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Garnett's clock is ticking

Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Kid is practically an elder statesman now.

The revolution that Kevin Garnett led is nine years old and shows no sign of slowing down. Until Garnett in 1995, no one had successfully made the leap from high school to the NBA for 20 years. A dozen or so have followed him since. Another dozen might try to do so this year alone; as many as seven of them could be taken in the first round of June's draft.

On the eve of the playoffs, someone asked commissioner David Stern for the umpteenth time whether the league was in danger of becoming too young. This time, though, Stern skipped the usual lecture about how frustrating it can be trying to get the players' union to agree to a minimum-age limit and said simply, ''That is the reality of the current system.

''But I am holding out,'' the league's boss added a moment later, ''against 14-year-olds.''

It's hard to say whether Stern was kidding or whether he's finally become convinced that a few million dollars is fair compensation for skipping geometry, the prom and the rest of adolescence. Either way, he hardly needed reminding that the NBA's best story lines this season have been written by a pair of exceptional 19-year-olds, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and that neither might have had the chance if Garnett had flamed out as a 19-year-old.

''When I came here, it was more of a learning process and something that was gradual,'' Garnett said Sunday night, just before his Minnesota Timberwolves opened their Western Conference playoff series against Anthony and the Denver Nuggets with a 106-92 victory.

''Now, guys that go No. 1 and 2, it's expected for those guys to step in and make an immediate impact,'' he added. ''They have a lot of opportunity.''

Typical of Garnett, he didn't mention his role in that evolution. And while 1995 doesn't seem that long ago, consider this: At the time, he was just the fourth player to even try and jump straight to the pros.

No one knew whether Garnett would wind up as the next Moses Malone, who grew rich over the course of a productive career, or the last Bill Willoughby, another precocious high schooler who played a few years in the NBA, lost much of his money and spent years making up the college classes he skipped the first time around.

But they didn't have to wait long to find out. The Timberwolves and general manager Kevin McHale took admirable precautions to guard their investment Garnett had a nutritionist, a personal trainer, a childhood pal as a roommate, and his mom on speed dial but all of it provided only so much insulation.

By the end of his first season, Garnett was in the starting lineup every night, battling the likes of Scottie Pippen and holding his own. The easiest way to judge the success of the experiment was to see how the parade of high schoolers swelled in subsequent years. Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal in 1996, Tracy McGrady in 1997, Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis in 1998 producing superstars and serviceable pros alike and exploding last season with the addition of James.

But it wasn't just high school kids who were emboldened by Garnett's success. After he proved such a quick study, freshmen and sophomores such as Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury, Vince Carter and Mike Bibby began pouring in. And even Anthony, who won a national title at Syracuse and left after his freshman year, remembered how unusual the Garnett signing seemed, though he was only 11 at the time.

''I remember when he came out,'' Anthony recalled this week. Then, perhaps worried about seeming star-struck, the rookie quickly added, ''But I wasn't really into basketball then.''

He is now, and like many of his predecessors, he's going to find out that fame and fortune isn't the only thing that comes early in the NBA.

For all his individual success, Garnett has reached that stage in his career where potential is no longer a substitute for results. Minnesota has been eliminated in the first round of the postseason seven straight times, and if the Nuggets find a way to make it eight, Garnett's career arc will begin to resemble a flat line. And while the club went through the trouble of providing him with real complementary players, Sam Cassel is 34 and Latrell Sprewell is 33.

It's worth mentioning that Garnett will be 28 next month, mainly because he seems to feel some inner championship clock ticking. He's become the consummate team leader, and even while taking advantage of the additional help, Garnett is playing a bigger role than ever. He's had an MVP season while leading the Timberwolves to the best record in the West.

Though Garnett rarely says anything about it, he's proud of the example he has set for the youngsters who followed him. He remembers how far some advice or a word of encouragement used to carry him, so he offers the same up to a point.

After Anthony scored 19 points in his postseason debut, Garnett said, ''He's going to be real good.''

But it was what he said right after that suggested how important a teacher experience has become.

''Game 2,'' Garnett added, ''is going to be even tougher.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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