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Jackie MacMullan
March 11, 1996
Ahead of His Time
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March 11, 1996

The Nba

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Ahead of His Time

Rookie Kevin Garnett wows the Wolves
John Stockton is the coaches' point of choice
Green's streak lives

In Late December, following two horrible Minnesota road losses to Utah (99-83) and San Antonio (122-84), Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale decided to drop in on practice to assess the mood. He zeroed in on 6'11", 220-pound rookie Kevin Garnett, whose eyes were brimming with frustration. Along with the sixth-place Wolves, Garnett was struggling, averaging 19.0 minutes, 6.3 points and 3.4 rebounds. And for the first time all season, he was looking dispirited.

McHale beckoned to his 19-year-old forward, who would have been a freshman in college had he not declared himself eligible for the NBA draft last spring when he was still a senior at Chicago's Farragut Academy. McHale asked Garnett to come to his office. When they got there, McHale reached into his desk and pulled out the rookie statistics of three players: the Sonics' Shawn Kemp, the Bulls' Scottie Pippen and the Rockets' Robert Horry. Garnett's eyes widened at the modest numbers: 6.5 points and 4.3 rebounds a game for Kemp, 7.9 points and 3.8 rebounds for Pippen and 10.1 points and 5.0 rebounds for Horry.

"I told him, 'Take a good look,' " says McHale. " 'These aren't much different than your numbers, and these players have gone on to become stars.' The last thing we needed was for Kevin to get discouraged. I told him, 'I don't care how good you are. I care how good you will be.' "

It is too early to determine how good that is. At week's end Garnett's numbers had improved since that day in the doldrums; for the season he was averaging 24.3 minutes, 8.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. But his game had taken a quantum leap in the past three weeks. In the 10 games through Sunday, Garnett averaged 36.5 minutes, 14.4 points and 9.8 rebounds and shot 52.4% from the floor. His gangly arms, basketball instincts and raw athletic ability have earned him rave reviews from none other than Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, who watched Garnett produce a career-high 20 points plus eight rebounds against Chicago on Feb. 27. Jordan is not alone in forecasting greatness for Garnett.

"He's a special player," says Hawks general manager-vice-president Pete Babcock. "Earlier in the year you saw flashes of it. But he has so much more confidence now. He extends so high on his turnaround jumper and shoots so soundly, he's become very difficult to stop."

Traditionally, rookies hit the notorious "wall" during late February and early March, when fatigue caused by the long NBA season causes their numbers to drop off. Yet Garnett, who won't turn 20 until May 19, shows no signs of hitting the wall; in fact, he appears poised to leap over it.

That is partially by design. Minnesota's front office planned all along to slowly increase Garnett's minutes as the season progressed—and his confidence grew. Da Kid, which is his nickname in the Twin Cities, says he's ready. "I'm stepping up my workload for these final months," says Garnett. "That's how I operate. If it kills me, it kills me."

While Garnett has taken bows for his remarkable transition from high school to the pros, he should be receiving almost as many accolades for his ability to handle himself away from the court. So far, anyway, Garnett has avoided the pitfalls of fast fame and fast money. McHale has been credited with keeping his prize prodigy under control, but that's precisely the kind of talk that makes Garnett bristle. "I keep hearing about all these helping hands I'm getting," he says. "There's no helping hand. I'm responsible for me. All this talk about other people protecting me gets tiresome."

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