FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Coach Ryan Moore thought basketball was heading out of bounds. It was early in Moorpark High School’s playoff game against Portola in Irvine, Calif., and some of its players were nervous.
Out of Moore’s line of sight, Drake London grabbed the ball, threw it through the basket and set up his entire team. Moorpark, with London’s 35 points, advanced to the sectional quarter-finals.
Much of what London brought to basketball – athleticism, spatial awareness, instincts and timing – encapsulated in one game, traits that made London a top rookie with offers from schools like Virginia.
Last month, the receiver became the 8th overall pick in the NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. In the timeline of London life, basketball came first. The sport he practiced tirelessly with his father, Dwan – four days a week growing up in the little park at the end of the cul-de-sac near his Moorpark home.
Those basketball talents translated into football, and London was talented enough to play both for one season at USC before his career path became clearer. A player with his combination of height (6ft 4in) and skill level was rare in football, less so in basketball.
“It was just a blessing, you know,” Dwan London said. “How do you look a gift horse in the mouth and say, no, I want something else?”
He could not. But those skills he picked up in basketball helped make London the football player it is today.
TJ HOUSHMANDZADEH MAY still consider the piece. USC played against Oregon State and London faced a corner that pressed them. Safeties were also installed below and above London.
When Houshmandzadeh looked on, he thought an interception was coming as the ball was thrown.
“And he went down with the ball,” said Houshmandzadeh, the London coach and former NFL wide receiver. “And I was just like, ‘Wow.’ “He just has great ball skills and the ability to go up and get the ball back. He didn’t focus on anyone, not just one person. He’s just obsessed with this ball.
It’s similar to London’s rebounding technique in basketball or the timing needed to chase a lob from a teammate. Understand his spacing, hand placement, timing, and coordination so that it all happens in one smooth, graceful motion.
London has always had that. When she was 2 years old, London had a basketball hoop in the backyard of her grandmother’s house in Camarillo, California. Uneducated, Dwan said London had a natural basketball shot. Dwan said the pediatrician told him his son had “advanced motor skills for his age.”
Many of the skills he has in football have correlations with basketball.
“Getting on top of someone, using crossovers on the line of scrimmage and the biggest, honestly, is just spatial awareness,” London said. “Understand exactly where you are, areas, everything.”
When London played in the slot at USC, a quick cut early in the game could create the space needed against a defender on a fast route. It wasn’t necessarily his speed, but his movement. Instant deceleration and acceleration to shake up defenders.
Body positioning allowed London to be in the right place at the right time. In high school, Moore said, his heading simulations were “incredible” — helping beat defenders in both sports. Post play at Moorpark also helped, as he sensed how defenders felt when they piled on him.
At USC, he went straight from football to basketball on January 2, 2020. He played his first game on January 5 before illness took him out for five games. The combination of transition, illness and being part of a good team – the Trojans won 22 games and had first-round NBA pick Onyeka Okongwu in their frontcourt and future European pros on the wing – kept him away from the search.
He played six minutes at USC and scored no points. He grabbed three rebounds. But the potential for his future was tantalizing.
“I think Drake could have been a double guard in the NBA,” said former USC assistant Jason Hart, who recruited London from USC and is now the G League Ignite coach of the NBA. NBA. “I mean, he wasn’t a basketball player.”
When Hart recruited him, he envisioned his potential as current Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks, who had just completed a three-year all-Pac 12 career at Oregon.
If London were stuck with hoops, USC coach Andy Enfield thinks London could have become an All-Pac 12 player – possibly an NBA draft pick. About two weeks after London joined the basketball team, there was a scrimmage where London was the best player on the court.
But he never had the opportunity to show it. In 2020, COVID-19 canceled the Pac-12 Tournament in early March and the NCAA Tournament the following week, and, unknown to London at the time, ended his college basketball career. London fully committed to football after their second season, and 17 months later London were a first-round pick.
In the NFL, these basketball skills will come in handy. He will have to win more contested holds and get out of the line. Against media coverage last season at USC, he caught 69% of his targets with a single drop. In the red zone, he ran 50 courses, was targeted 24 times and caught 14 passes for 103 yards and six touchdowns.
It could also be useful off the pitch. London joked without looking at the list, he thought he was one of the Falcons’ top three basketball players. And maybe even with a return to the court and possible basketball dreams too.
After all, if he’s as good as Atlanta hopes at football, there’s always the Celebrity Game during NBA All-Star Weekend to think about.