Kevin Garnett has been such a forceful presence over his 15 NBA seasons that it’s hard to remember the fierce debate that arose when he became the fourth player to jump straight to the pros from high school.
Would Garnett become a certifiable legend like Moses Malone (ABA draft in 1974)? A multiple-time all-star like Shawn Kemp (1989 NBA draft after a basketball-less year at Kentucky and Trinity Valley Junior College)? Would Garnett end up with a forgettable career like Bill Willoughby or an amusing trajectory like Darryl Dawkins (both picked in 1975 draft)?
Those questions began to be answered on Nov. 3, 1995, when Garnett made his professional debut for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who took a chance by taking the youngster with the fifth pick in the draft. Garnett would start the game against the Sacramento Kings on the bench at ARCO Arena, with Minnesota coach Bill Blair opting for a starting front line of Christian Laettner, Sam Mitchell and Tom Gugliotta.
With the Timberwolves winning, 14-11, Garnett finally checked in for Mitchell with 5:55 left in the first quarter. Garnett was bouncing with youthful exuberance as he defended the Kings’ Walt Williams. The amazing thing is that Garnett still plays a random regular-season game with that kind of vitality.
On Garnett’s first offensive touch, he got the ball at the top of the key — which a few seasons later would have led to an easy 22-footer. But in his first game, Garnett deferred to his elders and swung the ball for a three-point attempt by Terry Porter. Garnett immediately sprinted down to get in position for the offensive rebound, but was aced out of the board by a pre-dreadlocks Brian Grant (the announcers made the point of drawing attention to Grant’s new Bob Marley tattoo).
Garnett’s first pro basket came a few minutes later. Gugliotta made a great save on the baseline and threaded a bounce pass down low to Garnett, who lofted a high-arching two-footer off the glass over Williams. There was no chest-pounding or histrionics, just Garnett hustling back on defense.
It’s a good thing Garnett didn’t engage in any self-congratulations, because the NBA can be humbling for rookies. That’s especially true for 19-year-olds, and Garnett got his welcome-to-the NBA moment near the end of the first quarter. Sacramento’s Duane Causewell got free underneath the basket and Garnett was late in going for the block, leading to Garnett’s first foul and facial-dunk victimization.
Garnett played only two minutes of the second quarter, but that was enough time to flash more of his limitless potential. Garnett took a pass on a fast break from Isaiah Rider, then delivered a sweet touch pass to Marques Bragg, who promptly blew the layup.
Garnett didn’t return until there was 4:30 left in the third quarter. He suckered Williams into overplaying, then smartly cut back door to receive another nice pass from Gugliotta for Garnett’s second basket.
Garnett was then more at ease in the game, comfortable in the knowledge that he belonged in the NBA. He even engaged in a little banter when Porter and the Kings’ Olden Polynice started jawing in the third quarter, and it seems like Garnett has been talking ever since.
Garnett played eight minutes in the second, getting his first dunk and hitting one of those 20-footers that would become a staple of his game. He even threw a no-look pass to Laettner on a fast break. Garnett left for good with 8:16 remaining in the game, and the Kings pulled away for a 95-86 victory. Garnett finished with eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, with one rebound and one assist in 16 minutes.
Garnett’s playing time would increase as his rookie season continued (20.1 minutes per game over the first three months; 37 minutes per game in the last three months). Blair would be fired in December and replaced with Flip Saunders, who gave Garnett his first start on Jan. 9, 1996, against the Los Angeles Lakers. Garnett became a full-time starter on Jan. 30, and became a more focal part of the offense when Laettner was traded to Atlanta in February.
Garnett ended up on the all-rookie second team after averaging 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. That started a sure-fire Hall of Fame career, and now no one argues that Garnett shouldn’t have made the professional leap in 1995.