It is almost a year since a collective gasp rose from the NBA as the Minnesota Timberwolves chose fifth-pick Kevin Garnett, a Farragut Academy high school senior, in the first round of tomorrow's 1995 draft. One of the weakest franchises in all of professional sports, the T-wolves knew they were gambling on a player who was still a teenager.
Now, on the eve of the 1996 draft, Garnett has silenced the questions that surrounded him as a rookie. After breaking into the starting lineup in January, he progressed so rapidly that he was voted the T-wolves' most valuable player by seasons' end. He has proven that he belongs in the NBA, and many analysts project him as a budding all-star.
But his signing has prompted other questions: Is Garnett a novelty, as the sixth player ever to have leapt from high school to big league? Or is he the harbinger of a trend? This year's 42 early-entry candidates for the NBA draft include three other high school seniors: Kobe Bryant, from Philadelphia, plus Jermaine O'Neal and Taj McDavid from South Carolina.
Does that mean more prep standouts will forego college ball for the pros? It's a question that touches on some fundamental challenges facing teenage athletes. The question begins with Garnett but extends to values that lie at the heart of the sport.
Garnett is possibly a one-of-a-kind find in the draft. "He's unique," says Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves' head coach. "At 6 ft. 11 in., he can jump, shoot, rebound, defend, and all the rest. Plus he's still growing. We expect he'll top out around 7 ft. 1 in."
"With his long arms and his quickness, he's able to do some things that you don't see in any athlete - whether he's a senior in high school or college," adds Rob Babcock, Minnesota's Director of Player Personnel. "For example, he can jump and reach over an opponent for an offensive rebound without fouling him. Plus he has the enthusiasm of a 19-year-old. But I hope he doesn't set a trend. We don't see other high school players out there who are apt to be as successful."
Still, if precocious prepsters face long odds in the NBA, that doesn't appear to have diminished the league's interest in them.
There's evidence that pro NBA teams are routinely scouting high school stars. Garnett was first contacted by the Toronto Raptors, an NBA expansion team, before his senior year of high school. The scout approached him at a basketball camp sponsored by Nike, the purveyors of athletic shoes.
Tom Jorgensen, a scout for the Orlando Magic, covered McDonald's All America High School Game last March in Pittsburgh. "This year every one of the NBA teams was represented," he reports. "That's what it's come to." According to Jorgensen, the McDonald's game was "strictly show time. Nobody made a pass that wasn't behind-the-back. Every play was intended to be spectacular. As a result, there were 65 turnovers - about three times what you'd expect in a normal game."
NBA scout Babcock believes that kind of showmanship reflects the problems of his sport in a media-dominated society. "American basketball is declining. Last year I covered an international age-19-and-under tournament in Athens. The US finished seventh, and it was no fluke. Our kids are great at the kinds of spectacular plays they see on TV - slam dunks and the like. But if they're going to pass the ball, it had better be a spectacular pass. And nobody can set a pick to free a teammate for a jump shot.
"Kids don't play the game as well as they used to, and to me that's a real loss. Because I love the values that basketball teaches: self sacrifice, doing things as a team that you couldn't do individually. We see the same problem in the NBA. People used to complain it was hard to find a center. Now it's hard to find a point guard. That's because of all the media hype. Just once, I'd like to see a Nike commercial with a guy setting a great pick."