In 1995 there were all kinds of signs coming out of Target Center that the Timberwolves were interested in drafting Kevin Garnett, the top prep basketball player in the nation.
Then-head of scouting Jerry Sichting had been following Garnett around and watching tons of his games, and Flip Saunders, then working as general manager, had been giving hints that Garnett was a special player.
At the time Michigan was the top basketball program in the nation. The Wolverines were a few years removed from the Fab Five, and coach Steve Fisher was bringing in top players every year. The Wolverines’ top recruiter was Brian Dutcher, the son of former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher.
Brian had told me that April that Michigan was a front-runner to land Garnett, if he went to college. Michigan already had signed Robert “Tractor” Traylor and two other McDonald’s All-Americas.
When Garnett went pro and the Wolves drafted him No. 5 overall, making him the first high school player to go straight to the NBA since 1975, Dutcher said they had landed a truly unique talent.
He told me in June 1995 that Garnett “is darn near the best high school player I have ever seen.”
And now, 25 years later, Garnett is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, unquestionably the greatest player in Timberwolves history and one of the greatest success stories in pro sports.
Back in ’95, Dutcher compared Garnett to Rasheed Wallace, the All-America out of North Carolina who had gone No. 4 to the Washington Wizards (then the Bullets).
“If I had my choice of Rasheed Wallace, who has played two years at North Carolina, I would have taken Garnett,” Dutcher told me. “Garnett is like Chris Webber was when Webber came out of high school. He is not lazy and works hard. He plays with great emotion and always competes. He really loves and enjoys the game. He has a great upside in the game. He can run, he can pass.”
Still there were questions not only around the NBA but within the Timberwolves about the transition Garnett was about to take.
“What is this kid going to do once 2 ½ hours of practice is over?” Dutcher asked me. “The question I would ask is, who is going to spend time with him? Who is he going to live with?”
But while there may have been questions, the fact is that the Wolves drafted not only one of the greatest players to ever play in the league, but also one of the most responsible young players in NBA history.
There were never any issues with Garnett in Minnesota, despite his youth and all of the accolades, attention and money he received.
I always got along great with Garnett as he became one of the most dominant and marketable stars in the NBA. There’s no doubt that after Kirby Puckett retired from the Twins in 1996, Garnett became the most popular athlete in Minnesota.
His greatest game, and still the biggest win in Timberwolves history, was when he led the team past the Sacramento Kings 83-80 in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals at Target Center in 2004.
On his 28th birthday, Garnett finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks, four steals and two assists.
Only five other players in NBA history have recorded at least 30 points and 20 rebounds in a Game 7: Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Heinsohn and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
No one has done it since Garnett.
That was the same year he won MVP, and if the Wolves hadn’t lost point guard Sam Cassell to injury, they very well could have beaten the Los Angeles Lakers instead of losing in six games in the Western Conference finals.
Doug Collins, who had coached Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls and called the Kings-Wolves Game 7 for TNT, told me that Garnett’s performance was an all-time classic.
“The thing about what Kevin did tonight: He showed what the great Michael Jordan did throughout his career in big games, coming through when you need it the most,” Collins said. “And that’s what defines great players — being stars when the game is on the line.
“I think you saw another step in the maturation process of Kevin Garnett. Garnett was not going to let his team lose tonight. He made every basket in the fourth quarter [13 consecutive points], came up with blocked shots, steals, played 46 minutes.
‘‘He was magnificent. These are game where you validate your greatness.”
With all of the success that Garnett and the Wolves had it’s really too bad that he and owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, had a falling out after the passing of Flip.
That loss was devastating for the Wolves franchise and surely for the relationship between Garnett and the organization.
There’s no question that someday Garnett’s jersey will be retired at Target Center, but until then local hoops fans will just have to celebrate his Hall of Fame enshrinement later this year.
• The Gophers landed a promising player in Liam Robbins out of Drake. The 7-foot center could be a difference maker. In his second-to-last game for Drake, he helped the Bulldogs topple Northern Iowa, the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champ, and scored 17 points to go along with nine rebounds and four blocks.
• According to 247 Sports, a number of football programs have started targeting Jake Ratzlaff out of Rosemount in the class of 2021, including the Gophers, Wisconsin, Iowa and Iowa State. Ratzlaff is a linebacker but also one of the best prep hockey players in the country, and he committed to the Gophers in eighth grade. So while there’s no doubt Bob Motzko and his staff are on the inside track to landing Ratzlaff as a hockey recruit, he said he will pick between sports this summer. He also said that his parents hope he sticks with hockey but will support whatever decision he makes.
• The draft stock of Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. continues to rise as the NFL draft gets closer. ESPN’s latest mock draft had Winfield going No. 19 overall to the Las Vegas Raiders. They wrote: “Corner is definitely a bigger issue than safety [for the Raiders], but Winfield has tremendous versatility. He is undersized, but he is a hard-hitting tackler with ball skills. Coach Jon Gruden would love bringing in this kid.” The Gophers’ highest draft pick in the last 30 years was center Brian Williams, going No. 18 overall to the Giants in 1989.