Before there was Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, there was Kevin Garnett.
The year is 1995 and college basketball is at its apex of popularity. UCLA just took down Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament Final and future number one pick Joe Smith had led Maryland to the Sweet Sixteen, showcasing his talent to the basketball world.
Everything made sense. Smith and other top five picks Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace had all dominated the college basketball season, leading Maryland, Alabama and North Carolina respectively to impressive tournament showings.
One member of the top five of the 1995 NBA Draft didn’t though.
He didn’t play in the NCAA tournament; hell, he didn’t play in college at all. This guy wasn’t even a European. No, Kevin Garnett was just a kid from South Carolina, who played his senior year in Chicago that in the span of five months, changed basketball forever.
Garnett was so good in high school that he was the player of the year in two separate states, South Carolina as a junior and Illinois as a senior. He was so good that he averaged averaged 26 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks a game for Farragut Academy as a senior but, was he good enough for the NBA as an 18-year-old?
After failing to secure the required score on his ACT and SAT to gain college eligibility, Garnett was faced with a decision: go to a prep school or junior college and improve his GPA for college the following year or, enter the NBA straight out of high school.
Entering the league straight out of high school seemed like an impossible dream. Sure, Garnett was one of the most talented high school players anyone had seen but he was just that, a high school player. Scouts thoroughly believed college was a requirement to reach the NBA, sneaker icon Sonny Vaccaro saw it differently though.
It was basic math, if Garnett became the first player in decades to enter the NBA lottery straight out of high school, he would be guaranteed millions upon being selected.
After twenty plus years of players entering the league without college or just a year of it, this seems obvious in hindsight however, back in 1995, no one had foregone college since 1975. It was allowed in theory, but in practice that remained another thing entirely.
At a workout following his senior season though, Garnett experienced a moment that shifted his thought process. He had had his heart set on college and attending the University of Michigan until a run with Scottie Pippen, watched by Isiah Thomas changed everything.
“I just saw you play Scottie Pippen,” Garnett recalled Thomas saying in an interview with NBA.com a few months ago. “Boy, you can play in the league right now.”
That conversation changed Garnett’s life and, NBA history.
“Isiah gave me the know-how and the process to go about it,” explained Garnett.
From there, Garnett proceeded on in a unique pre-draft process that left general managers in a bizarre situation. Most kids are free to be able to be flown in for workouts during the draft process but thanks to some high school classes Garnett needed to finish, team personnel had to go see him workout in Chicago instead.
During his high school season, NBA scouts had scoffed at going to see some high school kid play. Now though, they left the gym realizing they’d just seen something they’d never seen before. A six-foot ten kid with the ability to shoot, handle and pass with freaky athleticism.
He was an upgraded version of Chris Webber.
After watching him play, teams were put in a precarious situation. His talent was evident but a miss with a high pick on a high school kid with college players everyone had seen before right behind him would result in a guaranteed firing for that general manager.
Flip Saunders (rest in peace) and the Minnesota Timberwolves weren’t afraid though and with the number five pick made a selection that altered draft history forever.
“There’s no way that [Kobe Bryant’s dad] comes to me unless Kevin Garnett isn’t already in the league,” Vaccaro said in an interview with USA Today. “… Kevin Garnett was a pioneer and is still a problem for the NBA. They can’t overcome what Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and LeBron James have done.”
Kevin Garnett had created a massive problem for the NBA out of nowhere.
The reason this became a problem was simple, NBA teams were not prepared to risk their futures consistently on high school players. If Garnett had failed this problem would’ve disappeared with him however, KG had other plans. Garnett would become an MVP, NBA Champion and one of the great defenders in league history, establishing firmly high schoolers could excel immediately in the league.
He would also trailblaze another thing in league history.
Ever heard the term ‘unicorn’ thrown around to describe an NBA player? Well the prototype of a six-ten power forward who could shoot, dribble and play make while guarding all-five positions was none other than Kevin Garnett. Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, all of these players and more are a result of KG.
If Garnett had busted like many other high school players, it wouldn’t have caused the issue it did for then commissioner David Stern to adopt the now infamous “one and done” rule that barred high schoolers from entering the league directly. Instead of busting and making the lives of Stern and everyone associated with the NCAA easier, Garnett trailblazed a generation.
His game became the building block of so many great players today and his decision was the basis for a series of previously mentioned hall of famers. There’s no doubt Kevin Garnett’s legacy will live on forever. If not for the 26,000 points or 15 All-Star appearances then for the fact, he changed basketball history.
Pretty good for a scrawny kid from South Carolina scouts refused to go see play.