The expansion Timberwolves had gone through six losing seasons by the time May 1995 came around.
They had yet to find the type of player who would transform their franchise.
Head coach Flip Saunders and then-general manager Kevin McHale found their man afew minutes into watching Kevin Garnett play in a Chicago gym.
“Just watching him, you just knew he was going to be a special player because most of the special players somehow they were a freak of nature and he was just because of his unbelievable size and agility,” Saunders told Metro New York before Wednesday’s game against the Nets.
The workout also involved Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Joe Smith and Antonio McDyess, whom were all lottery picks and had lengthy careers. Initially, Saunders and McHale went into the workout with the intention of telling teams they would take this “high school kid” as a decoy to get other teams to bite and leave the college players to their draft position at No. 5.
But that changed within minutes of watching the workout unfold at the University of Illinois-Chicago. While they saw a 6-foot-11, 220-pound kid, they also saw the intensity that would eventually shape Garnett’s career.
“We knew he was good, but we didn’t know how good,” Saunders told Metro New York. “But after the workout — five minutes — you can tell that he did everything at such a high level. He had such an unbelievable work ethic that if you get a guy that’s skilled, has a high work ethic and all of those things they’re going to be successful.”
Saunders told McHale “we better hope he’s there at No. 5.” It turned out their hopes became a reality when Smith, McDyess, Stackhouse and Wallace were the first four picks.
“Just how hard he played,” Saunders said of what stood out about Garnett. “At 6-foot-13 — because he never wanted to be a 7-footer — just how he shot the ball, how he handled the ball. If you stood 100 yards and watched him play, you thought you were watching a 6-foot-3 guard play not a guy who’s 6-foot-13.”
Though the Timberwolves did not win an NBA title, they were in the playoffs every season of Garnett’s tenure from 1997 to 2004. They advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2004 and have not returned since.
Garnett has evolved into one of four players to play 20 seasons and is among the active leaders in most major categories. He also spurred other high school kids like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Amar’e Stoudemire to turn pro after high school until the league ended that opportunity in 2005.
“I know one thing, when he steps between these lines, he’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Saunders said. “It’s in his DNA. I’m excited to coach against him tonight. I’ve always had a soft spot because I had him on the team and was a huge part of his development as a player. “
As for what’s next for Garnett, coaching isn’t likely, but helping out a team is something Saunders could see him doing.
“What he could be is a good consultant,” Saunders said. “He’s got great knowledge and he’d be great working with players, but he gets frustrated pretty easily. He might be a short-term guy and it’s not because of lack of knowledge.”
Next May will mark the 20th anniversary of the first time Saunders saw Garnett work out and after so many points and so many games, it will be an occasion he will never forget.
Follow Nets beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.