November 9, 2003

Straight into the pros

I'm draftin 'em outta high school straight into the pros

--- Nelly, E.I.

While this is and will remain almost solely a baseball website, there are occasionally other topics in the world of sports that interest me. So today, with all apologies to those of you only interested in baseball, I would like to discuss one of those topics...

Back in 1995, the Minnesota Timberwolves used the fifth overall selection in the NBA draft on a lanky high school player named Kevin Garnett. Garnett was the first high school player since 1975 to make the jump straight to the pros. Eight years later, that decision is, far and away, the best in the history of the (albeit short-lived) Minnesota franchise.

The Timberwolves were awarded an expansion team to start play in the 1989-1990 season. As all NBA expansion teams do, they struggled initially. They went 22-60 in their first year, improved to 29-53 in their second season and then dropped all the way to 15-67 in their third. And it didn't really get any better after that.

Overall, for the six seasons they played before Kevin Garnett was drafted, the Timberwolves went 126-366, for a miserable .256 winning percentage. They lost 60 games in five of those six seasons and had a franchise-best 29 wins in 1990-91.

Then Garnett was drafted, but Wolves coach Bill Blair didn't play him much. Blair was fired after the Wolves started the 1995-96 season 6-14, with Garnett serving as a backup forward. Flip Saunders took over as coach following the 20th game of the year and continued to keep Garnett out of the starting lineup. Through 40 games, Garnett had been a starter just one time, and the Wolves were 11-29 (.275).

Add those 40 games to Minnesota's previous six seasons and you get a total franchise record of 137-395, a .257 winning percentage.

At some point in late January of 1996, Saunders must have realized the season was over and decided that it was time to see what the kid could do. He started Garnett in the 41st game of the season, against the Denver Nuggets, and Garnett went just 2-6 for four points in 35 minutes, but grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked three shots.

The Timberwolves are now in the middle of the 2003-2004 season and, since that start against Denver, Garnett has played in 578 games for Minnesota and has started every single one of them.

During the 42 starts in a row that Garnett got in 1995-96, the Wolves went 15-27. That may not seem like much, and certainly it is a horrible record, but that .357 winning percentage would have been the best in Timberwolves franchise history at that point.

The very next season, with Garnett as their starting small forward, the Timberwolves, who had not won as many as even 30 games in their first seven seasons, made the playoffs. If they make the post-season this year, as expected, it will be their eighth consecutive season as a playoff team.

It is, in my opinion, undeniable the impact Kevin Garnett has had on the entire Minnesota franchise. When he was drafted, the team was an absolute mess. They had no future, they had no present, they had no past, they had no identity. He brought them from the laughing-stock of pro basketball to what is currently seven straight playoff appearances and his impact was almost immediate.

At just 27 years old, Garnett is already a six-time NBA All-Star, a four-time member of the NBA All-Defensive Team and a five-time member of either the first, second or third-team All-NBA.

His is the greatest thing to ever happen to the Minnesota Timberwolves, he is one of the most likeable, genuine, interesting and media-friendly players in the entire NBA and when his career over he will likely go down as one of the greatest players in NBA history. And yet there are many who feel as though he should never been have been allowed into the NBA out of high school.

I am not one of those people and you may not be one of them either, but trust me, they exist and you probably know some of them. As someone who has attempted to "argue" this issue with some of those people, let me be the first to tell you that no amount of logic or evidence of quality basketball players coming out of high school will ever sway their opinion. It's not quite at the level of those who refuse to believe Derek Jeter is something other than Mr. Clutch, but it's damn close.

So, in place of starting another argument with those people, I would like to take a look at the careers of the players who have gone straight to the NBA out of high school since Garnett did so in 1995.

I have already talked about what type of player Kevin Garnett has become, but I would like to look a little closer at the early stages of his career to see how he developed.

Kevin Garnett

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

19 80 43 28.7 10.4 6.3 1.8 1.6 1.1
20 77 77 38.9 17.0 8.0 3.1 2.1 1.4
21 82 82 39.3 18.5 9.6 4.2 1.8 1.7

Garnett became a starter in the second-half of his first NBA season, at age 19, and was an NBA All-Star the next year.

The speed of Garnett's development is absolutely amazing, whether you are talking about a high school draftee or a guy who played four seasons in college. He was a legitimate contributor from the very beginning of his first year and was the best player on the team and an All-Star in his second season. He hasn't looked back since and is now a top-five NBA player according to just about any expert you can find.

It may seem hard to believe right now, but Garnett making the jump to the NBA was a pretty big deal back in 1995. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which said, "Ready or Not...Three weeks ago Kevin Garnett went to his high school prom. Next week he'll be a top pick in the NBA draft."

I was only 13 years old then, but I remember reading that article and then watching the NBA draft to find out which team would take Garnett. His story intrigued me, his personality was interesting, and the fact that some kid five years older than I was would be playing in the NBA made my head spin. Much to my delight, Kevin McHale and the Timberwolves made the extremely bold and extremely brilliant decision to draft Garnett.

In essence, Garnett was like the guinea pig for an entire generation of basketball players. He not only tested waters that hadn't been tested for 20 years, he dove right in. He was a high first round pick, he experienced almost immediate success and he gained both national attention and some big endorsement deals.

Having seen the guinea pig and all the success he had, more high school players decided to make the same jump. After two decades without any high-schoolers going straight to the NBA, the very next season Kobe Bryant, out of Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia, was the 13th pick in the draft. The year after that, Tracy McGrady, from Mount Zion Academy in North Carolina, went #9 overall, and Jermaine O'Neal, of Eau Claire High School in South Carolina, went 17th.

All four of those high school draftees are now veteran NBA players who have had sufficient time to develop. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady are all among the ten best players in all of basketball right now and Jermaine O'Neal is a two-time All-Star and 2002-2003 All-NBA Third-Team member who could debatably be included in that top-10 as well.

It is absolutely amazing that in a group of four players, drafted over the course of three years, all of them would develop into All-Star players and three of them into consensus top-10 talents. And this is not a group of four #1 picks, these guys were drafted #5, #13, #9 and #17.

As we did with Garnett, let's take a look at the early development of Bryant, McGrady and O'Neal...

Kobe Bryant

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

18 71 6 15.5 7.6 1.9 1.3 0.3 0.7
19 79 1 26.0 15.4 3.1 2.5 0.5 0.9
20 50 50 37.9 19.9 5.3 3.8 1.0 1.4

Bryant was brought along much more slowly than Garnett, in part because he joined a much better team. He played sparingly and off the bench as a rookie in 1996-97, continued to come off the bench but in a bigger role in 1997-98, and then became a full-time starter in 1998-99, at the age of 20.

Bryant was an All-Star in his second season, mostly because of his popularity with fans. However, like Garnett, he became a legitimate All-Star level player at 20 years old and in his first full-season as a starter.

Obviously everyone is aware of the more recent parts of Kobe's story. Strictly sticking to the "on-court" stuff, he has already won three NBA championships and was an All-NBA First-Team selection in each of the past two seasons. He turned 25 years old earlier this year.

Tracy McGrady

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

18 64 17 18.4 7.0 4.2 1.5 1.0 0.8
19 49 2 22.6 9.3 5.6 2.3 1.3 1.1
20 79 34 31.2 15.4 6.4 3.3 1.9 1.1

Tracy McGrady's rookie year is actually somewhat similar to Garnett's, in that he was on the bench for much of the year but did become a starter for an extended period of time. He played slightly more minutes per game as a rookie than Bryant and scored 7.0 points per game.

McGrady's second season was the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign and, after starting 17 games in his rookie year, he started just two games. His minutes per game rose slightly, but he averaged fewer minutes per game in his second year than Bryant and significantly fewer than Garnett.

McGrady began to get "starter's minutes" in his third season, averaging 31.2 minutes per game while starting 34 of the 79 games he played. His scoring rose to 15.4 points per game and he was in the top-five in both the "Most Improved Player" and "Sixth Man of the Year" balloting.

McGrady left Toronto after his third NBA season, signing a long-term free agent deal with the Orlando Magic. In his first season in Orlando, he became a full-time starter for the first time in his career, averaged 26.8 points per game, was an All-Star for the first time, and was named to the All-NBA Second-Team.

Although McGrady's development was much slower than Garnett's and slightly slower than Bryant's, he also became an All-Star player the same year he became a full-time starter.

Jermaine O'Neal

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

18 45 0 10.2 4.1 2.8 0.2 0.6 0.0
19 60 9 13.5 4.5 3.3 0.2 1.0 0.3
20 35 1 8.9 2.6 2.8 0.4 0.4 0.1

Unlike Garnett, Bryant and McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal's playing time and production did not improve in each of his first three seasons. He played very sparingly as an 18-year old rookie in 1996-97, played just 13.5 minutes per game in his second season, and then saw his playing-time drop to just 8.9 minutes per game in his third year.

O'Neal was essentially a mop-up player for what was then a very deep Portland Trailblazers team and he stayed in that role for his fourth NBA season, playing just 12.3 minutes per game in 1999-2000. The reaction to Jermaine O'Neal's career through his first four NBA seasons was very different to the reaction that Garnett, Bryant and McGrady got.

While all three of those other guys got their fair share of criticism during their first few seasons, the general feeling on all of them seemed to be that they were showing a ton of potential and, although they may have been struggling at times, they were contributing and it was only a matter of time before they became good players.

O'Neal's situation was completely different. He was rarely used for anything more than a couple of minutes at a time and was viewed as a "bust" by many, and shown as an example of the downside to high school players going into the NBA.

Fortunately for O'Neal and unfortunately for Portland, the Trailblazers traded him to the Indiana Pacers for 31-year old veteran big-man Dale Davis. Davis stepped right into Portland's rotation and started 43 games the next year, averaging 7.2 points per game. Jermaine O'Neal went to Indiana and became a star.

O'Neal immediately became a full-time starter with the Pacers and played more minutes in his first year there than he had in his four seasons with Portland, combined. In 32.6 minutes per game, O'Neal averaged 13 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks.

He made his first All-Star appearance the next year and averaged 37.6 minutes, 19.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He was voted the NBA's Most Improved Player and was named to the All-NBA Third-Team.

O'Neal's development was much slower than Garnett's, Bryant's and McGrady's, but that was in part because his first team was simply unwilling to give him significant playing-time. Immediately after he moved on to a different team and was given an opportunity to play 30+ minutes a game, he became an impact player. And he was an All-Star in his second full-season as a starter.

So, of the first four high school draft picks of this era, all four of them were All-Stars by 23 years old and, although the oldest of the four is just 27 right now, three of them are among the elite handful of players in the NBA and all four of them are among the top two-dozen players in basketball.

That is an absolutely amazing "success-rate" and I suspect it is a very large reason for why, in the years after these four were drafted, more and more high school players have made the jump to the NBA.

I'll take a look at those players tomorrow. See you then...

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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