KG wasn’t the first NBA star to emerge straight out of high school, but he set the standard for a whole generation of them.
In 1995, a 6-foot-11 big man from Chicago with a saccharine South Carolina drawl took the basketball world by storm. Kevin Garnett had racked up an inconceivable number of accolades throughout his high school career, including Mr. Basketball in two states (South Carolina and Illinois), Mr. Basketball USA, and a McDonalds All-American nod.
Although he undoubtedly could have joined any college roster under the sun and become an overnight superstar, he instead chose a path as unique as his undying intensity: the Farragut Academy kid opted to become the first player in 20 years to forgo NCAA ball and declare for the NBA Draft.
On May 15, that kid was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
His jersey already hangs from the rafters of Boston’s TD Garden, and there is no telling if he will finally allow the Minnesota Timberwolves to retire his No. 21 now that their ownership is changing hands. But no matter what happens in the Twin Cities, one thing is clear: KG never accepted anyone else’s rules.
And it was his role as such a fierce, unapologetic trailblazer that paved the way for countless prep-to-pro phenoms, from LeBron James to Tracy McGrady to 2021 Hall of Fame classmate Kobe Bryant.
Prior to Garnett, only two players had forged the path straight from high school to the NBA: Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby in 1975 (Moses Malone went from prep to the ABA a year earlier). But his decision merely registered as only the first of many groundbreaking accomplishments for the Big Ticket throughout his Hall of Fame career.
In the decade that followed, Garnett inspired a whole generation of ballers. Based on his example, 38 of them opted for the alternative route to the pros, including All-Star big men like Jermaine O’Neal, Rashard Lewis, Tyson Chandler, and Dwight Howard.
It must be noted that not all high school standouts are destined for professional stardom. Among those that entered the pros, outcomes varied widely. As an organization, the NBA wasn’t quite built to provide the specific resources and mentorship that so many teenagers truly need, and in 2005 the NBPA and the league agreed that players had to be one year removed from high school and at least 19 years old before declaring for the draft.
It doesn’t mean that prep-to-pro was a failed experiment. Rather, it speaks to two things: That KG was a one-of-a-kind figure, and that the NCAA was not a requirement in producing a legendary Hall of Famer who could retire as the NBA’s all-time leader in career salary earnings (his $334,304,240 were only recently surpassed by a man who likewise skipped college: LeBron Raymone James).
Over the last few years, we have seen an increasing number of examples of players side-stepping a one-and-done college career and finding alternate paths to the pros. These have often included jaunts overseas and forays into the G League, but today, even more options are becoming available in the quest to become the next Garnett.
Most recently, NBA veteran and former UConn Huskies coach Kevin Ollie was announced as the head coach and player development director for new basketball venture Overtime Elite. OTE will include 30 players between the ages of 16 and 18 recruited both domestically and internationally, and each will receive a salary of at least $100,000. Amid ongoing debates about player compensation in the NCAA, Overtime Elite athletes will also have access to resources and instruction related to social media marketing and profiting off of their names, images, and likenesses.
It’s a revolutionary opportunity for high school kids. The kind a 17-year-old Garnett would have eaten up.
KG’s career spanned two decades, during which he was a 15-time All Star selection, league MVP, and NBA champion. The wiry big man also earned the reputation as one of the elite trash-talkers and intimidators in the long history of the game. His desire for greatness earned through hard work and sheer intensity inspired a generation.
With the emergence of more and more pathways to the pros that don’t involve the NCAA (and all its shortcomings), rising generations of basketball stars will inevitably owe something to the legend who challenged them to believe that anything was possible.