The kid has confidence Kevin Garnett: One of a few players to go from high school to the NBA, this 19-year-old is taking things slowly and surely.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's the day of the biggest game of the year for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are watching game tapes of the Chicago Bulls after concluding their morning shoot-around. Several players are bleary-eyed. The desire for most is a quick wrap-up and a speedy departure. And then there's the excitable Kevin Garnett, who can't quite control his loud "ooohs" and "aaahhhs" as he watches Michael Jordan take flight.

"There will be some times when we're watching tape to scout a game, and he'll see a nice dunk and all of a sudden yell, 'Yo, rewind that, rewind that!' " Timberwolves forward Tom Gugliotta said. "He'll do that and coaches will be like, 'Come on, Kev.' All of us players have seen all of this before. But it's all new to him. He acts like he's still a fan. He's like a kid."

And, in many ways, Garnett is still a kid. A good time is acting silly with his friends on a stroll through a mall. Or taking in a movie. Or playing Sega.

The only thing different is that the long, lean Garnett -- age 19, standing 6 feet 11 and straight out of high school -- is a budding NBA star. And you don't have to tell him that.

He knows it.

"Not to sound cocky about myself, but I'm pretty good," Garnett says freely. "I'm going to be the first 6-11 point guard in this league. You can mark my words."

The Timberwolves may not be banking on Garnett as a point guard. But they are banking on his stardom. Why else would a team that has never won 30 games in a season -- a team that even vice president Kevin McHale has described as "the worst franchise in pro sports" -- risk its future on a reed-thin kid who never played college ball?

"Sure, we had the obvious concerns about his age, concerns about how he would be able to deal with players who are six, seven and eight years older than he is," said Minnesota coach Flip Saunders. "But he has a very unique aura about him in realizing what all is involved about being a professional, and he has a very good knowledge about the game. He has blended in well, and he has the maturity of a person who is maybe 25, 26 years old."

Garnett has been asked whether he has any regrets about his decision to bypass college, and he's clearly irritated when the topic is broached again. His lack of regrets total at least $5.6 million and a basketball game to boot.

"A lot of people said I really didn't think about all of this, but I did," Garnett said. "This is a tremendous step, and one thing you have to realize is that to take a step like this you have to put a lot of work into it."

"If given the chance, I am going to prove to everyone that I am man enough to take what is given. And that I'm mature enough to give it out."

Garnett speaks of maturity, but he's not even old enough to go out with the other players on the road. And he has the silliness of a typical teen-ager. After a recent game, Garnett is holding court with reporters while standing on a chair, making him seem 9 feet tall.

To one older reporter, he asks, "Your heart still ticking? That's good." He speaks of taking more shots than usual, saying that "I had to go back to my roots, go back to my 'Y' days." And he explains he no longer wants to be called Kevin. "It's Da Kid. That's D-A K-I-D.

"I know there's a serious side to everything, but I like to have fun," Garnett said. "When it's time to get serious, I get serious. But when it's not, I'm myself. I laugh. I joke. And if you don't like it, tough."

Garnett joins a small group of players who have gone from high school to the NBA. Just two, Moses Malone and Shawn Kemp (who sat out one year after high school), went on to become stars. Notables such as Darryl Dawkins (first-round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1975) and Bill Willoughby (second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 1975) didn't fulfill expectations.

Had Garnett received the necessary test scores on his SAT or ACT exams, he'd probably be a freshman in college, no doubt a first-year phenom who would have had no trouble making the nightly highlights. Instead, he made known his intention to go right to the NBA from Farragut High School in Chicago, where he averaged 25.2 points and 17.9 rebounds and earned the national high school player of the year award.

Based on one workout, Garnett was declared the best passer of the draft. His height and wingspan also impress, but what's also striking is how skinny he is. Drafting the teen-ager was considered a major risk. But Garnett had more than held his own in pickup games against NBA players from the area, so he was confident about the transition.

"There's really no big difference like people think it is," Garnett said. "You get a few bumps, a few bruises every night. You do a lot of traveling. But other than that it's just basketball: you try to take somebody to the hoop."

It wasn't quite the same Friday night, when Garnett faced Scottie Pippen, who took the teen-ager to school with 15 first-quarter points, finishing with 29.

But Garnett can dish it out, also. His game is high-energy, thin arms flailing and feet in constant movement. He has a smooth release on his jumper, which has improved with each game. On Friday, he had 16 points against the Bulls, three shy of his career high. He soared to grab a career-high 15 rebounds and had two blocks in a career-high 43 minutes.

"He's a very good player with a lot of talent," Pippen said. "He's going to be a star."

Said Jordan: "He's young, he's learning. He's going through some on-the-job training now. He's going to be fine."

That's something McHale, who occasionally works with Garnett, has known since taking him with the sixth pick of the first round.

"Kevin is the total package," McHale said. "It was the easiest draft pick I will ever have."

His play has changed the way the league and high school players view each other. Tim Thomas, a 6-10 forward from Paterson Catholic High in New Jersey, and Kobe Bryant, a 6-6 guard from Lower Meriod High in Ardmore, Pa., are considered two of the top high school players in the nation, and both are considering the possibility of skipping college and going directly to the pros. And NBA scouts are watching them closely.

"I think you have to do your homework," said Washington Bullets general manager John Nash, who has seen Bryant play. He said the Bullets have scouted two of the high school players. "We don't have a first-round pick in this draft, so it's unlikely we would be in a position to draft either of the high school players. The only way they would come early is if they come high, and with the rookie cap you don't have the riches, the unlimited resources, that were there before."

Garnett is hoping the high school players aren't making the decision because of him.

"What would I tell them? To do whatever they feel, but don't make the decision because of me, because it's different for everybody," Garnett said. "The way Michael Jordan plays and the way Kevin Garnett plays are two different things. You can't really base your decision on someone else. But I guess there's probably a kid out there better than Kevin Garnett, and everyone will keep looking until they find one.

"For me coming in, the expectations were great, but once I calmed myself and got settled, I was fine," Garnett said. "I came in working hard, I learned and I'm still learning. I'm finally where I'm comfortable. And I'm playing. I wouldn't change a thing."

Bullets today

Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves

Site: Target Center, Minneapolis

Time: 3:30 p.m.

Radio: WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (530 AM)

Outlook: The Bullets are on a six-game losing streak; Minnesota has the fourth-worst record in the league. Minnesota is coming off of Friday's loss to the Chicago Bulls, the second straight defeat for the Timberwolves. Rookie F Kevin Garnett scored 16 points. The Timberwolves have lost five straight games at home against the Bullets. Washington has lost eight straight on the road, with the last win Jan. 10 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Washington lost by one to Indiana on Friday.

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