Chane Behanan was dismissed from Louisville last week, ending his career with the Cardinals. The junior power forward was an instrumental part of the Cardinals' 2013 national championship, averaging 10 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. If he can get a handle on his off-court issues over the next few months, he will have to decide whether to declare for the NBA draft or transfer and play a final season in college.
There is, however, a third option.
At 6'6, 250-pounds, Behanan is the prototypical undersized power forward who may be more effective as an NFL tight end. It started with Tony Gonzalez, a two-sport star at Cal who opted for football in 1997. Over the last generation, from Antonio Gates to Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, basketball players have become somewhat of a norm at the position. In the NBA, they were too short to defend the four spot and too bulky to play the three. In the NFL, they are too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers.
Behanan's last game with Louisville, a 73-66 loss to Kentucky, was a preview of his problems at the highest levels of basketball. Most college big men struggle with his strength and athleticism, but Willie Cauley-Stein (7'1, 245), Julius Randle (6'9, 250), Dakari Johnson (7'0, 265) and Alex Poythress (6'8, 240) had the size to push him to the perimeter. Behanan finished the game with zero points on 0-for-3 shooting, seven rebounds and three turnovers. He simply isn't effective that far from the basket.
DraftExpress has Behanan as the No. 26 player in the junior class, a group that has already been picked clean by the NBA in the 2012 and 2013 drafts. He's not ranked in their Top 100 prospects and he isn't projected to be drafted. As conference play gets going and younger players start to make a name for themselves, Behanan will be out of sight, out of mind for NBA front offices. Most likely, he will have to earn a training camp invite at Las Vegas Summer League.
If there is a model for Behanan's transition to the professional level, it is PJ Tucker. A 6'5, 225-pound small forward who played as a small-ball four at Texas, Tucker was a second round pick who lasted 11 games in his first stint in the NBA. He spent five seasons honing his game in Europe before returning in 2012 as a "3-and-D" wing for the Phoenix Suns. At 28, he is on the second year of a two-year vet minimum deal. He should stick in the league, but he's not getting a big contract.
It's not that Behanan isn't a good basketball player. In a 1-on-1 matchup, he could probably beat a lot of NBA players. It's just that the things he does well in a 5-on-5 game are the same things guys bigger than him do in the NBA. There will be concern about his off-the-court issues, but if he was 6'11 instead of 6'6, teams would be more forgiving. Players with Behanan's skill-set aren't that valuable in the NBA; the world isn't running low on undersized power forwards.
In the NFL, the situation is reversed. Jimmy Graham caught 86 passes for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Everyone wants a player like that, because he can dictate matchups all over the field and make a quarterback's life much easier. Graham is a great athlete, but he was no great shakes as a basketball player. He played four seasons at The U, never averaging more than 6 points per game. In that time, the Hurricanes made the NCAA Tournament once.
Behanan is just as good an athlete as Graham. Check out some of the highlights of his time at Louisville. That is a 6'7 guy flying around the floor, soaring above the rim and generally terrorizing less athletic players. Not only is he big and athletic, he is coordinated too. It would not take him long to pick up the route tree. In the NFL, the only time he would have to shoot is over the goalposts, after a TD. There's nothing too complicated about the things guys like Graham, Gonzalez, Gates and Thomas do.
Over the next few months, Behanan will face the same decision those guys did. Here's what Dean Smith said about it in 1997:
"It's remarkable that [Gonzalez] is as skilled as he is as a basketball player," Smith said. "He can shoot the outside shot, he can put it on the floor, he's an excellent passer. Things you wouldn't expect necessarily." Smith suggested yesterday that Gonzalez, a junior, should declare himself for the NBA draft as well as NFL draft. "He should be reminded basketball is a lot safer," said Smith.
Gonzalez has talked about why he chose football in many interviews:
The decision was pretty much made for me. They were like you're a first-round draft choice [in football] who could go down in history as having this great career where in basketball you would be just another guy.
Jimmy Graham and PJ Tucker will both be free agents in a few months. Graham, if he doesn't receive the franchise tag, should get a contract somewhere in the range of Rob Gronkowski, who signed a six-year, $53 million extension last season. Tucker will get a deal slightly higher than the veteran minimum. For Behanan, it's something to think about.