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Which NBA players could have realistically played in the NFL?

Which NBA players could have realistically played in the NFL?

The NBA obviously features some of the best athletes in the world. Many of these individuals excelled at multiple sports, but they ultimately had to focus on basketball full-time in order to make it to the NBA.

With the 2021 NFL season kicking off, BasketballNews.com decided to look at some NBA players who could have played professional football if they had seriously pursued it.

All of the players on this list shined on the gridiron in high school or college, so it isn’t crazy to think they could’ve made it to the NFL. If they had quit basketball instead, who knows what might have happened?

Allen Iverson

Over the course of Allen Iverson's 14-year NBA career, he totaled 24,368 points (30th in NBA history) and 1,983 steals (15th all-time). The four-time scoring champion won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award and became an 11-time All-Star. 

Not bad for a guy who was playing his second-best sport.

“I was way better in football than I was in basketball,” Iverson recently said on All The Smoke. “It was my first love… That just lets you know how great God is because I’m a Hall-of-Famer in basketball.”

Iverson has said this for years. At one point, he believed he was “the best football player in the world,” as he mentioned during his Hall-of-Fame speech. 

In high school, he was a dual-threat quarterback who destroyed teams through the air and on the ground. During his junior year at Bethel High School in Virginia, Iverson had 2,204 yards and 29 total touchdowns. He rarely left the field, as he also returned kicks and played defensive back. He recorded 21 interceptions over two years (including five in a single game, which is still a state record). 

As a junior, Iverson led Bethel High School to Division 5 AAA state championships in football and basketball, and he earned the AP's High School Player of the Year Award in both sports.

“He would've been the first Michael Vick,” said former Florida State Seminoles assistant coach Chuck Amato, who recruited Iverson.

Tom Lemming, a respected football recruiting analyst for 40-plus years, watched Iverson dominate his high-school peers. 

“He would've made the NFL. Who knows, he could've been an NFL Hall of Famer,” Lemming told VICE Sports. “He had terrific reaction, instincts, loose hips and a great vertical. He was a great player. Not a good player, but a great football player.”

(Iverson's high-school career came to an abrupt end when he was arrested following a brawl at a local bowling alley. The case was racially charged and controversial. While his conviction was later overturned, he served four months in jail. As part of his conditional clemency, he couldn't play high-school sports.)

Growing up, Iverson had no interest in hoops. He thought basketball was "soft" and he only tried it because his mother forced him. On the way to his first practice, he says he cried for the entirety of the car ride. Fortunately, he ended up sticking with it, becoming one of the greatest and most influential players to ever pick up a basketball.

LeBron James

James played three years of high school football (two at wide receiver and one at quarterback). Once he switched to wide receiver, James became a two-time All-Ohio selection and totaled 99 catches, 1,912 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns. 

He was recruited by Ohio State, Alabama, Miami and Notre Dame (by wide receivers coach Urban Meyer). Mark Murphy, a former NFL safety who played 11 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, was St. Vincent-St. Mary's defensive coordinator when James was on the team. He believes James would have made it to the NFL and thrived.

"I've been around a lot of great receivers. I tell people that I rate my top receivers coaching, playing, or watching as James Lofton, Jerry Rice, Steve Largent and LeBron James,” Murphy said, putting LeBron alongside three Hall-of-Famers. "People laugh at me, but it's true. The kid had everything you could want. I felt like that was one kid that could have gone from high school to the NFL and played."

James is 6-foot-9 and approximately 270 pounds, plus he has a 7-foot wingspan and 40-inch vertical. In 2013, James said that he ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash during training camp (without any training). 

NFL stars like Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) and DK Metcalf (6-foot-4, 229 pounds) are physical specimens, but James would make both look tiny. (For comparison, Malcolm Brogdon is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds). The average cornerback is 5-foot-11 and 193.4 pounds, which is why Johnson and Metcalf look enormous on the field. In relation to defensive backs, they're able to dominate using their size, strength, speed and vertical leap. 

With that in mind, how would defenses contain James?

The closest comp for James in terms of his size and athleticism is tight end Jimmy Graham, who is 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds with a 4.56-second 40-yard dash and a 38.5-inch vertical. He's a future Hall-of-Famer and five-time Pro-Bowler who was a match-up nightmare in his prime (totaling 16 receiving touchdowns and 1,215 yards in 2013). Aside from Graham, the only other players who are around James’ size are defensive ends, such as Ed "Too Tall" Jones (6-foot-9, 271 pounds), Julius Peppers (6-foot-7, 295 pounds) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7, 295 pounds) among others.

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"I think LeBron could come in and do better than Antonio Gates," NFL legend Randy Moss once said. "LeBron James is the athlete that comes around every so often… The things that he does are something we haven't seen before.”

Dez Bryant once said that James would be a “beast” in the NFL, adding: "That dude is just that talented… I've seen a little bit of his highlights from high school. He's got the hands, he can run the routes, he's fast enough. He could play in this league if he put it all together."

During the 2011 NBA lockout, the Dallas Cowboys offered James a contract and he says he seriously considered signing with them.

"[I] really started to actually train to be a football player," James said. "We started to clock our time in the 40, we started to add a little bit more to our bench presses and things of that nature. We started to add the sled to our agenda with the workouts."

While James didn’t end up joining Dallas, he’s a huge fan of the Cowboys so he had the contract framed and it’s hanging in his office.

Charlie Ward

This list wouldn’t be complete without Ward, considering he became a household name as a football player before ultimately deciding to chase his NBA dream.

He was a solid basketball player with the Florida State Seminoles, as he averaged 10.5 points, 4.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.8 steals as a senior and he still holds the FSU record for most career steals (238). 

However, Ward also played football at FSU and he became one of the best quarterbacks in NCAA history. 

In 1993, he threw for 3,032 yards and 27 touchdowns (with just four interceptions), posting a 157.8 quarterback rating. He also rushed for 339 yards and four touchdowns. Ward helped FSU win their first-ever National Championship, and he also won the Heisman Trophy by a landslide. (It’s still the fourth-widest margin in the history of the award, as Ward received 740 first-place votes and 2,310 total points compared to 10 first-place votes and 688 total points for the runner-up, Heath Shuler.)

Ward could have been picked in the 1994 NFL Draft and had a successful pro-football career, but he made it clear that he wanted to play in the NBA. He told teams that he would only commit to an NFL team if they picked him in the first round. Instead, he was projected to go in the third-to-fifth range. When the New York Knicks selected him with the No. 26 pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, Ward decided to focus on basketball. 

After the NFL Draft, several teams reportedly offered Ward a contract equivalent to that of a second-rounder, but he wasn’t interested. He even famously turned down an opportunity to join the Kansas City Chiefs and back up Joe Montana.

How would Ward have fared in the NFL? This is still one of the biggest football what-ifs in recent memory. We never got a chance to see him on the gridiron because, fortunately, he succeeded in the NBA and had an 11-year career.

Jalen Suggs

In high school, Suggs was ranked as the second-best overall player in Minnesota and the 15th-best dual-threat quarterback in the country, per 247Sports. He led his team to a 4A Minnesota state championship one year and a runner-up finish in another. 

As a senior, he totaled 2,213 passing yards and 25 touchdowns as well as 978 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Defensively, he had nine interceptions (and returned two for touchdowns). 

Suggs, who is the second cousin of NFL star Terrell Suggs, became the first athlete to earn Minnesota's Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball honors in the same season. He received scholarship offers from Georgia, Ohio State, Iowa State, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Michigan State (while also drawing interest from Alabama's Nick Saban).

Suggs recently spoke to BasketballNews.com about how his football experience helped him become a better hooper.

“I mean, you of course see it in the aggressiveness,” Suggs said. “The way I embrace contact [and] bring contact on the basketball floor, I think that directly comes over from the football field. And the vision, I think, is the biggest one, honestly. From being a safety, reading eyes, reading body language, seeing where guys are turning to make a pass or make a certain move.

"And then quarterback-wise on offense, just reading defenses. Seeing different windows to throw the ball in and have the ability to fit in those tight windows. I do think those are the two biggest things that go directly from the football field to the basketball court.”

Matt Barnes

Barnes was an All-American wide receiver at Del Campo High in California, totaling 100 receptions, 2,070 receiving yards and 45 receiving touchdowns across two seasons. In 2011, his high school retired his No. 21 football jersey.

As a senior in the fall of 1997, Barnes had 58 receptions for 1,112 yards and led the nation with 28 touchdown catches. He earned All-American, All-State, All-CIF, All-City and All-League honors in both football and basketball.

“Football was my first love when I was growing up, and I didn’t play basketball until I was in the eighth grade,” Barnes said. “But in terms of longevity and wanting to be able to walk when I retire and play with my kids, I decided I wanted to play basketball.”

In 2006, Barnes was an NBA free agent and while he waited for a team to sign him, he also had his agent put out feelers to NFL teams. He decided he was going to give basketball one more year and if it wasn’t working out, he’d shift his attention to football.  

“During that summer I hadn’t been signed by anybody and I had been working out for football the whole summer,” Barnes said. “So, my agent talked to NFL teams about having an open tryout if the basketball thing that particular season didn’t work out.”

The Golden State Warriors ultimately signed him, and he ended up becoming a key contributor for the “We Believe” Warriors. He went on to play 14 seasons in the NBA.

“I had seven NFL teams willing to give me a tryout, a walk-on tryout,” Barnes said. “I was dead serious about making the jump, but I’m glad Golden State worked out.”

Glen “Big Baby” Davis

At 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds, Davis played a variety of positions for University Laboratory High in Baton Rouge including running back, offensive line, defensive end and defensive tackle. During his high school career, he totaled 1,233 yards and 15 touchdowns. He once rushed for 215 yards and five touchdowns in a single game.

He decided to quit football before his senior year to focus on basketball. At the time, he was reportedly rated the fifth-best offensive lineman prospect in the country, with LSU, Miami and Oklahoma State recruiting him.

Despite not playing football as a senior or at any point in college, he received interest from multiple NFL teams ahead of the 2007 NFL Draft (in hopes that he’d change his mind and switch sports). 

“I still believe he made the wrong decision,” said Wayne Williams, who was Davis’ football coach in high school. “Obviously, if an NFL team is even remotely considering drafting him [after he quit before his senior year], just think where he would have himself in the draft had he actually played the game."

"I definitely could have made it to the NFL," Davis once said

Back in 2009, Davis talked about signing with an NFL team once he accomplished all of his NBA goals.

"Glen's skills were similar to a Reggie White-type defensive end," said Burke Broussard, an assistant coach at University Laboratory High. "Not many players at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds can move like he could. That was the amazing thing about watching him play the game, he moved like a 5-foot-11 running back with great instincts."

Nate Robinson

Before he was an 11-year NBA veteran and three-time dunk contest champion, Robinson was actually enrolled at the University of Washington on a football scholarship. 

As a high-school senior at Rainier Beach High in Seattle, Robinson used his speed to torch defenses for 1,200 rushing yards, 500 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns. In addition to playing football and basketball, he also ran track.

Despite his 5-foot-9 frame, the Huskies were impressed with his athleticism.

As a freshman at Washington, he played wide receiver and returned kicks. Then, for the final six games of his freshman season, he transitioned to cornerback. He became the starter, intercepting two passes and recording 34 tackles over the six-game stretch.

Entering his sophomore season, he decided to quit the team to focus on basketball. While the decision clearly paid off, he often wonders what would’ve happened if he had pursued an NFL career instead.

“To me, it'd be scary to think about my future in football,” Robinson told our Jamieson Welsch back in 2013. “If I really gave it my all and stopped focusing on basketball, gave everything I have on football, I'd probably be one of the best corners the NFL has ever seen.”

In 2016, he nearly achieved his NFL dream when he tried out for his hometown Seattle Seahawks, but, unfortunately, he didn't get signed. 

Honorable Mention

John Havlicek: At Bridgeport High School in Ohio, Havlicek earned All-State honors in basketball, football and baseball. In addition to being selected in the first round of the 1962 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, he was also picked in the seventh round of the 1962 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He attended training camp with the Browns as a wide receiver, but he quit football to join the Celtics. He became an eight-time champion and 13-time All-Star in Boston, so it's safe to say he made the right choice.

Pat Riley: Riley was a multi-sport athlete at Linton High School in New York, excelling in basketball, football and baseball. Despite the fact that he never played college football, the Dallas Cowboys actually drafted Riley as a wide receiver in the 11th round of the 1967 NFL Draft just based off of his athleticism and potential.

Matt Harpring: A 6-foot-8 quarterback from a football family, Harpring received scholarship offers from Northwestern and Wisconsin. While visiting Northwestern, he attended a basketball game and he says he came to a realization in the stands: "You know what? I can play against these guys," Years later, he recalled, "It changed my perception. I liked football, but I love basketball.”

Danny Ainge: At North Eugene High School in Oregon, Ainge dominated in basketball, football and baseball; in fact, he's the only athlete to ever earn Parade's First-Team All-American honors in all three sports. He was one of the state's top wide receivers, but he quit to focus on basketball and baseball. Ainge ended up going pro in baseball (playing three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays while he was in college) and basketball (becoming an All-Star and winning two titles over his 14-year NBA career).

Ben Wallace: Wallace earned All-State honors in basketball, football and baseball. He was a star linebacker who got scholarship offers from Auburn, Alabama, Florida and Florida State. He committed to Auburn, expecting to play both football and basketball. He had asked the coaches if he could "go both ways" and they agreed. However, it turns out there was a misunderstanding; they thought he wanted to play offense and defense. When they realized he also wanted to play basketball, they wouldn't let him. So, he left. He attended Cuyahoga Community College and then Virginia Union. Despite going undrafted, he became a 16-year NBA veteran, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and a Hall-of-Famer.

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