By Pat Harty
NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa – Those familiar with Randy Larson know that he doesn’t just hand out praise for no reason when evaluating basketball players.
Larson can be highly critical and hard to please when judging those who play the game that he truly loves.
The founder and the only commissioner in the 31-year history of the Prime Time League has seen hundreds of future, current and former Iowa basketball players come through his summer league.
So when Larson speaks highly of a player, it should carry some weight.
That’s why Iowa fans should be thrilled with what Larson said about incoming freshmen frontline players Jack Nunge and Luka Garza.
“I just think they’re going to bring so much,” Larson said of Nunge and Garza. “I don’t know what you do about having eight big guys.
“But if I had to vote right now, I’d say that Nunge and Garza are the two best big guys that we’ve got. They are just so skilled and so much better offensively than what we have that I think Hawkeye fans are going to be in for a real treat.”
To even suggest that Nunge and Garza are as good, or better, than all of Iowa’s returning frontline players is a bold statement, considering neither has played one minute of college basketball and considering rising star Tyler Cook is part of the frontline, as is Nicholas Baer, the Big Ten’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year..
“They’re just more skilled, they’re three or four inches bigger than their competitors for playing time and I just think they can do more things,” Larson said of Nunge and Garza. “It remains to be seen how you play all the good players because arguably Cook is in that mix, too.
“You’ve got three guys who are centers or power forwards and you’re trying to get them in the lineup, along with Baer, who’s obviously got to play.”
Nunge and Garza both have a size advantage over all of their future college teammates, with each standing almost 7-feet with shoes on.
“I don’t know, I might be seven foot, I haven’t measured in a long time,” said Nunge, who told the Iowa Sports Information Department to list his height at 6-foot-11 in the media guide.
To say that Nunge and Garza are better than Cook at this stage might be a reach, but it speaks volumes about their ability because Larson wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it, and because Cook is highly skilled. Cook made the Big Ten All-Freshmen team last season and averaged 12 points and five rebounds per game.
Cook also had at least 10 dunks and scored 30 points in Sunday’s 86-74 loss to Nunge’s team in the Prime Time League playoffs at the North Liberty Community Center.
Nunge countered with 34 points and 11 rebounds. He missed all but two of his nine 3-point shots, but his two makes came at a pivotal time in the game.
“He can shoot the ball, stretch the floor and put it on the ground,” Cook said of Nunge after Sunday’s game. “So he’s going to be a real good weapon for us.
“The more he learns to pick his spots and how to get easy buckets, stuff like that, the better off he’s going to be. So I think he’s going to be really good for us this year.”
The beauty with Nunge, Garza and the 6-9, 253-pound Cook is that it’s easy to envision the three of them playing together because each of their skills sets is different.
Nunge seems more comfortable on the wing and tries to pattern his game after NBA superstar Kevin Durant, who also plays on the wing despite being almost 7-feet tall. But Nunge is also effective inside, while Garza seems better equipped to play near the basket, but is versatile enough to play away from the basket.
Cook plays mostly power forward, but is working to expand his perimeter game during the offseason to where he could also play small forward.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffeery has shown a willingness to use a deep rotation, so it’s possible that all three players will have key roles next season.
Sophomore forward Ryan Kriener also will be in the mix for playing time. Nunge raised a few eyebrows on Sunday when he said the 6-9 Kriener has been the most difficult player on the team for him to guard this summer.
“He’s got really good footwork,” Nunge said of Kriener. “He can go by you and go up strong.”
Nunge and Garza already have had some success playing together since arriving in Iowa City in June.
“In open gym, when we’re on the same team, we really don’t lose that much,” Nunge said. “I know him, too, because I’m living with him. So we just really have a good bond that some other players don’t have.”
Nunge and Garza came to Iowa from different parts of the country and under different circumstances from a recruiting standpoint.
Nunge was lightly recruited until late in his senior season at Castle High School in Newburgh, Ind., when schools such as Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Creighton tried to make a late push.
By then, it was too late because McCaffery had been recruiting Nunge longer than any other coach from a Power 5 conference. It also helped that Nunge had lived in Coralville as a kid.
He and Garza both signed national letters of intent with Iowa during the early signing period in November.
“My senior year, I kind of blew up,” said Nunge, who was a finalist for Mr. Basketball in Indiana. “But I was already going to Iowa. And Iowa was the place that was there for me through the whole process. I really liked the coaching staff and I know the area. I have family that lives in Iowa.
“So it was pretty much a done deal before everybody else came in.”
As for Garza, he attended high school in Washington D.C. and picked Iowa over scholarship offers from a host of Power 5 schools, including Louisville, Notre Dame, Alabama, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Nebraska, Northwestern and South Carolina among others.
It isn’t often that Iowa signs one player who stands almost 7-foot, but having two in the same class is almost unprecedented.
Larson has been following the Iowa basketball team very closely since moving to Iowa City in the late 1970s to attend law school. He was around for both sets of twin towers as Steve Waite and Steve Krafcisin formed an effective one-two frontline punch for Iowa in the late 1970s, while Greg Stokes and Michael Payne did the same in the mid-1980s.
Larson thinks Nunge and Garza have more upside than both of Iowa’s previous twin towers.
“You know Stokes as a freshman couldn’t play at all,” Larson said. “We didn’t even let him play in the pickup games all the time.
“But these guys are very skilled.”
One advantage that Cook has over his two future teammates is that he already has proven himself at the Big Ten level and he understands the speed of the college game, while Nunge and Garza are untested.
“The speed is probably the biggest adjustment,’ Nunge said. “You’ve got to get your shot off faster than you did in high school. People are contesting you, so it’s really hard to get used to. But I think summer is helping out a lot with that.”
Nunge got a taste of that speed while playing against Cook on Sunday. In addition to blowing past Nunge and dunking the ball on several occasions, Cook also came out of nowhere to block a dunk by Nunge in which Nunge’s hand was already in the cylinder.
“I thought the ball was in the rim and he stuck his hand in and he blocked it,” Nunge said. “It was one of the best blocks I’ve ever seen.”