Could future NBA lottery pick Jalen Suggs also have been an NFL prospect?


Krysten Peek
 and Pete ThamelMon, 5 April 2021, 4:54 am

The obvious moment when the skill set from Jalen Suggs’ childhood passion collides with his future profession comes when he loops around the perimeter of the basketball court and takes a dribble handoff.

That’s the snapshot of when Larry Suggs, Jalen’s dad and a youth coach in their native Minnesota, sees the flashes of the tantalizing football potential his son showed growing up. Larry Suggs always smiles when he sees his son look as if he’s ready to sprint ahead for a first down.

“When Jalen comes off, his shoulder is always very low so he can always be in the attacking-the-basket mode,” Larry Suggs told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s just like taking a handoff in football. You have to stay low like that and that’s something Jalen innately knew since he’s done it so many times on the football field.”

Suggs, No. 1 Gonzaga’s 6-foot-4 point guard, projects as a top-three pick in the NBA draft and has been one of the most high-wattage players of the NCAA tournament. His buzzer-beating 40-foot winner against UCLA in the Final Four will live on forever in March Madness history. With Gonzaga aiming to become the first college basketball team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976, the onus will be on Suggs to keep the Zags (31-0), well, barreling ahead against Baylor on Monday night.

As Suggs has soared this season, averaging 14.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists, he’s also remained the buzz of college football offices around the country. Somewhat lost amid Suggs’ soaring hoops profile is a football career that percolated with professional promise.

Jalen Suggs had a prolific high school football career as well before devoting himself solely to basketball. (Yahoo Sports illustration/photo by John Lehman)
Jalen Suggs had a prolific high school football career as well before devoting himself solely to basketball. (Yahoo Sports illustration/photo by John Lehman)

Both Iowa and Iowa State offered Suggs as a ninth-grader. Ryan Day recruited Suggs to Ohio State, where he received a scholarship offer. Minnesota recruited Suggs, who was Mr. Football in the state, so hard that co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon estimates he attended 10 Minnehaha Academy basketball games or practices.

“He was one of the best natural football players I’ve ever watched live,” said Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck. “He was truly a man amongst boys. He could do whatever he wanted. I think of the phrase ‘at will.’ Anything he wanted it was all ‘at will.’ It looked so easy. I’ve never really seen that.”

If Suggs had committed himself to football the same way he did basketball, how good of a player could he have become? Yahoo Sports spoke to coaches around the sport who raved about Suggs’ potential.

As a four-year starting quarterback at Minnehaha Academy, he went 37-5, accounted for 101 touchdowns and threw for more than 6,500 yards. He also led the school to a state title in 2018 and lost on a two-point conversion in overtime of the title game last year.

Along the way, he camped at Ohio State, visited Nebraska and picked up an impressive offer sheet that included the Buckeyes, Huskers and Georgia. He attended Alabama’s game against The Citadel in 2018, and recalls spending about 10 minutes with Nick Saban after the game. (Alabama did not offer, which he theorized was because they knew he’d be playing basketball.) If he went to college for football, Suggs told Yahoo Sports he’d have attended Minnesota, Alabama or Ohio State.

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell recalls Suggs’ competitiveness, a trait the Cyclones heavily consider in recruiting. “We loved how he led and loved how he competes,” Campbell told Yahoo Sports. “Honestly, it is really enjoyable to watch him lead his team now. You knew greatness was living in him.”

Simon, who is a Minnesota native, considers Suggs the state’s best two-sport athlete since former MLB star Joe Mauer, who along with elite baseball talent ranked ahead of Matt Leinart as a high school quarterback.

Now that it’s a foregone conclusion that Suggs will be selected high up in a loaded NBA draft, it’s easy to forget how difficult it was for him to choose basketball over football.

“He cried for a week trying to make that decision,” Larry Suggs said. “I think what brought the tears is we do a lot of football in the community and for him to not be able to play football anymore and be down with the little kids and stuff like that, it really broke his heart.”

Suggs always grew up ahead of his peers. He played organized football with sixth-graders when he was in second grade. He played AAU hoops with fifth-graders when he was in first grade.

He faced Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham, another likely top-three pick, for the first time in fourth-grade AAU nationals. In sixth grade, his first scholarship Division I offer came from UW-Milwaukee.

But the legend of Suggs hadn’t quite reached the football field at Minnehaha Academy, where current coach and former offensive coordinator, Chris Goodwin, was skeptical of the incoming freshman who many thought would start at quarterback. After all, he’d missed summer workouts touring the country playing grassroots basketball. “Fourteen-year-olds normally don’t start for us,” Goodwin said.

Suggs drew enough attention to become a national recruit. He caught the eye of then-OSU offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who recalled traveling to Minnesota to watch him throw one spring. In the summer of 2018, Suggs came to Ohio State camp and threw for the coaches.

“We offered him, and in the end, just didn’t feel like he was going to throw it well enough to come in and play right away,” Day said. “I felt like if he spent 100% of his time on football, he had a chance to develop as a quarterback. He was just raw.”

Jalen Suggs had a prolific high school football career as well before devoting himself solely to basketball. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Jalen Suggs had a prolific high school football career as well before devoting himself solely to basketball. (Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Simon and Fleck both saw the potential for Suggs to be a quarterback, but acknowledged that there would need to be some development. They also knew his ability in basketball, in part because they saw him play hoops in practice and in games so many times during his recruitment. “He was the best basketball player I’ve ever seen live,” Fleck said. “He could turn it on at will.”

Simon said that he thought Suggs’ most upside in football came at wide receiver. Goodwin said that they had a play for him on two-point conversions where he’d run out and essentially catch a jump ball. They even ran Suggs out there during a game they knew the Gophers coaches were live-scouting to give them a peek at his potential.

“I legit thought he could have played quarterback, but I told him I believed he had the tools to be a potential NFL wide receiver,” Simon said. “He was a better athlete than a pure thrower of the football. I do believe he would have been a high, high-end wide receiver.”

Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd scouted Suggs playing football at a playoff game on a snowy night last winter. He compared his style to that of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Suggs had yet to commit to Gonzaga, but the staff felt good about him coming there.

Suggs had recruited them in a sense, with his father reaching out because he appreciated Gonzaga’s fast-paced style and the fact his son would be surrounded by a core of veterans.

The Zags staff wasn’t particularly worried about Suggs playing football in college, but they respected his passion for it. Many elite basketball prospects skip their senior year of football to avoid injury. Suggs never considered it.

“They made it clear to us there was a likelihood that basketball was going to be a focus,” Lloyd said. “The football deal was something that we couldn’t compete with.”

Simon grew close to Suggs after recruiting him for three years and has reveled in his success at Gonzaga. When Suggs told Simon he planned to chase basketball, the decision was completely understood in real time and became obvious in retrospect.

“I don’t think happy is a strong enough way to describe it,” Simon said of his feelings on Suggs’ success. “I’m from Minnesota, I love seeing a Minnesota success story. I think the world of that kid. I really do think had he chosen football, I think he’d have been a pro. Basketball was a surefire thing for him, and a much quicker way with the rules.”

What was his first fall without football like?

“Man, it sucked,” Suggs said with a laugh. “When you can’t have something or something you have all your life. … Of course it’s going to be hard.”

NBA scouts project Suggs as a player who is comparable to Russell Westbrook and Brandon Roy. One told Yahoo that he can see Suggs being a multiple-time all-star. Suggs has shined both through statistics and in big moments, putting Gonzaga ahead against BYU in the WCC final with a pair of clutch 3-pointers and then, of course, writing his name into NCAA tournament lore with his last-second shot in the Final Four.

Suggs is set to establish himself as the program’s second-ever one-and-done player — joining Portland center Zach Collins — and highest-end NBA prospect. (Suggs still has a ways to go to catch John Stockton as the best point guard in school history.)

But there’s still the occasional yearning for football, as Suggs giddily mentioned playing some seven-on-seven with his teammates this year and dueling with senior Corey Kispert. “It was so much fun,” Suggs said in a phone interview. “And everyone was super sore in the morning.”

No one is sore over Suggs’ decision, as he’s clearly poised to be a fixture in professional basketball for the next generation. “I knew it was the best choice,” Jalen Suggs said, “for me and my family going into the future.”

(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 11. It’s been updated to reflect Gonzaga’s run to the national championship game after Jalen Suggs hit an overtime buzzer-beater to beat UCLA on Saturday.)

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