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Kevin Garnett’s Prep-to-Pros Jump Changed the N.B.A.

“Does the N.B.A. have no shame?” a Dallas Morning News columnist wrote in 1995 about the prospect of Kevin Garnett going right into the league from high school.

Soon after, a Washington Post columnist chimed in, “If Kevin Garnett winds up leaving childhood for the N.B.A. without first going to college, then a whole lot of adults who claim to have his best interests at heart will have failed him.” That same columnist added, “The kid isn’t physically ready to play under the basket in the Big Ten, much less against Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.”

“It’s preposterous,” Marty Blake, a veteran N.B.A. scout, told The New York Daily News.

It’s hard to envision now, but before Garnett was chosen by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick of the 1995 N.B.A. draft, he was viewed by many — including The New York Times — with a great deal of skepticism. The conventional belief was that a teenager could not adapt to the rigors of professional basketball. A columnist for the Detroit News even scoffed at rumors that Garnett was interested in playing for the University of Michigan, saying: “Michigan doesn’t need the huge headache Garnett would bring. Sorry. This is an easy call.”

We all know what happened next. Garnett starred in the N.B.A. for more than two decades and retired in 2016 as one of the greatest players to ever take the court. He made 15 All-Star Games, his first coming during his sophomore campaign. He won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2004 and the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008. And last year, Garnett was selected for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, alongside the journalist Michael Wilbon, who is now with ESPN but was at The Washington Post in 1995, when he wrote that Garnett was not ready for the N.B.A.

In an interview, Wilbon said that Garnett was “one of the great players of the last 25 years,” but that he also wished Garnett had gone to college. Wilbon said that he still felt there were too many people who said “education was an impediment to success.”

“That’s not on Kevin or Kobe,” he said. “That’s on the system.”

Wilbon added later: “I look at what these things have done to Black Americans and all the kids who think that they’re going to play pro basketball at 18 or 19, and they’re not.”

Over his career, Garnett disproved the predraft doubts and disrupted the conventional wisdom about how someone who is nearly 7 feet tall should play.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an early critic who once told The Hartford Courant that Garnett was “in for a rude awakening,” now describes Garnett as “a consistent offensive threat and a great rebounder and defender.”

“He was able to play and lead at both ends of the court,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a statement emailed by his manager. “It was like that from Day 1 until he retired, and that’s why I consider Kevin a Hall of Famer.”

Garnett’s impact on the league went far beyond his on-court accomplishments. He showed that a 19-year-old could thrive in the N.B.A., and he influenced the thinking of scouts and executives, most likely easing the transition for others who were drafted immediately after high school, such as Kobe Bryant (1996) and LeBron James (2003).

“He’s paved the way for a lot of players,” said Thon Maker, a fifth-year center who played for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season and has worked out with Garnett. “A lot of young bigs in the league like myself, the first thing I learned from him is to drown out the noise and let your basketball do the speaking.”

Garnett became one of the country’s top high school prospects after playing for three years at Mauldin High School in South Carolina and his senior year at Chicago’s Farragut High School. He was compared to players ranging from Shaquille O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Walton and Shawn Bradley. His 220-pound frame made him difficult to assess, as did the paucity of prior high school draftees.

One of them was Moses Malone, who was drafted in 1974 out of Petersburg High School in Virginia by the N.B.A.’s competition, the A.B.A. Malone would, like Garnett, have a Hall of Fame career, and in some ways, Garnett’s debut represented a passing of the torch. Malone’s last season was the year before Garnett’s first.

“Garnett has more skills than Moses, but he doesn’t always come to play every night,” Tom Konchalski, an N.B.A. scout who died this year, told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1995. “He takes nights off. Emotionally, he isn’t ready to handle the N.B.A. lifestyle. He still is a kid. Moses was a man.”

There was also Bill Willoughby, who spent eight seasons as a role player for six teams from 1975 to 1984. He struggled in his transition and lost much of his money. (He called Garnett to offer advice as Garnett prepared to make his decision to enter the league.) Darryl Dawkins had a productive career from 1975 to 1989 after being drafted fifth over all. Both Dawkins and Willoughby entered the N.B.A. through a hardship waiver.

Shawn Kemp enrolled at the University of Kentucky but left without playing and briefly went to a junior college instead. He did not play there either before becoming the 17th overall pick of the 1989 draft and joining the Seattle SuperSonics.

There was a downside to Garnett’s brilliance: His immediate triumphs in the N.B.A. set a lofty bar that few players coming out of high school could meet. In his rookie year, he averaged a productive 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds, while starting roughly half of Minnesota’s games.

“His legacy is as one of the greatest players, one of the greatest two-way players,” said Danny Ainge, the president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics. Ainge traded for Garnett in 2007, revitalizing the franchise and helping it win its first championship in more than 20 years.

Garnett was, Ainge said, “a guy that was all about winning and gave great energy night in and night out. The ultimate teammate.”

Before entering the N.B.A., Leon Powe, part of Boston’s 2007-8 championship team, was on an A.A.U. team called the Oakland Soldiers along with a future Celtics teammate, Kendrick Perkins, and LeBron James.

“LeBron, me and Kendrick, everybody, we all wanted to go out of high school,” Powe said, referring to the N.B.A. “Especially because we knew what happened with Kobe, K.G., everybody that came before us. That just inspired us.”

Like James, Perkins made the leap in 2003, becoming a late first-round pick who would have a 14-year career in the N.B.A. If not for an injury, Powe might have jumped too, he said. Instead, he attended the University of California, Berkeley.

There were more high school players who did not meet expectations in the N.B.A. — such as Kwame Brown and Sebastian Telfair — than those who did. The result was a rule in the mid-2000s that said a player had to be a full year removed from high school before he could be eligible for the N.B.A. The last high school player to be drafted into the N.B.A. was Amir Johnson in 2005.

But the clamor to reverse the rule has grown larger with every passing season. In 2019, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said that it would probably be eliminated within a few years, and in March he told reporters that it would be discussed as part of the next collective bargaining agreement. So soon enough, the craving will start anew for another Garnett: a worldbeating talent whose prime might last 15 years. That’s still a lofty bar to clear, but he was the one who, as he might say, made it so that “anything is possible.”



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