How College Basketball Is Becoming a Legitimate NFL Pipeline
"You know, Tony Gonzalez could have played in the NBA."
Since Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez took the NFL by storm in his third season, the fact that he played basketball at a high level has become pro football's most well-worn factoid. But ask the next person who brings it up what position he played—or even which college he played for—and they likely won't have any idea.
Same goes for Julius Thomas, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates or any of the other college basketball players who chose to pursue a career in football.
Why did all these roundball players switch to pigskin? Why do they all play tight end? How heavily are NFL teams scouting basketball players, and what are they looking for? Is this the start of a much bigger trend of cross-sport and international scouting?
Feel free to use these facts to impress the next coworker or fellow party-goer who drops the Gonzalez basketball nugget on you: He played power forward for three seasons at the University of California. From 1994 to 1997, he averaged 6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, shot 51.1 percent from the floor and converted 62.6 percent of his free throws, all per TotalBasketballStats.com.
The Golden Bears were strong while Gonzalez was there, making the NCAA tournament in his latter two seasons—even reaching the Sweet 16 in 1996-97. Gonzalez played with NBA draftees like Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Sean Marks and Ed Gray.
Why didn't Gonzalez follow them?
He told the story in detail in a 2010 Stack.com video interview, and in April he told ESPN's Lynn Hoppes, "I know that I would have been something like the ninth or 10th man off the bench in the NBA, but that's OK. I made the right decision."
There's no argument on that point. Gonzalez was the No. 13 overall pick of the 1997 NFL draft. Thirteen Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro nods later, he is nothing less than the greatest tight end of all time.
In 2002, though, Gonzalez was in the middle of acrimonious contract negotiations with his original team, the Kansas City Chiefs. With little to do before he eventually signed and rejoined the team, he was invited to the Miami Heat's summer league. Gonzalez jumped at the chance to test himself at the next level—and by all accounts, he held his own.
Then-assistant coach Stan Van Gundy agreed, telling the Associated Press (via SI.com), "If we were flat-out playing, with no other objective than to win, he would be playing [a lot], based on what he showed tonight." Gonzalez moved on from hoops, satisfied.
"Coaches told me, 'If you want to play this game for a living, you could do it,'" Gonzalez told Hoppes. "They then wondered why I'd do it since I was playing football so well."
Though Gonzalez played both sports at a high level, for him the choice was easy: He played pro football because he was much, much better at it.
For all the hoopsters who've followed in his footsteps, Gonzalez is the prototype.
What about the other college basketball players who've had NFL success? Since they've all played tight end, do they fit a common basketball profile?
I asked C.J. Moore, Bleacher Report national college basketball lead writer, to break down some of the better-known basketball-to-football success stories.
"[Gonzalez] was a good offensive rebounder," Moore told me, "but definitely undersized as a power forward to play pro ball."
At 6'5", 251 pounds, Gonzalez would have suffered a significant height disadvantage on the glass and on defense—the strengths of his game. Offensively, he lacked scoring touch and an outside shot—per TotalBasketballStats.com, Gonzalez missed the only two three-pointers he attempted in his entire career at Cal.
"Jimmy Graham rarely took any shots," Moore told me about the star New Orleans Saints tight end, "but was an elite rebounder. He had a 23.9 defensive rebounding rate as a senior, which ranked 35th nationally.
"[I] never saw Julius Thomas play, but his numbers suggest he was a poor shooter away from the rim." Still, Moore said Thomas was likely "a really good finisher who probably caught everything thrown his way." Thomas shot 67.1 percent from the field his senior season, but only 46 percent at the line. Thomas was also, Moore told me, a decent rebounder.
A pattern has emerged: Big small forwards and small power forwards excel at rebounding and stay close to the rim. Typically, they don't have a lot of offensive talent; if they did, they'd likely have better pro prospects.
Gates, however, was an exception.
"I remember watching Gates play," Moore said, "and he was a stud." Moore was especially impressed by Gates' play during Kent State's run to the Elite Eight in 2002. "He was probably even good enough to play overseas professionally, even though he was so undersized as a 4. He's the one guy who doesn't really fit with the others, because he was so skilled as an offensive player. He could score off the bounce and even had a jumper. He was also a pretty good rebounder, like the others."
Gates had a unique path to the NFL.
A Detroit native, Gates chose to play at Michigan State, because then-head football coach Nick Saban told him he could play both sports, per Thomas Neumann of ESPN.com. When Saban went back on his word and pressured him to play only football, Gates chose the game he was "in love with." He transferred in and out of three other schools' basketball teams before catching on at Kent State.
Gates, though, is 6'4". His NBA prospects were limited, just as Gonzalez's were. Although Gates had never played a game of college football, several NFL teams were interested, per JockBio.com. He got a tryout with the San Diego Chargers, who immediately signed him. Their reward: a tight end very nearly as great as Gonzalez himself.
So now we have our profile: a power forward 6'4" to 6'8" in height, with strength and balance, and a rebounder with aggression, hands and football experience at at least the high school level.
Casting the Net
Between Gonzalez's and Gates' debuts, the idea of a college basketball player jumping directly to the NFL and dominating went from "absurd" to "so plausible that multiple teams approached Gates." Today, nearly every college basketball player with dim pro prospects and any kind of football background gets his tires kicked by the NFL.
What caused this change in mindset? I asked former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist.
"It's a copycat league," Sundquist told me, "and it happens in schemes, it happens in personnel and, sometimes, it happens in where you get your personnel. Scouts are like lemmings; they kind of follow each other around."
Given the incredible success of Gonzalez, Gates and others, it's only natural that NFL teams would start casting their nets in the college basketball ranks to try to land the next breakout star. Sundquist, who regularly posts his insight and analysis on the NFL at his FootballEducator.com site, also pointed to the importance of the tight end position in modern pass-first offenses.
"The tight end position is perfect for the basketball player," Sundquist told me, "in that you've got to have the size and strength to be able to handle the line of scrimmage and block, but at the same time, you've got to have the athleticism, the speed, the quickness and agility and balance to be able to separate from the defender.
"The great thing about this group of players is they're big enough to take on defensive backs and 'out-rebound' them. We see that all the time in the red zone, where you throw it up in the back of the end zone and they just go up and take it."
NFL fans have seen plenty of Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron "boxing out" defensive backs in the end zone, with five touchdowns so far. Cameron actually gave up football when he went into college, playing basketball for Brigham Young. After one season of basketball, though, Cameron went back to football and ended up at USC.
Besides having a huge size advantage over defensive backs—and knowing how to use it—these players also have the athleticism to separate from linebackers between the 20-yard lines, making them a physical mismatch no matter how you cover them.
Sundquist sees a possible next step for college basketball players, one natural tight ends often make in college anyway: offensive tackle.
A college basketball player "[would] have to put on a lot of weight," Sundquist said, "but that ability to upkick and retreat and not lose your balance, footwork, good change-of-direction—that's all basketball movement." Sundquist said that many good tackles do have some level of basketball experience. "That might be the next direction they go.
"I don't think NFL scouts have reached the point where they're not only stopping in at the football office, but also going to the basketball office," Sundquist said, "but I do think they're keeping themselves very aware of who those types of players are."
Casting a Wider Net
Is there potential for more crossover success? It may be that power forwards make great tight ends, but could they play other positions? Moreover, could different types of basketball players make the leap?
I reached out to college basketball scout and draft analyst Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress. Givony understands the potential as well as anyone; he assists the Australian Football League in holding a combine for college basketball players whose body types are well suited to the Aussie game.
"The reason NFL teams are looking for tight ends to make the transition," Givony told me, "is because you need to be tall to play tight end. Not really tall, but 6'5", 6'6", 6'7", and there just aren't that many human beings on this planet born that tall, and also super-athletic. You talk about a 5'11", 6'0", 6'1" guy, there are millions of them. But 6'7" guys like Jimmy Graham, it's rare to find many.
"Those positions that are less skill-oriented, where you need elite size, length and athleticism for your position, that's where I think you might see more [crossover]."
Is the NFL missing out on a generation of quality players who aren't tall enough to merit a spot on any of the 30 NBA teams' 13-man rosters—but could crack a 53-man roster on one of 32 NFL clubs?
Are there tons of quality football prospects of all sizes and shapes currently setting sail for international basketball havens like Serbia and Turkey? Could the NFL end up holding a basketball-player combine similar to the ones Givony helps the AFL run?
Givony didn't seem optimistic.
"The NFL gets elite athletes," he said. "They don't have a problem recruiting." Both Givony and Sundquist emphasized this point: For all the talk of converting basketball players to football players, almost all of these "basketball players" had significant football experience at the youth, high school and/or college level. It takes seriously freaky athletes to make it in the NFL without experience.
To go find more of these super-rare body types, both Givony and Sundquist suggested NFL teams look overseas.
Sundquist wrote in 2011 that international scouting could be the future of the NFL. As the game moves away from every-down football players toward one-skill specialists, the barriers to entry lower and opportunities come open for raw athletes to step in and excel.
"If he's really good at one thing," Sundquist said, "let's say coming off an edge, dipping a shoulder and then just bursting to a quarterback, then there's an opportunity to train him in what he does really well."
2013's No. 5 overall pick, Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, couldn't have been more raw.
The Ghana-born Ansah got connected to U.S. sports when missionaries from the LDS Church arrived in his town and taught him—wait for it—basketball. When he came of age, Ansah traveled to the U.S. to study at BYU—and maybe play hoops.
After twice failing to make the team, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today, Ansah went out for football instead. Ansah had just 4.5 sacks in his lone season as a regular player for BYU—but the Detroit Lions thought he fit their profile.
Six games into his rookie season for the Lions, Ansah already has three sacks.
A Player's Perspective
What of the players in all this? For all the talk of what good their labor would do for this sport or that sport, it's their bodies and their careers being put on the line. Football is a much more violent, contact-heavy game; switching from basketball to football isn't like taking up golf.
I spoke to Delvon Roe, former Michigan State power forward and Top 25 national recruit, per Rivals.com. Roe played with MSU from 2008 to 2011, winning a Big Ten championship and going to two Final Fours (including a national title game). Are lots of college basketball players really viewing football as a viable non-NBA career path?
"Absolutely," he told me. "I know when I played, we always thought we could play football. You know, playing around acting like we were with the football players, we'd catch a lot of passes—a lot of jump balls, especially."
Moore passed along this video of current Florida Gators center Patric Young doing exactly what Roe described, catching passes with his school's football team:
Givony's DraftExpress profile of Young lists him at 6'9", 249 pounds and projects him as a high second-round NBA pick. Watching that video, I agree with Moore that Young is "probably too tall and not quite fast enough to play tight end" in the NFL, but remember Sundquist's idea: Young could add 30 to 40 pounds and potentially become an elite left tackle prospect.
"It depends on the type of person you are," Roe told me. "Are you the type of person who seeks contact, or shies away from it? I know when I was [at Michigan State], if you could take a hit, if you wanted to get hit, you were always around football players and worked out with them in weight rooms—so you saw the workouts they did and knew if you could do it."
Roe, a theatre major, didn't pursue the NBA after he finished his college basketball career. If he hadn't gone into professional acting, would football have been something he thought about?
"I'd think about it all the time when I was younger," he said. "I wish I'd played football when I was growing up, because I think I'd be really good at it. A lot of us do look at that, when we get done playing basketball, thinking about playing football." At 6'8", 235, Roe certainly would have fit the profile.
As Givony pointed out to me, the European basketball market is shrinking economically, and there are only so many NBA jobs. "Everbody wants to be a professional athlete," Givony said, and Roe agrees that football is increasingly viewed as an attractive fallback.
"You're still healthy," Roe told me. "You can still take a couple of hits. All it takes is to get a tryout or invited to the NFL combine, one team likes you, you get drafted—and you're in training camp."
There were some hardwood-to-gridiron success stories this spring that seemed to be just that easy, like the Kansas City Chiefs' Demetrius Harris, who landed on the practice squad after excelling at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Then again, there are a lot more failures. Former Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway had an opportunity with the Baltimore Ravens but was cut before training camp began, per The Baltimore Sun. St. Mary's star Rob Jones turned down a Minnesota Vikings camp invite, per CSNBayArea.com via Yahoo!.
"I wanted to see where I can go with basketball first," Jones said. "Two or three years from now, if I'm not where I want to be with basketball, I can still have that option."
Ultimately, the NFL will come looking for anyone with the talent to help them win. It's up to the players to decide what to do with their bodies and their careers. Hopefully, they do what's best for them—and in the end, that's what's best for us fans too.
So the next time someone tells you Tony Gonzalez could have played in the NBA, don't spit back his college stat line at them. Instead, say, "Yes—but thank goodness he didn't."
Ty Schalter is a National NFL Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.
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