By Pat Harty
NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa – Tyler Cook doesn’t hide the fact that he is on a mission to play in the NBA after he leaves the University of Iowa whenever that might be.
But nor does he dwell on it, either.
The 6-foot-9 Cook feels the best way to prepare for a future in the NBA is to live in the moment and take advantage of each day he has to improve in college.
“I’m just making sure that every day I’m getting my work in, getting my shots up and my reps in and watching film and talking to different guys and looking at scouting reports from last year so I get a better understanding of the guys for next year,” Cook said Sunday after scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Prime Time League. “So I don’t think about the (NBA) too much. I just try to make sure that I’m getting better every day.”
Cook is probably the most heralded recruit to sign with the Hawkeyes since Fran McCaffery became the head coach in 2010. Cook came to Iowa from St. Louis as a four-star recruit, and then showed why by averaging 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game as a freshman last season.
Cook showed flashes of brilliance at times, but also proved vulnerable at times, especially on defense where he still is a work in progress.
If Cook has his way, he will lift his game to another level this coming season before declaring for the 2018 NBA draft. He isn’t necessarily in a hurry to leave college, but there is a sense of urgency to get to the next level, maybe even more so now that Cook’s close friend and former high school teammate, Jayson Tatum, has achieved his dream.
The 6-8 Tatum was selected third overall in the 2017 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics after playing one season at Duke.
“A whole bunch of motivation, we talk often,” Cook said of Tatum. “He’s always telling me how much he feels that I can compete with those guys at that level.
“So just seeing somebody from where I come from doing so well at that level motivates me because I want to be there with him soon.”
Cook appreciates that Tatum believes so strongly in his ability, but it’s not that Cook needs to be reassured.
“I don’t doubt myself at all,” Cook said. “I’ve always felt that I could play at that level.”
Barring an injury, Cook would appear to be on the right path. He certainly has the physical tools to play in the NBA. Now it’s just a matter of expanding his game and working to correct his weaknesses.
The graduation of all-Big Ten shooting guard Peter Jok leaves Iowa without a veteran leader and without its top go-to player on offense. Cook is determined to fill both voids because he knows that should help him achieve his ultimate goal, while also helping the Hawkeyes do the same.
But Cook also wants to enjoy college for as long as that may be. Cook likes being a Hawkeye and the lifestyle that comes with it.
He likes his teammates and they like him. That’s easy to tell just from watching Cook interact with his Hawkeye teammates in the Prime Time League. The competition is serious and fun at the same time.
It would be nice from Iowa’s standpoint if Cook would finish what he started as a Hawkeye by staying in school for four years.
But nobody could blame Cook for leaving early should the opportunity present itself.
The purpose of college is to help prepare students, both emotionally and financially, for life as an adult.
Iowa also would benefit from Cook playing in the NBA, even if it came at the expense of college. Other star recruits would see that Cook thrived as a Hawkeye and might following in his footsteps.
Cook and the Iowa basketball team both need each other in order to achieve their goals.
Cook is one of four returning starters from an Iowa team that finished 19-15 last season. He is one of the most important pieces on a team filled with important pieces.
“I just want to be the best player that I can be,” Cook said.
Cook said Sunday that he feels every facet of his game has improved, and that he is more efficient and more versatile compared to when he enrolled at Iowa.
He should benefit from having a year of Big Ten basketball under his belt. Cook was asked Sunday if there was one thing about the college game that was harder than he expected.
“I just think it’s how hard that everybody plays,” Cook said. “We played hard coming into it. But once we got into Big Ten play, we realized what playing hard really is at this level.”
It's even harder at the next level in the NBA where former Hawkeyes have struggled to survive. The NBA is a place where only the strong and talented last over time.
Iowa has had a first-team all-Big Ten player in each of the past three seasons, but neither Devyn Marble nor Aaron White have been able to stick on an NBA roster, while Peter Jok wasn't even selected in the 2017 NBA draft. Jok is now trying to make the New Orleans Pelicans roster as a free agent.
Cook can use all three of their cases as motivation, and as a warning to work even harder because he hopes to go where few Hawkeyes have gone before him. Cook is determined to join Tatum in the NBA, but part of that determination means to respect the journey as much as the destination.