By BRIAN HENDERSON
At this time last year, Scott Padgett was playing his senior season for the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats.
In the twelve months since, he has married his college sweetheart, received a bachelor’s degree in social work and is playing his rookie season in the NBA for the Utah Jazz. It seems to have all worked out just like he planned.
“He definitely always has a plan. He might not always tell me, but he always does,” says Cynthia Padgett, Scott’s wife of four months. “Basketball is his passion, and he’s always very directed and driven.”
Padgett’s lifelong plan of playing in the NBA became a reality last June. With the 28th overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, the Utah Jazz selected the 6-foot-9-inch sharp-shooting big man with hopes that his outside threat would help contribute to an NBA championship run.
“It was the opportunity I had always wanted,” Padgett said. “I knew there were three or four teams where I could really fit into their system. The Jazz were the best fit for me, with my strengths like executing the half-court offense.”
Though Scott Layden drafted Padgett, Utah’s new Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin O’Connor had his eye on him as well.
“With Scott, we saw a kid who was a basketball player, who had savvy, who had instincts, a kid who is a good shooter and can rebound,” O’Connor said.
He knows his shot can be on fire, as he showcased Nov. 29 against Golden State when he scored a career-high 16 points. But right now, Padgett is focused on becoming more consistent with all of his talents as he adjusts to life in the NBA.
“I’d like to play more consistently in all aspects of my game like rebounding and defense,” Padgett says. “I don’t want to be a one-dimensional player. At this point in my career, on this team, right now I’m a jump shooter. I know I can do more than that.”
Utah head coach Jerry Sloan is giving Padgett a chance to prove it.
“Some games I’ll get 8 or 10 points and five rebounds, and other nights I get two points and one rebound. There are nights where I play 29 minutes, and there are nights where I play seven or eight minutes. But I’m a rookie, and I have to earn my minutes, just like Bryon (Russell) and Howard (Eisley) did when they got here. Guys keep telling me that it’s up and down like that in this league,” Padgett says.
Another adjustment to the NBA is all of the time he spends on the road. But Padgett and fellow Jazz rookie Quincy Lewis pass a lot of the idle time hanging out together.
“Quincy and I go shopping a lot. I also take my Play Station on the road,” Padgett says. “Right now, I’m playing Knockout Kings 2000. I’m upset because I created this player who was awesome. He knocked out Sugar Ray in the first round, but I erased him.”
Shopping. Movies. Video games. They’re essential elements for almost every rookie’s routine. It’s a bonus to have a guy like Lewis around to share the rookie experience.
It also helps that the current group of Jazz veterans plays fair enough, not demanding that the rookies do anything too outrageous.
“We handle the gear, unload the plane, take care of the balls,” says Lewis. “Basically whatever needs to be done that a ball boy would do if they were around.”
Padgett’s transition to the NBA was smoothed by the advice and guidance of his first college coach Rick Pitino, who left after Padgett’s sophomore year at Kentucky to coach the Boston Celtics. “Coach Pitino talked about the NBA a lot, so I knew a lot about it,” Padgett said.
What did surprise Padgett when he arrived in the NBA was seeing 15 and 16-year veterans like Karl Malone and John Stockton playing hard every night.
“It’s an 82-game season, so you figure they’d have a night off. But they always play hard. That kind of surprised me,” Padgett said.
Padgett’s road to the NBA started a long time ago.
He first recognized that his basketball skills would carry him into the NCAA after winning MVP honors at some summer camps after his freshman and sophomore years in high school.
“That’s when I knew I’d be good enough to play college basketball, but I didn’t know at what level,” Padgett said. It didn’t take long for him to find out.
The summer after his junior year in high school, Padgett caught Pitino’s eye after playing well at a Nike camp. A couple of days later, Pitino offered him a scholarship, which Padgett quickly accepted.
Growing up in Louisville, Padgett always knew he wanted to play for the Wildcats.
“My whole family is from Kentucky, so it’s kind of a right of privilege to go there,” Padgett said.
With the exception of Michael Jordan, Padgett’s favorite players always wore UK blue and white.
“Most of the stuff I did in high school I modeled after Jamal Mashburn,” Padgett said.
As a freshman in college, Padgett played in only 14 games, averaging two points a game and 1.2 rebounds.
He struggled academically that year, and left school on academic probation the following year.
“I wasn’t playing and I got frustrated. I decided, ‘Why should I go to school?’ I was young and immature at the time,” Padgett said.
Padgett says it was only a blip on his academic radar screen. “It was a good story my first year back, but they still make a big deal out of it. It seemed like they mentioned it every time I went to the free-throw line in the ’97 tournament,” Padgett said. “If people knew my academic record in high school (above a 3.0 GPA), they’d see it wasn’t such a big deal.”
After all he’s accomplished on and off the court since his hiatus from school in 1995-96, it’s easy to believe him. Padgett returned to a team in 1996-97 that pundits hailed as one of the best in college basketball history, one through 10 on the roster. All 10 went on to play in the NBA. “I was the 12th guy on that team and I made the NBA,” Padgett said.
The Wildcats lost to Arizona in overtime in the NCAA championship game that season. Despite the loss, Padgett earned Player of the Game honors for Kentucky.
Not to be denied twice, Padgett led the Wildcats to the National Championship in 1998. For the second season in a row, he scored 17 points to earn Player of the Game honors in the championship game against Utah. He also earned All-Final Four team honors after totaling 27 points and 11 rebounds against Stanford and Utah.
As a senior, Padgett won more awards and honors. He led the Wildcats to the “Elite Eight” in the NCAA Tournament. The Associated Press named him an Honorable Mention All-American. The coaches of the Southeastern Conference selected him to the All-SEC first team, and the AP selected him All-SEC second team. Padgett was also the MVP of the SEC Tournament.
Padgett also came full-circle academically as a senior, earning a 4.0 GPA fall semester of 1998, making the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll. In February of 1999, he was named to the SEC’s Good Works Team for his charitable efforts in the community. And last spring, he graduated from Kentucky with a degree in social work.
Padgett knows that the NBA is a far cry from Kentucky, but he also is aware of his potential in the league.
“With the minutes I play, I’m not going to put up numbers like I did in college. But I should be up to six or seven points and five or six rebounds a night consistently,” Padgett says.
“Honestly, I think he’ll do whatever it is he sets his mind to. This is his childhood dream. He wanted this probably from the age he started playing at five,” Cynthia says.
“You don’t stop improving in this league when you’re 22 or 23 … Scott’s a basketball junkie, so he is going to get better,” O’Connor said.
Playing for coach Sloan helps.
“He’s straightforward and tells you what he wants. Then, it’s just a matter of going out and doing it,” Padgett says. “He comes out and tells you what needs to be done. ‘Work hard in practice, get the job done and go home and spend time with your family.’ I like that.”
After an eventful year, Cynthia agrees.
“It was overwhelming. It’s not now. It’s been incredible,” Cynthia says. “I tell him, ‘What are we going to do next year when we don’t have anything to do?'”
The question is almost rhetorical, and Cynthia knows it. After all, one of Scott’s plans brought the two of them together.
He came to Kentucky to play basketball. She came to play volleyball. Both had dislocated shoulders before arriving on campus for their freshman year. They first crossed paths in the training room just before school started.
“We were both getting treatment at the same time. We kind of were flirting with each other in the locker room,” Cynthia said. “The very first time he kind of talked to me, my coach was in there. And she was saying how he thought I was cute, and that he was going to date me. He was making bets with people and my coaches in there. So the first thing she said was, ‘Stay away from him, don’t talk to him.'”
Fortunately, Cynthia didn’t listen to her coach’s advice. After a five-year courtship, Scott and Cynthia Padgett married on August 7th, the same day Scott signed his first contract with the Jazz. And just as he had a plan with Cynthia from the day they met, Scott has a plan for his professional basketball career.
Given Padgett’s confidence, persistence and talent, it’s merely a matter of time before his basketball efforts turn him into the NBA player he plans to become.