Rico Gathers had a productive collegiate career at Baylor. He pulled down over 200 rebounds and ranked among the nation's most efficient cleaners of the offensive glass in each of his four years with the Bears, and averaged a formidable 11.6 points and rebounds per game as a junior in 2014-15.
So his being drafted to play sports professionally is only surprising because of which sport he'll play: thanks to a sixth-round pick spent by the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday at the tail end of the 2016 NFL Draft, Gathers will begin his NFL career without ever having to leave the Lone Star State.
For both team and player, the best-case scenario of a transition from basketball to football -- burly forward becomes indomitable tight end -- is tantalizing, because we've seen it happen repeatedly. Antonio Gates famously played no college football at Kent State, and is a future Hall of Fame candidate; Jimmy Graham, who played only a year at Miami, became one of the NFL's most destructive weapons when paired with Drew Brees; Julius Thomas, who picked up football late in a four-year hoops career as a Portland State Viking, was similarly effective as a favorite of Peyton Manning in Denver.
Go back another decade, and dual-sport stars Tony Gonzalez and Terrell Owens each had some success on the court before becoming legends of fall Sundays. Lesser-known success stories like those of Jordan Cameron and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, each more dabblers than dribblers on the court, also abound, and football coaches have long watched dual-sport players' basketball tape to see traits like flexibility and agility in a different light.
Those players have largely positioned the transition from banging in the paint on the hardwood to mixing it up between the hashes as an easy fantasy for both college basketball players and NFL teams looking for the next great tight end alike -- but it's crucial to note that tight end is the position most often mentioned.
The most important reason for that? Size. College basketball players who earn NFL looks are generally from a smallish range of larger men, and at 6'8 and 275 pounds, Gathers is up near the high end of that spectrum. As NFL players have rapidly added weight and strength over the years, it has gotten harder to envision leaner basketball players competing with them, but the hulking power forward still resembles a tight end far more than anyone else on court does anyone on the field. (And big men who cradle no-look passes from guards in massive paws are, fairly or not, expected to have hands that can catch a football, too.)
There's also the simplicity of tight end. Yes, the position has gotten more sophisticated in recent years -- every position in football has. But tight ends are generally meant to do two things, block and run simple routes, and those tasks don't require the complete overhaul of an athlete in the way that making a small forward a wideout or a point guard a safety would. And as specialization deepens and every football position gets less and less easy to learn, it will be the simplest roles that coaches and front offices allocate precious time to teach to newbies.
Of course, even then, there's no guarantee that cagers-turned-catchers will, er, catch on. Thomas had one catch in his first two NFL seasons. Gates, Gonzalez, and Graham all had modest rookie seasons, totaling under 400 receiving yards. And for every Gates, there seems to be at least one Erik Swoope, a former Miami small forward turned Colts tight end who has played in one game for two seasons for Indianapolis.
Not every team has the time or inclination to take risks on a project. But enough risk-happy teams like the Cowboys exist for Gathers and players like him to get drafted even before tight ends by trade, and that alone is enough to keep a dream flickering.
And the best reason of all for college basketball players to consider the NFL is simple math.
If each NFL team carries two tight ends, a fairly reasonable average, there are 64 such jobs available to those players. Allocate half of those spots to born-and-raised tight ends, and it's still 30 or so gigs.
If each NBA team carries three power forwards, which is a bit of a stretch, there are maybe 90 jobs for players like Gathers. And, despite his size, Gathers would be both undersized and too big for many roster spots allocated to forwards, which are increasingly being used on versatile do-everything players in the vein of LeBron James and Draymond Green, not excellent rebounders who took just one three in their collegiate careers. There aren't 30 roles for Gathers-like players in today's NBA.
Add in the NBA's bottleneck -- a two-round draft in which about 60 players are selected -- compared to the nearly 350-player hiring swing that combines the NFL Draft and undrafted rookie free agency, and the right road for a marginal NBA prospect like Gathers is obvious.
While the NFL is unlikely to ever lure any NBA stars to the field -- James, long considered a cinch to be an NFL star had he wanted to pursue a football career beyond his decorated high school days, has likely made hundreds more millions of dollars at point than he would have at tight end, thanks to the NBA's higher average salaries and the greater marketability of its stars -- there will always be players whose hazy NBA dreams can give way to clear views of green grass.