FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Coach Ryan Moore thought the basketball was headed out of bounds. It was early in Moorpark High School’s playoff game against Portola in Irvine, California, and some of his players were nervous.
Out of Moore’s eyeline, Drake London caught the ball, slammed it through the basket and settled down his entire team. Moorpark, with London’s 35 points, advanced to the sectional quarterfinals.
So much of what London brought to basketball – athleticism, spatial awareness, instincts and timing – encapsulated in one play, traits that made London a high-level recruit with offers from schools like Virginia.
Last month, the receiver became the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons. In the chronology of London’s life, basketball came first. The sport he relentlessly drilled with his father, Dwan – four days a week growing up at the small park at the end of the cul-de-sac close to his Moorpark home.
Those basketball skills translated to football, and London was talented enough to play both for a season at USC before his professional path became clearer. A player with his combination of height (6-foot-4) and skill level was rare in football, less so in basketball.
“It was just a blessing, you know,” said Dwan London. “How do you look a gift horse in the mouth and say, no, I want something else?”
He couldn’t. But those skills he picked up in basketball helped shape London into the football player he is today.
TJ HOUSHMANDZADEH CAN still envision the play. USC played Oregon State, and London matched up against a corner pressing him. Safeties sat underneath and over the top of London, too.
When Houshmandzadeh watched, he figured an interception was coming as the ball was thrown.
“And he came down with the ball,” said Houshmandzadeh, London’s trainer and a former NFL receiver. “And I was just like, ‘Wow.’ He just has great ball skills and ability to go up and get the ball. He focused on nobody, not one person. He’s just fixed on that ball. “
It’s similar to London’s rebounding technique in basketball or the timing needed to flush a lob from a teammate. Understanding his spacing, hand placement, timing and the coordination to make it all happen in one fluid, graceful motion.
London always had that. At age 2, London had a basketball hoop in the backyard of his grandmother’s home in Camarillo, California. Without instruction, Dwan said London had a natural basketball shot. Dwan said the pediatrician told him that his son had “advanced motor skills for his age.”
Many of the football skills he possesses have correlations in basketball.
“Going up top on somebody, using crossovers at the line of scrimmage and the biggest one, honestly, is just spatial awareness,” London said. “Understanding just where you’re at, the zones, everything.”
When London played in the slot at USC, a quick cut at the play’s start could create the necessary space against a defender on a fast route. It wasn’t necessarily his speed, but his movement. The instantaneous deceleration and acceleration to shake defenders.
The body positioning allowed London to be in the right spot at the precise moment. In high school, Moore said, his head fakes were “unbelievable” – helping to beat defenders in either sport. Post play at Moorpark helped, too, because he sensed how to feel defenders when they crowded him.
At USC, he went directly from football to basketball on Jan. 2, 2020. He played in his first game on Jan. 5 before an illness took him out for five games. The combination of the transition, illness and being on a good team – the Trojans won 22 games and had an NBA first-round pick, Onyeka Okongwu, in their front-court and future European pros on the wing – kept him off the court.
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He played six minutes at USC and didn’t score a point. He grabbed three rebounds. But the potential of his future was tantalizing.
“I believe Drake could have been an NBA two-guard,” said former USC assistant Jason Hart, who recruited London to USC and is now the coach of the NBA’s G League Ignite. “I mean, he wasn’t a scrub basketball player.”
When Hart recruited him, he envisioned his potential as now-Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks, who had just finished a three-year all-Pac 12 career at Oregon.
Had London stuck with hoops, USC coach Andy Enfield believes London could have become an All-Pac 12 player – possibly an NBA draft pick. About two weeks into London joining the basketball team, there was a scrimmage where London was the best player on the court.
But he never got the chance 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 his sophomore season, and 17 months later, London was a first-round pick.
In the NFL, those basketball skills will be handy. He will need to win more contested catches and get off the line. Against press coverage last season at USC, he caught 69% of his targets with only one drop. In the red zone, he ran 50 routes, was targeted 24 times and caught 14 passes for 103 yards and six touchdowns.
It might be helpful off the field, too. London joked without looking at the roster, he figured he was a top three basketball player on the Falcons. And maybe even with a return to the court and possible basketball dreams, too.
After all, if he’s as good as Atlanta hopes in football, there’s always the celebrity game during NBA All-Star weekend to think about.