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Is Austin Rivers Right?

Austin Rivers created quite a stir the other day when he asserted on the Pat McAfee Show that there are thirty NBA players who could play in the NFL right now, but not vise-versa.  It was quite the claim.  Naturally, Rivers, former NBA guard and son of Milwaukee Bucks head coach Doc Rivers, provoked severe outcry from some of the biggest names in professional sports.

J.J. Watt taunted Rivers with a post on X saying, “You don't have a job in either right now, go head and try it.”  Randy Moss questioned Rivers too.  Even NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley downplayed the idea, saying, “We can’t play football” and, “Football is a grown-man sport. We're soft.”

Okay, so there seems to be a lot of agreement in the sports world – football is off-limits for basketball players.  But is this really true?  Maybe it’s not as cut and dry as the Chuckster thinks…

The NBA is home to some of the greatest athletes in the world.  The NFL is too, of course, but on average, it’s no question the NBA is the more athletic league (sorry football fans, kickers and punters still exist).  Can we find thirty NBA players who could play in the NFL?  I think so.  For fun, I’m going to do the same exercise with NFL players too.  Can you spot the disparity?

30 NBA Players Who Could Play in the NFL

The Darrius Heyward-Bey Theorem

De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings) – 6’3”, 185 lbs.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder) – 6’6”, 195 lbs.

Jalen Green (Houston Rockets) – 6’4”, 186 lbs.

Scoot Henderson (Portland Trailblazers) – 6’3”, 202 lbs.

Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons) – 6’4”, 205 lbs.

Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls) – 6’5”, 200 lbs.

Tyrese Maxey (Philadelphia 76ers) – 6’2”, 200 lbs.

Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers) – 6’3”, 215 lbs.

Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies) – 6’2”, 174 lbs.

Collin Sexton (Utah Jazz) – 6’1”, 190 lbs.

Coby White (Chicago Bulls) – 6’5”, 195 lbs.

The Darrius Heyward-Bey Theorem, or the concept that NFL teams can’t help but take a chance on a player with incredible size and speed, remains alive and well.  Year after year, NFL teams focus on traits over production when scouting receiver talent.  There are eleven names on the above list, but it easily could have been thirty deep.

What do all of these players have in common?  Size and speed, baby.  What do NFL teams love in their receivers?  You guessed it – size and speed.  Heyward Bey parlayed his ridiculous combine performance into a top ten draft selection, are you telling me the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t at least give Gilgeous-Alexander a training camp invitation?

The projection for all of the above players isn’t perfect, but it’s an archetype that exists.  Besides, these are some of the best athletes in the NBA – they’d still be elite athletes in the NFL.  More importantly, the extreme hard hits that defined the NFL in the 80s and 90s are dead and gone.  It’s never been safer to play professional football.  The pointed criticisms of NBA players’ toughness are overblown, and even if someone like Ivey, LaVine, or Morant couldn’t hold up for an entire seventeen-game season, it’s a moot point because it’s easy to see them leaping over a hapless defender in man-to-man coverage in a one-off scenario.  Sometimes, that’s all an NFL team needs…

Defense Is My Calling Card

Jimmy Butler (Miami Heat) – 6’7”, 230 lbs.

Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors) – 6’6”, 230 lbs.

Jrue Holiday (Boston Celtics) – 6’4”, 205 lbs.

Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers) – 6’7”, 225 lbs.

The projections here aren’t as clean, but each of these players has the “nasty” in them, particularly on defense.  Some of them are a bit older, but their athleticism hasn’t waned enough not to get shot as an edge defender.

Butler has the length, athleticism, and tenacity that NFL teams covet in defensive ends.  Leonard does too, although his injury history is terrifying in an NFL context.  Sure, they’d both have to put on some weight, but that doesn’t actually seem all that difficult with their frames.  Green isn’t a great athlete at all, but his willingness to do anything (and a bit extra) to get the win will have some NFL coach convinced he can help in some way.

Holiday is the smallest of the group, but his hounding defensive style, length, and footspeed make him an intriguing cornerback prospect.  He consistently stays in front of the most athletic players in the NBA, who’s to say he couldn’t stay stride-for-stride with the Ja’Marr Chases and CeeDee Lambs of the world?

Freaks of Nature

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks) – 6’10”, 243 lbs.

Anthony Edwards (Minnesota Timberwolves) – 6’4”, 225 lbs.

LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) – 6’9”, 250 lbs.

Victor Wembanyama (San Antonio Spurs) – 7’4”, 210 lbs.

Russell Westbrook (Los Angeles Clippers) – 6’4”, 200 lbs.

Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans) – 6’8”, 284 lbs.

These guys are some of the best athletes in the NBA, and therefore, some of the best athletes in the world.  Even without any football experience whatsoever, we can’t pretend like a football coach wouldn’t talk themselves into their potential.  Don’t forget that Usain Bolt was contacted by several NFL teams following his historic Olympic run in 2016 after all.

Antetokounmpo earned the nickname “The Greek Freak” for a reason.  Where would he play in the NFL?  No idea.  But can you imagine it?  100%.  Same goes for Wembanyama.  His proportions are absurd by NFL standards, but then again, he’d be an absurd assignment for a corner to cover on an island in the red zone.  If I’m an NFL coach, sign me up for that.

Edwards has taken the NBA by storm this postseason and has drawn comparisons to Michael Jordan, though the 22-year-old guard would probably make a better football player than MJ did a baseball player.  He played running back, quarterback, and cornerback in high school, but he’d be a Calvin Johnson-esque wide receiver prospect.  Westbrook used to be in that same athletic category, and while he isn’t the physical specimen he was five years ago, he’d still be a fascinating project for a receivers coach.

James also famously played football in high school, and his projection to receiver or tight end is obvious.  He’s huge, he’s fast, and he can jump out of a building.  He’s one of the greatest athletes in living memory, and an NFL team would certainly give him time to develop some hands.

Williamson might be the most NFL-ready player right now.  He’s already struggled keeping his weight under 300 lbs. but now, he doesn’t have to worry.  Beef up and become a left tackle, Zion!  The Bengals could use you…

Think “Vernon Gholston” or “Zach Kuntz”

Jalen Brown (Boston Celtics) – 6’6”, 223 lbs.

Aaron Gordon (Denver Nuggets) – 6’8”, 235 lbs.

Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics) – 6’8”, 210 lbs.

Obi Toppin (Indiana Pacers) – 6’9”, 220 lbs.

Gholston was a toolsy, one-year wonder at Ohio State who parlayed a projectable skill set into a top-five draft selection. Kuntz, who shined during his senior year at Old Dominion, may be the most athletic tight end prospect in history.  Gholston lasted five years in the NFL, while Kuntz has yet to record a statistic in the league after being a seventh-round pick in 2023.  I’m not saying any of the NBA players in this group would be stars in the NFL, but given the NFL’s own history, are you really going to tell me a crazy athlete like Gordon or Toppin wouldn’t at least get a look at defensive end?

Brown and Tatum both have the length and athleticism that NFL teams salivate for – plus they’re willing defenders too.  They could reasonably stick at tight end or as a pass rusher.  Pry these two stars from the Celtics as a package deal and who knows what could happen?

F— It, Put Him at Tackle

Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers) – 7’0”, 280 lbs.

Nikola Jokić (Denver Nuggets) – 6’11”, 284 lbs.

Where do we stick two of the biggest and most skilled players in basketball?  At tackle of course!  Or maybe defensive end a la Ed “Too Tall” Jones?  Embiid grew up playing volleyball and soccer as a kid in Cameroon and didn’t start playing basketball until he was fifteen.  Who can say that he wouldn’t pick up the intricacies of blocking on the blind-side?  Jokić shouldn’t be viewed any differently.  Could their height actually be a detriment in a sport where leverage is everything?  Sure, but with three combined MVPs between them, I’m betting the NBA’s best big men are too talented to fail.

Our QB For this Exercise

Jalen Suggs (Orlando Magic) – 6’5”, 205 lbs.

One of the few basketball players in the league with legitimate, notable football achievements in their career, Suggs was named Minnesota Mr. Football as a senior in high school.  Between his experience, NFL-caliber size, and tremendous athleticism, he can be the token QB for this hypothetical group of NBAers-turned-NFLers.  If he fails, we can always try him at receiver anyway – duh.

Everyone’s Favorite White Slot Receiver

T.J. McConnell (Indiana Pacers) – 6’1”, 192 lbs.

It’s one of the oldest tropes in sports: the white guy receiver.  He’s a hard worker.  A coach’s son.  Really knows the game.  A gym rat.  Guess what?  McConnell is the NBA’s version of the white receiver.  He’s a 6’1” Julian Edleman.  I’m surprised Bill Belichick didn’t offer him a contract.

30 NFL Players Who Could Play in NBA

90s Enforcer Types

Arik Armstead (Jacksonville Jaguars) – 6’7”, 280 lbs.

Spencer Brown (Buffalo Bills) – 6’8”, 311 lbs.

Trent Brown (Cincinnati Bengals) – 6’8”, 370 lbs.

DeForest Buckner (Indianapolis Colts) – 6’7”, 295 lbs.

Jordan Mailata (Philadelphia Eagles) – 6’8”, 365 lbs.

Mike McGlinchey (Denver Broncos) – 6’8”, 315 lbs.

Quenton Nelson (Indianapolis Colts) – 6’5”, 330 lbs.

Dan Skipper (Detroit Lions) – 6’10”, 330 lbs.

Thirty years ago, this would have been a much easier projection.  Guys like Rick Mahorn (6’10”, 240 lbs.) and Charles Oakley (6’9”, 245 lbs.) were called upon for their defense and rebounding for great NBA teams.  Even a monster like Oliver Miller (6’9”, 375 lbs.) managed to carve out a nine-year career in the 90s.  Back then, spacing the floor and athleticism weren’t near prerequisites like they are now.

It’s a stretch that any of the players above could fit into an NBA rotation today.  Most of them I just picked because they were tall.  Armstead, both Browns, Buckner, McGlinchey and Nelson did play high school ball.  Mailata could be fun because he’s strong and agile and he already made the switch from rugby to football look easy – why couldn’t he add a jump shot??

Football Specimens Gets a Chance

Saquon Barkley (Philadelphia Eagles) – 6’0”, 232 lbs.

Myles Garrett (Cleveland Browns) – 6’4”, 275 lbs.

Derrick Henry (Baltimore Ravens) – 6’3”, 247 lbs.

Micah Parsons (Dallas Cowboys) – 6’3”, 245 lbs.

Even NBA teams like to bet big on traits.  These guys fit the bill.  They make the NFL’s short list of top athletes.

Barkley might be a little short for the NBA, but he more than makes up for it with explosiveness, and if you’ve ever seen Myles Garrett in the NBA’s Celebrity All-Star Game, you know that he looks like a grown man amongst boys on a basketball court.  Henry is a freight train with legs and if he could be taught to dribble, he could be a mini-LeBron on the court.  Parsons might be the most dynamic player in football, pound for pound.  He also claims he averaged a 20/20 in high school.  Don’t ask me what position they’ll play in the NBA – that’s up to their coaches to figure out.

A…Guard?  Maybe?

Jacoby Brissett (New England Patriots) – 6’4”, 235 lbs.

Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals) – 6’4”, 215 lbs.

Cooper DeJean (Philadelphia Eagles) – 6’1”, 203 lbs.

Trevor Lawrence (Jacksonville Jaguars) – 6’6”, 220 lbs.

Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs) – 6’2”, 225 lbs.

Drake Maye (New England Patriots) – 6’4”, 225 lbs.

Christian McCaffrey (San Francisco 49ers) – 5’11”, 215 lbs.

Puka Nacua (Los Angeles Rams) – 6’2”, 205 lbs.

Chazz Suratt (New York Jets) – 6’2”, 233 lbs.

C.J. Stroud (Houston Texans) – 6’3”, 218 lbs.

You can quibble with this list, but we need some players who have actually…you know, played basketball.  It’s easy to say that Tyreek Hill would be an All-Star because he’s fast, but he’s also 5’10”.  We also have no idea if he can dribble or shoot a basketball.  Those are pretty darn important for a 5’10” guard to be good at in the NBA.  Fair or unfair, Hill and a few other sub-six-foot players were left off the list.  Sorry ‘bout it.

All of the above names played basketball in high school except for Trevor Lawrence, but he gives us some size and there’s a video floating around the internet of him shoving someone in an intramural game in college, so we’re just going with it.  Joe Burrow’s shot looked solid in his interview with Caleb Pressley on Sundae Conversation.  Stroud claimed on Micah Parson’s podcast that he put up 40 points in high school in a game against a team featuring future Miami Heat forward Jaime Jaquez Jr…I don’t know, I’m grasping at straws here!

The Best We Can Do at Forward

Mo Alie-Cox (Indianapolis Colts) – 6’5”, 267 lbs.

Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – 6’5”, 225 lbs.

Zach Gentry (Las Vegas Raiders) – 6’8”, 265 lbs.

Tee Higgins (Cincinnati Bengals) – 6’4”, 219 lbs.

T.J. Hockenson (Minnesota Vikings) – 6’5”, 248 lbs.

Aidan Hutchinson (Detroit Lions) – 6’7”, 268 lbs.

Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs) – 6’5”, 250 lbs.

Montez Sweat (Chicago Bears) – 6’6”, 262 lbs.

We have some high-level athletes and a lot of high school experience here.  Crucially, we have some size too.  These guys are also quality athletes, but once again, they fall dramatically short of NBA-caliber.  Alie-Cox played center in college, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking he’s Ben Wallace.  In a league that has genetic freaks like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama running around, none except Sweat would look like even an above-average NBA athlete.

For the record, I think it’s unlikely that any current NBA or NFL player could switch sports and be viable.  It’s already so damn hard to get into the NBA or NFL.  Do we really expect a professional athlete to suddenly make a career-switch and be successful?  Have we already forgotten Michael Jordan’s experiment in the mid 90s?

The big picture is this: it’s actually much harder to imagine a role for most NFL players in the modern NBA than it is to imagine an NBA player in the modern NFL.  Twenty or thirty years ago, this conversation would be much different, but the rules in the NFL are different than they were in the past.  Excessive hits have been outlawed, and athleticism, especially on the perimeter, is coveted more than ever.  You can pull an NBA name out of a hat and imagine them catching a touchdown in the red zone.  It’s impossible to project a single NFL player who could be a serious threat to score against an NBA defense.  Austin Rivers, you win this round.

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