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In late December, following two horrible Minnesota road losses
to Utah (99-83) and San Antonio (122-84), Timberwolves vice
president Kevin McHale decided to drop in on practice to assess
the mood. He zeroed in on 6'11", 220-pound rookie Kevin Garnett,
whose eyes were brimming with frustration. Along with the
sixth-place Wolves, Garnett was struggling, averaging 19.0
minutes, 6.3 points and 3.4 rebounds. And for the first time all
season, he was looking dispirited.

McHale beckoned to his 19-year-old forward, who would have been
a freshman in college had he not declared himself eligible for
the NBA draft last spring when he was still a senior at
Chicago's Farragut Academy. McHale asked Garnett to come to his
office. When they got there, McHale reached into his desk and
pulled out the rookie statistics of three players: the Sonics'
Shawn Kemp, the Bulls' Scottie Pippen and the Rockets' Robert
Horry. Garnett's eyes widened at the modest numbers: 6.5 points
and 4.3 rebounds a game for Kemp, 7.9 points and 3.8 rebounds
for Pippen and 10.1 points and 5.0 rebounds for Horry.

"I told him, 'Take a good look,'" says McHale. "'These aren't
much different than your numbers, and these players have gone on
to become stars.' The last thing we needed was for Kevin to get
discouraged. I told him, 'I don't care how good you are. I care
how good you will be.'"

It is too early to determine how good that is. At week's end
Garnett's numbers had improved since that day in the doldrums;
for the season he was averaging 24.3 minutes, 8.0 points, 5.2
rebounds and 1.4 blocks. But his game had taken a quantum leap
in the past three weeks. In the 10 games through Sunday, Garnett
averaged 36.5 minutes, 14.4 points and 9.8 rebounds and shot
52.4% from the floor. His gangly arms, basketball instincts and
raw athletic ability have earned him rave reviews from none
other than Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, who watched Garnett
produce a career-high 20 points plus eight rebounds against
Chicago on Feb. 27. Jordan is not alone in forecasting greatness
for Garnett.

"He's a special player," says Hawks general manager-vice
president Pete Babcock. "Earlier in the year you saw flashes of
it. But he has so much more confidence now. He extends so high
on his turnaround jumper and shoots so soundly, he's become very
difficult to stop."

Traditionally, rookies hit the notorious "wall" during late
February and early March, when fatigue caused by the long NBA
season causes their numbers to drop off. Yet Garnett, who won't
turn 20 until May 19, shows no signs of hitting the wall; in
fact, he appears poised to leap over it.

That is partially by design. Minnesota's front office planned
all along to slowly increase Garnett's minutes as the season
progressed--and his confidence grew. Da Kid, which is his
nickname in the Twin Cities, says he's ready. "I'm stepping up
my workload for these final months," says Garnett. "That's how I
operate. If it kills me, it kills me."

While Garnett has taken bows for his remarkable transition from
high school to the pros, he should be receiving almost as many
accolades for his ability to handle himself away from the court.
So far, anyway, Garnett has avoided the pitfalls of fast fame
and fast money. McHale has been credited with keeping his prize
prodigy under control, but that's precisely the kind of talk
that makes Garnett bristle. "I keep hearing about all these
helping hands I'm getting," he says. "There's no helping hand.
I'm responsible for me. All this talk about other people
protecting me gets tiresome."

When McHale drafted Garnett with the fifth overall pick, he was
prepared to arrange college courses for Garnett, help him choose
an accountant and advise him on a place to live. "We had a lot
of stuff lined up, just in case," says McHale. "He hasn't needed
any of it." Three weeks ago, when forward-center Christian
Laettner unleashed a jealous tirade directed at Garnett
(Laettner has since been traded to Atlanta), McHale was
concerned about how Garnett would react. But as he was mulling
over his strategy, Da Kid approached him and told him not to

"I've taken care of everything," he told McHale. "First thing
this morning, I walked up to number 32 [Laettner] and asked him
if we had a problem. He didn't have anything to say, so it's
over." It is that kind of maturity that has been missing in
Minnesota. McHale has tagged Garnett as the franchise, yet he's
acutely aware that under the terms of the league's collective
bargaining agreement, Garnett can bolt from Minnesota after his
three-year, $5.6 million contract is up.

McHale hoped Garnett would stick around the Twin Cities this
summer to work on his game, but the rookie misses his family in
his native South Carolina. "When this year is over, I'm out of
here," Garnett says. So the Timberwolves will send coaches and
trainers down south to work with him in the off-season. McHale
has already identified Garnett's needs: a weight-training
program, a sophisticated set of low-post drills and lots of work
on shooting.

"Having said all that, what this kid has accomplished is
amazing," declares McHale. "If you put him in a college
situation right now, where it's not as physical and there's zone
coverage, he'd be doing things that would have people in awe."

That is already happening in the NBA. During a 120-101 Wolves
win on Feb. 21, Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich watched Garnett
score 17 points and grab 12 rebounds, highlighted by a decisive
four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter when he had nine
consecutive points, four rebounds and two blocks. "This guy has
as much energy as anyone I've ever seen," says Tomjanovich. "He
attacks the boards like he's in a gym all by himself. The scary
part is, he's only 25 percent of what he'll be."


Suns forward A.C. Green, Feb. 26 versus the Jazz: 1 MIN, 0-1 FG,
0-0 FT, 0 points, 0 rebounds. One day earlier Knicks forward
J.R. Reid had viciously elbowed Green in the mouth, knocking out
two of his front teeth. Against Utah, Green, who was in
excruciating pain, stayed on the court 68 seconds, extending his
streak of consecutive games played to 785, which is tops in the
NBA among active players and third alltime behind Randy Smith
(906) and Johnny Kerr (844). At week's end Green's skein stood
at 788. Not everyone admired Green's grittiness. Said Sonic and
fellow Oregon State alumnus Gary Payton, who had played in 349
consecutive games through last Sunday, "If I break my back, I
guess they can put me on a stretcher and let me stand there for
a minute so I can keep my streak going too."


Golden State will make re-signing potential free-agent guard
Latrell Sprewell a top priority. To that end Sprewell was
anointed team co-captain alongside veteran Chris Mullin as soon
as his nemesis and predecessor, Tim Hardaway, was traded to the
Heat.... Nuggets forward LaPhonso Ellis stunned coach Bernie
Bickerstaff by publicly questioning his decision to keep Ellis
out of the starting lineup in favor of Dale Ellis. When he made
his statements LaPhonso had missed 113 of the team's previous
134 games with injuries. Bickerstaff held a closed-door meeting
with his forward and explained that he was planning to give him
his starting job back anyway but did not appreciate the public
pressure. LaPhonso returned to the starting lineup last Thursday
in a 137-120 win over the Mavericks and chipped in with 12
points and eight boards.... Dallas point guard Jason Kidd is on
a pace to become the fifth player in NBA history to have 800
assists and 500 rebounds in a season. The other four: Magic
Johnson (five times), Oscar Robertson (four), and Micheal Ray
Richardson and Norm Van Lier (one each).

COLOR PHOTO: DALE TAIT/NBA PHOTOS His legs are the league's youngest, but the frisky Garnett is displaying a maturity beyond his years. [Kevin Garnett]

COLOR PHOTO: NORM PERDUE Stockton, whipping a pass past Laker Vlade Divac, is favored by NBA coaches for his skills and savvy. [Vlade Divac and John Stockton]



Who's the NBA's best point guard? SI asked the league's 29
coaches to name their top three choices. Twenty-four responded,
and they overwhelmingly voted for an old reliable, 33-year-old,
12-season vet John Stockton, who in a Feb. 20 game against the
Celtics established himself as the league's alltime leader in
steals (with 2,321 and counting at week's end), to go with his
status as the alltime assists leader (11,025 and counting). The
results, with three points given for a first-place vote, two for
a second and one for a third (first-place points in parentheses):

Player, Team Points

1. John Stockton, Jazz 57 (14)
2. Anfernee Hardaway, Magic 44 (5)
3. Jason Kidd, Mavericks 19 (3)
4. Gary Payton, Sonics 18 (2)
5. Magic Johnson, Lakers 2
6. Mookie Blaylock, Hawks 1
Kevin Johnson, Suns 1
Scottie Pippen, Bulls 1
Rod Strickland, Trail Blazers 1

One Western Conference coach praised Stockton by saying, "He
makes the most difficult position on the floor look easy." Added
one Eastern Conference voter, "Stockton sees more than anyone
out there, and somehow he manages to improve every year."
Stockton's own coach, Jerry Sloan, said that Stockton's
professionalism also sets him apart. "He doesn't say a word, he
just plays," said Sloan. "It's refreshing. People say John is
unusual, but isn't that how it's supposed to be?"

SI also broke down the position and asked the coaches to choose
the best distributor, best scorer and best defender. All 24
named Stockton as the best distributor, with one coach putting
him in a tie for first with Kidd and Strickland. Hardaway earned
17 of the 24 votes for best scorer, with Kidd (two), Stockton
(one), the Cavaliers' Terrell Brandon (one), Kevin Johnson
(one), Pippen (one) and the Nuggets' Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (one)
receiving votes. Payton was named best defender by 16 of the 24,
followed by Blaylock (four), Hardaway (two), Kidd (one) and
Pippen (one).

Incidentally, the coach who voted for Pippen--nominally a
guard-forward--as best point guard said, "I don't care what you
call him, he's a point guard. Period." --J.M.