John Shipley: Wolves’ Luka Garza watching, waiting and playing Nikola Jokić

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When the Timberwolves were devising ways to slow, or at least make life difficult, on Denver center Nikola Jokić in the Western Conference quarterfinals, they had a pretty good stand-in.

“It was a lot of fun for me, and I took it very seriously,” third-year pro Luka Garza said before Minnesota’s Game 2 against Dallas at Target Center on Friday night.

Garza isn’t a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player — he’s still trying to find regular playing time after being a second-round pick in the 2021 draft — and Jokic has almost 50 pounds on the former Iowa center. But they’re both bigs who can shoot and pass.

“I tried to give these guys the best looks I could and try to replicate the things he does,” said Garza, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center who was a two-time Big Ten player of the year in Iowa City. “Obviously, it’s a guy I watch a ton of film on, so it was pretty easy for me to kind of know what he’s going to do.”

Garza, 25, is in his third NBA season and played in a career-low 25 regular-season games in his second season in Minnesota. But that was to be expected.

“I came into this year fully understanding what my role was,” he said. “It’s as an emergency guy behind three of the best bigs in the league.”

That would be 2023-24 NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert, four-time all-star Karl-Anthony Towns and 2023-24 NBA sixth man of the year Naz Reid. It’s a formidable rotation and doesn’t leave a lot of minutes for Garza. That’s OK, especially as those three have racked up big minutes in the Timberwolves’ run into the Western Conference semifinals for the second time in franchise history.

The last time, Garza was 5.

“Obviously, I’m a basketball player, I want to be on the floor,” Garza said. “But I understand I can help this team in a lot of different ways — on the scout team, giving guys energy on the bench, whatever I can do.”

Garza got some good playing time late in Minnesota’s 45-point Game 6 victory over Denver at Target Center — eight points and two boards in 8 minutes of garbage time. Overall, he has played in six postseason games and scored 23 points in 23 minutes.

Maybe his biggest contribution so far, or at least his most enjoyable, was playing Jokić for the scout team. Like everything Garza has done since leaving college — he essentially mastered the NBA G League, averaging 36.7 points and 12.3 boards in 16 games — it also was a learning experience.

“It’s not often that guys are setting ball screens for me, and that’s what happened to me in practice. So, I’m getting to read the floor,” he said. “And obviously when you’re trying to replicate someone who’s as good a passer (as Jovic), you’re trying passes I normally would never throw.

“So, I think for me it continues to show how much I can do, and it gives me a lot of confidence moving forward that there’s a lot of room for me to grow within this game, and a lot of things I can do that, honestly, not many people know I can do.”

Garza could be playing big minutes in Europe — where three of his cousins play professional basketball — but he chooses to be in the NBA. “My dream was always to play in the NBA,” he said. And everything he does here, whether he’s playing in games or not, is progress.

“I feel the best I’ve ever felt athletically, so even if I’m not playing, it’s almost like I’m treating these workouts like the offseason in terms of how hard I’m going and trying to improve myself,” he said.

“I feel like there are a lot of elements to my game that I never had before. So, I’m excited to show it when that opportunity comes.”

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