping up into Real Madrid. They won it all and he was a big part of that. He can score in transition, shoot the ball and defend as well. He's a guy fun to support," Garza enthusiastically underlines. 

For the time being, European club basketball can wait. But the Bosnian NT and Garza's short-term professional goals need to be served here and now. The 24-year-old big man is currently living his biggest dream and he knows it.

"I want to chase more and move up the ranks, in terms of winning an NBA championship, being a consistent rotation player. Within my dream, I want to play more and with consistency."

His next assignment is in Vlasic, a small town in the Dinaric Alps. That's where his new teammates, the Bosnian federation and Garza himself will find out if that union was well worth waiting for.


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