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Basketball Players In The NFL

Over the last six months, national sports-writers have clearly enjoyed documenting public apathy towards the NBA lockout, especially in comparison to the nationwide obsession with the NFL’s. But while football is the new American past-time, it’s becoming more like basketball every year.

Over the last generation, aspiring basketball players have migrated to the gridiron, where they have more opportunities to make a professional roster. The same skills that make someone good at basketball -- long wingspan, lateral quickness, good leaping ability and excellent hand-eye coordination -- can make them an even better pass-catcher in football.

Randy Moss, the greatest WR of his era, played high-school basketball with Jason Williams in West Virginia. He brought the body control that guards use to finish in the lane to catching jump balls down the field. At 6’4 215, he was an undersized NBA shooting guard but a revolutionary NFL WR. In the seven drafts before Moss’ rookie season, there were six 6’3+ WR’s taken in the first round. In the seven after, there were 15.

Tony Gonzalez, who is re-writing the NFL record books as a TE, was a two-sport star at Cal in the mid-1990’s. He averaged 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in three years in Berkeley, despite needing half the season to get into basketball shape. In a 1997 NCAA Tournament game against Villanova, he dominated Tim Thomas, scoring 23 points and shutting down the future ten-year NBA veteran defensively.

But at 6’5 250, he would have been an undersized power forward in the NBA: “The decision was pretty much made for me. They were like you’re a first-round draft choice [in football] who could go down in history as having this great career where in basketball you would be just another guy.”

Like any good basketball player, Gonzalez knew how to exploit mismatches. He was too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs, and by his third season in the NFL, he was already an All-Pro TE. He’s now second behind only Jerry Rice on the career receptions list; the next TE, Shannon Sharpe, is at #21 and over 300 catches behind Gonzalez.

“When I got into the league, if a tight end caught 20 passes, he had a good season,” Sharpe told the New York Times. “Now they are so athletic and they can run. This is the greatest group of tight ends in the history of the game.”

Antonio Gates, at 6’5 240, averaged 18.1 points and 7.9 rebounds at Kent State, leading the Golden Flashes on an improbable run to the 2002 Elite Eight. A “tweener” without a position in the NBA, he signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Diego Chargers and has appeared in seven NFL Pro Bowls.

Jimmy Graham, at 6’6 260, had an undistinguished four-year career at Miami, averaging 4.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. But after spending one post-graduate year on the Hurricanes football team, he was drafted in the third round by the New Orleans Saints, where he has 13 TD’s in the last two seasons.

Jermichael Finley, at 6’5 250, is a key cog for the Green Bay Packers. He credits his time defending players like Lou Williams and Julian Wright on the AAU circuit for much of his football success.

Smart NFL teams are undoubtedly sifting through the ranks of college basketball to find the next such player. One that comes to mind is Michigan State PF Draymond Green. As a senior, Green is averaging 12.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He would be a defensive tweener in the NBA at 6’7 230, but his wingspan, agility and hand-eye coordination would make him nearly indefensible on the gridiron.

In choosing which sport to play, the big advantage basketball has over football is safety, as Dean Smith once warned Gonzalez. But that’s slowly beginning to change as the NFL cracks down on helmet-to-helmet hits in the passing game.

With growing awareness of the dangers of concussions and head trauma, youth football has become increasingly dominated by a 7-on-7 flag version of the sport. Quarterbacks, receivers and cornerbacks can work on the passing game without worrying about linemen, the line of scrimmage or contact in general. College coaches are now concerned about the similarities between the growing number of 7-on-7 summer travel teams and the AAU basketball system.

Texas high school football, the home of “Friday Night Lights”, would be virtually unrecognizable now to coaches like Darrell Royal, who popularized the wishbone. With kids playing seven-on-seven as early as the third grade, high school quarterbacks’ passing skills are so advanced they can master complicated pass-happy spread offenses, one of the main reasons why 22 of the 120 starting QB’s in Division 1 football in 2009 were from Texas.

There’s a reason why Vince Young, who said he went into “Jordan Mode” at the end of the 2005 Rose Bowl, dubbed the now 4-7 Philadelphia Eagles “The Dream Team” before the season started. With Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Eagles have the best 7-on-7 team of all-time.

The distribution of talent at the grassroots level eventually affects the professional game, as the drop-off in elite CF play in baseball over the last 50 years shows. And as the growing knowledge about the dangers of head injury turns football into “basketball on grass”, more undersized basketball players will make the jump to a sport growing increasingly less violent.

There might never be another Charles Barkley, a 6’6 250 Hall of Famer too strong for small forwards and too quick for power forwards, in the NBA. If Barkley was growing up in Leeds, Alabama in 2011, Auburn would be recruiting him as a tight end.


** The article originally stated that Graham was an undrafted free agent. It has now been corrected. **
 

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