What if DeAndre Hopkins had chosen to pursue hoops instead of football?
Before the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals’ star wide receiver was a rising basketball star
It was one of those, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” type of conversations that manifested during a high school health class nearly 15 years ago. And when the question made its way around the room, a two-sport star-in-the-making named DeAndre Hopkins recited his answer.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna be a professional athlete,’ ” recalled Jeff Maness, a former teacher and head basketball coach at D.W. Daniel High School in Hopkins’ hometown of Central, South Carolina. “You know … all the kids say that — ‘I’m gonna play in the NBA, I’m gonna be in the NFL. I’m gonna do this, do that.’ But he was matter-of-fact, like he had it all planned out.”
That moment resurfaced in Maness’ mind back in mid-November, when Hopkins, now a 28-year-old, four-time NFL All-Pro wide receiver, made the most incredible catch of the season during a Week 10 matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills. The game ended in walk-off fashion, after a 43-yard Hail Mary touchdown grab from the 6-foot-1 Hopkins, who leapt up and snatched Kyler Murray’s prayer of a pass from, on and over three defensive backs. He came down with the football in his XXXL Jordan Brand gloves to complete the miraculous play that lifted Arizona to a 32-30 win.
HOP CAUGHT IT!!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/lyAG9gWYPn
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) November 16, 2020
“In basketball terminology, that’s what they call this,” said Hopkins after the game, tapping the top of his head five times. “You know, when somebody get dunked on. But it was on three people. They were in position. It was just a better catch by I.”
After first watching the moment live, Maness flipped on his TV a few days and umpteen replays later. This time, he caught a different angle of the sequence that led to an impromptu film session. And similar to Hopkins, Maness dissected the play from a hoops perspective.
“Right before he caught it, the ball is in the air and I see him glance to one of the defenders on his left,” said Maness via phone from South Carolina. “He took his eye off the pass to figure out where that defender was and it reminded me of him playing basketball. Like he was getting ready to grab a rebound. You could see it. … Every time I see him play on Sundays, it brings back memories of him playing basketball. He was such a good player.”
Maness has a stream-of-consciousness memory of his time coaching Hopkins on the varsity basketball team at Daniel High for four seasons (that should’ve been five — more on that later) from 2006 to 2010. He waxes poetic about Hopkins leading the Daniel Lions to a state championship as a senior, and the point guard’s first in-game dunk as a sophomore, when he leapt up, snatched the ball off the rim and came down with the putback slam — a foreshadowing image of his game-winning touchdown catch against the Bills. And of course, Maness can’t forget that day in health class, when a teenage DeAndre shared his dream of becoming a pro athlete. One detail from his bold statement especially sticks out.
“He said, ‘I’ll just have to decide whether I’m gonna play basketball or football. Whichever is my best path, I’m gonna do,’ ” recounted Maness.
Hopkins’ path was steered in a destined direction to football. But what if Hopkins, who won eight high school player of the year awards in basketball, and earned Division I scholarship offers from South Carolina, Florida and Wake Forest, had decided differently?
“In the beginning, everybody thought Nuk was going the basketball route,” said Miami Dolphins defensive end Shaq Lawson, a fellow Clemson University football product and native of Central, South Carolina.
Hopkins, who’s gone by the nickname Nuk (pronounced “Nuke”) since he was a little boy, grew up in nearby Pendleton, South Carolina, where he learned the game on a court near his family’s home in the Edgewood Square Apartments. As the story goes, chronicled by local newspapers during his high school days, the basket Hopkins began playing on was peppered with bullet holes, in a neighborhood too dangerous for him to shoot hoops after the sun went down. Hopkins’ mother, Sabrina, eventually relocated the family to a small house in Central, featuring a driveway that became her children’s basketball court.
“If it wasn’t for this game, there’s no telling where I’d be,” Hopkins told a reporter in 2009. “I’d probably be in trouble, I’m not going to lie. Basketball pretty much changed my life.”
Hopkins was transformed into a small-town hoops prodigy, shaped by a passion for the game he shared with his three siblings. His oldest sister, Kesha, set the standard, playing varsity basketball at Daniel from eighth grade to junior year before transferring to national basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy for her senior season, after which she committed to play at Robert Morris University on a Division 1 scholarship.
“I kept hearing about, ‘Kesha’s youngest brother … Kesha’s youngest brother,’ ” said Maness, who became head coach of the boys varsity team during her final year at Daniel. At the time, Hopkins was in seventh grade. “He went to the middle school that fed our high school and my eyes were on him. I just knew the kid was gonna be good. I kept saying, ‘I think he’s good enough to play for us.’ ”
In 2005, as a 13-year-old eighth grader, Hopkins got called up to play varsity at Daniel High School, just as his sister Kesha had done years before him. (“With the exception of football, wrestling, lacrosse and soccer, eligible seventh and eighth grade students may participate on varsity teams,” reads Section 7, paragraph D of the South Carolina High School League by-laws.) But the plan wasspoiled when Hopkins broke his hand playing quarterback on his middle school football team, forcing him to miss the entirety of what would’ve been his first varsity basketball season.
Hopkins returned to the field the summer before his freshman year of high school during tryouts for varsity football. But when he didn’t make the team at quarterback, Hopkins quit and shifted his focus to hoops, with a spot on the varsity roster awaiting him.
“I had heard about this up-and-coming kid named Nuk. I’m not even kidding you, I didn’t even know his name was DeAndre until we were on the same team,” said former Daniel High shooting guard Matt Steelman, a junior when Hopkins joined the team as a freshman. “He didn’t have dreads yet. He was really quiet and unassuming. But at the same time, very confident. Not cocky, in the arrogant, annoying to be around kind of way, but borderline. He just knew who he was — and that was the best player on our team from early on. It was fascinating how mature he was at a young age. It didn’t feel like we had a kid on the team.”
Despite being a casualty to freshman football tryouts, Hopkins took on an important role on the basketball court as Daniel’s starting point guard and floor general.
“He felt more like a point forward … similar to Scottie Pippen,” said Steelman, a 2008 graduate from Daniel who played four years at mid-major Division 1 Wofford College before becoming a pastor. “He was a matchup nightmare. He had height and was very strong with the ball. Partly because his hands are so big, he had a hard time shooting the ball early on. He had to work on that a ton. But when he was making shots, he was unguardable.
“The defensive strategy would’ve been to let him shoot and see what happens. But the problem was he was such a good passer. So when teams would lay back, he’d pick ’em a part. That’s what was really fun for me — a white kid who could run off screens and shoot — because he enjoyed finding me when I was open. It felt like we were a cool little duo.”
Hopkins averaged a respectable 8.2 points, 5.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 25 games as a freshman. Heading into the following school year, his friends persuaded him to give football another try to get in shape for basketball season. Twenty-five pounds heavier and motivated, Hopkins made the team as a two-way player — wide receiver on offense and cornerback on defense. And in his first varsity football game in August 2007, he recorded three interceptions, including a 72-yard pick-six on the opposing team’s opening drive.
“It was exciting out there,” Hopkins said after the game that night. “It’s just like basketball, but there’s more fans, so you have to play more off of your instincts. If people are bigger than you, it’s like David and Goliath, and you’ve gotta throw stones.”
Hopkins finished his debut campaign on the Daniel football team with a school-record 14 interceptions, while catching 12 passes for 271 yards and four touchdowns. That season is when most of the folks around him figured his future would be in football.
“Very quickly,” Steelman said, “it was like, ‘Hey, man, if you’re doing this your first year playing varsity, you probably have a higher lid on the field, honestly.’ ”
Yet Hopkins responded with an even better sophomore basketball season. Through the first six games of Daniel’s 2007-08 schedule, he totaled 146 points (24.3), 52 assists (8.7), 43 rebounds (7.2) and 39 steals (6.5), while shooting 52% from the field. One night, he recorded an unconventional 12-point, 11-assist and 10-steal triple-double before flirting with another a few games later in a 27-point, 16-assist and eight-steal outing. Against Travelers Rest High School, the Lions fell behind by 24 points until Hopkins willed them back, leading all scorers with 29, and more importantly hitting a 12-foot jumper with 20.5 seconds left to win the game.
“He just did the little things,” Maness said. “We were playing Greenville High School. They go to trap him at half court and he falls. But he never loses his dribble. It looked like a Harlem Globetrotter play. He’s on his backside, rolls over, pops up and passes it to our shooter who knocks down a 3.
“I was behind him when the teams were shaking hands and the other coach whispered to him, ‘You’re the truth.’ ”
After averaging 20.1 points, 8.4 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 steals in 26 games as a sophomore, Hopkins was named the All-Mountain Lakes Player of the Year, Region Player of the Year and to the 3A All-State team. By the spring of 2008, he’d arrived on the radars of Division 1 college basketball programs. A month into his tenure as the new head coach of the University of South Carolina, Darrin Horn took a trip to Central to meet Hopkins, who had spent the first few months of his offseason putting up 1,000 jump shots a day.
“There were a few local guys in basketball circles of South Carolina that told me, ‘Man, I’m telling you, DeAndre Hopkins may be the best talent in the state — definitely in his class,’ ” recalled Horn, now the head coach at the University of Northern Kentucky. “His game reminded me of how he plays football: A tremendous athlete who made a ton of plays.
“At the time, I was coming from Western Kentucky, where we were superathletic and deep at our level. We played an uptempo, pressing style of play. I thought DeAndre would be fantastic in it.”
In mid-June 2008, Horn offered Hopkins a scholarship to play basketball at the University of South Carolina. Later that same week, coincidentally while attending a team basketball camp at Wake Forest, Hopkins received a scholarship offer to play football at Clemson, located less than 5 miles from his hometown and high school.
“You find some times in the South, where football is really big, that kids who love basketball and are good at it, aren’t really sure they can play at the next level until somebody tells them they can,” Horn said. “We wanted DeAndre to know that he could be a really good college basketball player, too. We were more so competing with football than a particular school.”
Hopkins later picked up hoops offers from the University of Florida and Wake Forest and drew interest from the University of Tennessee, University of Maryland and Virginia Commonwealth University. “We even talked to the University of North Carolina, but they had already filled their point guard spot,” Maness said. “Schools told me, ‘If he decides to play basketball, we’ll take him.’ But they backed off because of football.”
In March 2009, right after his junior basketball season — during which he averaged 18.8 points, 6.8 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 3.4 steals and had a game with a career-high 42 — Hopkins committed to Clemson. The following week, he was again named the player of the year in basketball. Despite his commitment to play college football, Hopkins teased his plan to walk on to the Clemson basketball team.
“Even if I go to the NFL,” a 16-year-old Hopkins told reporters, “basketball will still be my first love.”
In the fall of Hopkins’ senior year, the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association named him one of the top five high school players in the state.
Early in the basketball season at the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Hopkins matched up with Kendall Marshall from Virginia’s Bishop O’Connell High School, the No. 7-ranked point guard in the country, who committed to UNC as a sophomore. (Marshall was the player who filled the spot that coach Roy Williams briefly considered offering Hopkins.)
“At first, I was worried about Kendall Marshall,” said Lawson, a former power forward at Daniel who played two seasons on the team with Hopkins. “He was a guy getting ready to play basketball at North Carolina going against a football player who was going to Clemson. But Kendall and Nuk were going back and forth. And what we did to them boys … how Nuk controlled the game and got everybody involved — it showed how special of a player he was. He could do it all, man.”
Daniel blew out Bishop O’Connell, 77-61, and Marshall ended the game with just 11 points on 4-for-15 shooting. Hopkins took only 5 shots, scoring 6 points and dishing out 9 assists. An ESPN recruiting analyst, likely there to see Marshall, penned a scouting report of Hopkins in January 2010, highlighting his performance in the holiday tournament:
DeAndre’s shutdown skills, vision and physical style of play translates at a high level from the gridiron to the hardwood. The Clemson-bound football player is a rock-solid combo guard with a 6’7 wingspan, precise court vision and football toughness you want from the guard spot at the high major level. At the Beach Ball Classic, Hopkins was a stat sheet stuffer and lived up to the hype of being a high-level guard if it wasn’t for football.
Hopkins never cracked any national player rankings in basketball because of the attention he commanded as a four-star recruit in football. But he ultimately proved that the sport he excelled in more wouldn’t get in the way of him at least having a chance to play the game he loved most beyond high school. At the end of his first college season on the field, after leading the Tigers in receiving as a true freshman, Hopkins joined the Clemson basketball team, receiving the blessing of football coach Dabo Swinney and welcoming of first-year basketball coach Brad Brownell.
“He was a little rusty, as you would imagine. It took him a little while to get back in basketball shape,” Brownell said. Nearly a year had passed since Hopkins’ senior season, when Daniel won the school’s first state title in 43 years and he was named player of the year for the third straight time. “But DeAndre came in and assimilated into our team. The thing that stuck out about him as a player was he was smart. He picked things up pretty quickly and had a good feel for the game.”
Hopkins played only 10 minutes in seven games, taking just two shots without scoring a point. He also recorded an assist, a rebound, a steal, a block, two turnovers and two fouls.
“We threw him out there in a couple games,” Brownell said. “There was a game at Georgia Tech, when I got mad at a couple guys and he got tossed in there and fought pretty hard. … He kind of sparked us a little bit.
“It was one of those situations that you knew if he was only a basketball guy, he would’ve eventually found his way. I think he just loved to play basketball and wanted to continue playing as long as he could. When the season was over, we knew where his bread was gonna be buttered.”
Hopkins chose football. Or maybe football chose Hopkins. He fulfilled his teenage declaration, growing up to be a pro athlete in the mold of a $42.5 million-guaranteed wide receiver — one of the best at his position in the NFL.
There are still peeks into his short, yet storied, hoops career, from his MaxPreps player profile to a few photos of his football frame in a Clemson basketball uniform and a YouTube highlight from the 2010 N.C./S.C. High School All-Star Game, when Hopkins audaciously dribbled the ball through a defender’s legs as a showcase of his natural handle. And for those who witnessed Hopkins on the court, there will always be remnants of the memories and conjectures about what could’ve been.
“It makes for a good story to tell,” Horn said. “When he made that unbelievable catch, I told my son, ‘Nuk was the first guy I ever offered at South Carolina. We were his first scholarship.’ I’m really happy for him because he seemed like a really good kid at the time.
“It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if he had picked basketball and ended up in the NBA.”