You’d be forgiven if you blanched at the announcement that Kevin Garnett resigned with the Minnesota Timberwolves for two years and $16.5 million. That Garnett is taking a $4 million paycut from his last contract feels immaterial: his grand return to Minnesota last season ended after just five games and — at least in on-court terms — hardly seemed worth the first round pick Minnesota first traded for Thad Young, who was later traded for Garnett. Even if it’s a legacy payment, making Garnett the third highest-paid player on the team at the age of 39 doesn’t seem to make basketball sense.
The Timberwolves, though, rarely emphasize Garnett’s on-court contributions in talking about the role the franchise’s all-time best player now has with the team. At best, his skill with defensive positioning comes up in a tertiary or fourth-most-important way, well after the idea that his skill and tenacity are now most important as traits he will impart to the team’s young players, especially Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“Mentor,” used as both a noun and verb, is the word most often brought up with regard to Garnett these days, and the role is spoken of in semi-reverential, golden-tinged tones, as if Garnett were Pai Mei and Towns and Wiggins were lining up to learn the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. The thing about mentorship, though, is that it’s not some mystical, wordless transfer of concentrated experience from an old vessel into a new one. It’s teaching, and it’s something that’s been well-studied.
In “Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers,” a peer-reviewed paper published in Academic Medicine in January of 2014, authors Sharon E. Straus, Mallory O. Johnson, Christine Marquez and Mitchell D. Feldman did qualitative research into the characteristics of effective mentor-mentee relationships. They interviewed 54 medical faculty members about their experiences with mentoring. They were looking at these kind of relationships in the medical field, but as an area with a set of highly specialized skills requiring years of relentless practice that nevertheless leave you somewhat unprepared for the profession at its highest levels when you begin, there is some element of crossover here.
Some of these conclusions might seem like common sense, but they’re worth considering individually in framing what a successful mentorship between Garnett and one or more of the Wolves’ young players will look like. The authors found that mentoring needed to be altruistic. “The mentor not prioritizing the mentee’s best interests can lead to a failed mentoring relationship,” they wrote. In other words, this can’t just be Garnett telling war stories — it needs to be other-directed and specifically so to succeed.
Honesty is another prized characteristics of successful mentors and as far as Garnett goes, that probably won’t be a problem. Being an active listener is also important, which goes hand in hand with being altruistic; Garnett cannot simply impose his template for play on the young players, but see what they need and listen to them when they need help. This could mean that Wiggins and Towns might need very different things at different times, and Garnett will have to be responsive to this.
Substantial mentorship experience is also key, and it’s not entirely clear if Garnett has this. By most accounts, it seems like the Brooklyn Nets team Garnett was a part of was fairly dysfunctional, but he has earned some plaudits already from younger players like Jared Sullinger for playing a mentor role when he was with the Celtics. The difficult part of assessing Garnett’s past experience as a mentor is that we as the public learn about it only through the lens of the media and players interacting with the media, not through peer-reviewed journals or rigorous internal assessment. Stories of dysfunctionality or life-changing learning are by nature more compelling than the average everyday teaching that goes on between older and younger players, and so players present them that way, writers write them that way, and we digest them that way.
Considerable professional experience is a box we can just go ahead and check off for Garnett — he’s got that covered. A lack of time is cited as a major challenge to the mentor-mentee relationship and it seems like something that could easily creep up on a team when almost every available slice of time is filled up with games, shootarounds or recovery. Teams already struggle to get meaningful practices together during the season, so if the relationship between Garnett and his charges is going to flourish, it’s going to be because Garnett is consistently available, even if it’s just via text.
It’s not all on Garnett, though. The authors also outlined the characteristics that define an effective mentee, and they mirror many of the aforementioned ones for mentors: active listener, open to feedback, respectful of the mentor’s time. They also emphasized the importance of the mentee “driving the relationship,” with one participant saying:
You can’t just go in and be an undifferentiated blob about what you want, you have to really have thought before you go in and meet with your mentor about what the issue is that you need help with and you know it’s much more useful if you bring your own analysis in with you and then the mentor can give you their analysis and you can talk.
In some ways, this would appear to cut against the grain of the typical situation with an NBA team, where the hierarchical relationship between veterans and younger players is closer to military than educational: there is hazing (even if it’s fairly benign, like wearing a cartoon backpack or bringing the donuts), and rookies are expected to get the worst seats on the bus, to be the last to get food, etc.
Upending some of this structure doesn’t mean absolving the young players of responsibility, but rather giving them more. When Towns or Wiggins (or Zach LaVine or Shabazz Muhammad or any other young player) are working with Garnett, they should know what they want to get out of it, from the level of an individual meeting or practice to the season as a whole. Coaches — from Flip Saunders to his assistants — will have goals and expectations for players that have to do with teamwide goals, but a personal mentorship between two players should be about both more and less than that. It should be integrated with team concepts, but it should also follow its own path with its own short-term goals that can be accomplished game to game.
In short, for Garnett’s mentorship to be a functional thing, it has to be measured, even if it’s something we never see. There should be checklists that are as specific as possible, whether that means making the right rotation in a particular defensive scheme to pushing on made free throws. The feedback for the young players needs to be regular, consistent, critical and honest.
There’s nothing wrong with Garnett doing what comes naturally and “getting in a guy’s ear,” which is what we’ve heard about so far. But if the Wolves can lay out a structure for this mentorship in advance, they can make sure that $16.5 million is not just an investment in an aging player, but a young mentor.