Cody Latimer was an aspiring power forward who didn’t play football until he was a junior in high school. Mike Evans spent his prep years grabbing rebounds, not receptions.
Davante Adams and Bruce Ellington – they went to college dreaming of becoming basketball stars, not football players.
It turns out their dedication to the hardwood was time well spent.
All four college wide receivers are expected to be taken in either today’s first round of the NFL draft or during Friday’s second and third rounds, and their basketball experience is very much seen as a bonus.
“Generally speaking, the guys with basketball in their background understand a key element of sport, which is spacing,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said. “They understand how to keep space and, more important, create space. That’s not easily learned. That’s a natural instinct people have.”
The 49ers’ locker room already teems with players who insist that had they gotten a break or two – or grown an extra inch or two – they’d be sinking buzzer-beating three-pointers in the NBA and exchanging barbs with Spike Lee on the sideline.
Michael Crabtree, for example, was a top-50 high school basketball recruit in Texas whom then-Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight was gunning to land. When Nevada coaches first saw Colin Kaepernick, it was during a basketball game at Pitman High School in Turlock. His gritty play that evening convinced them he’d be a good fit at quarterback.
At some point, those aspiring hoops players realized that with 22 starters and three specialists, the odds of becoming a professional football player are far better than joining the starting five on an NBA squad. They also quickly discover that while 6-foot-2 might be considered tall in high school, it’s a different story in college.
“I had a couple (basketball scholarship) offers, but they were smaller offers,” said the 6-foot-3 Latimer, who played football at basketball powerhouse Indiana. “And I played big man in high school, and I knew I couldn’t play that in college, so I figured football was my best fit.”
Still, basketball gave Latimer and the others skills that translated well at their position.
As Baalke noted, they are adept at creating space, something especially vital in the NFC West, where receivers are cramped by aggressive press coverage.
They can catch passes with someone draped on their backs. Latimer dropped only one pass last season, for example. And they have the timing and the leaping ability to grab the ball at its highest point, just as a basketball forward would do with a rebound.
Both Ellington, a former point guard at South Carolina, and Adams, who was recruited to be a two-sport star at Fresno State, jumped 391/2 inches at the NFL scouting combine, one of the best marks at their position. Latimer leaped 39 inches just two months after surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot.
Adams’ 131 receptions and 24 receiving touchdowns led the nation last year.
“It makes it really easy for me to go up and win those 50-50 balls,” the former Palo Alto High star said of his basketball background. “I’m so used to grabbing boards and stuff like that, so it makes it kind of second nature. With my leaping ability, I know no one’s going to go up and get it over me. That’s why we were so effective at the goal line on fades this past year. (Quarterback) Derek (Carr) trusted me pretty much to throw the ball up and go grab it.”
Evans didn’t soar quite as high – 37 inches – as the others. But at 6-5 and with 351/8-inch arms, the Texas A&M receiver has NFL evaluators musing over how effective he’ll be on tossups in the red zone, and he promises to be among the first 10 players selected today.
Evans said every basketball player unsure of his future should give football a try.
“It’s helped a lot,” said Evans, who turned down a basketball scholarship offer from Texas. “I think a lot of other basketball players should play football. We have the qualities. If there’s a jump ball in the air, treat it like a rebound. It helps me get off the press, use my quickness like when I used to dribble. Everything just incorporates into football.”