Ranking LeBron James, Allen Iverson, and the 5 Best Athletes Who Could Have Starred in the NBA or NFL

In honor of Super Bowl LVI, the NBA can merge with the NFL for a day. And one of the most interesting thought experiments between the two sports always seems to center around what players could have been capable of becoming superstars in either (or both).

Cincinnatti Bengals‘ star receiver Ja’Marr Chase, for example, first wanted to be a basketball star before he realized his talents were better suited for football.

There are plenty of other examples, though, of players whose athleticism would transcend either, or, really, any sport.

Here are the top five players who could have become superstars in either the NBA or NFL:

A quick handful of honorable mentions:

  • Detroit Pistons’ big man Ben Wallace first attended Auburn University as a linebacker. That seems terrifying.
  • NBA journeyman Glen “Big Baby” Davis was a running back in high school who became a major recruit as an offensive lineman.
  • Florida State star Charlie Ward played in the NBA and won a Heisman Trophy, so he really did do both.
  • Orlando Magic rookie Jalen Suggs was ranked as one of the top 15 dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
  • NBA slam-dunk contest champion Nate Robinson was a running back and corner in high school who played for the University of Washington football team as a freshman.

Onto the top five:

NFL star Julius Peppers

Peppers will eventually be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he’s eligible for induction in 2024. He played 17 years in the league and racked up 159.5 sacks between his time with the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, and Green Bay Packers.

His size and athleticism made him a nightmare to block. But they also made him a nightmare to stop in the post at the University of North Carolina.

Big Julius starred on the Tar Heels football team, but UNC is first-and-foremost a basketball school, and Peppers took his talents to the Dean Dome as well.

In his two seasons on the court before moving to football full-time, the 6-foot-7, 290-pound forward played in 56 games. Per 40 minutes, he averaged 13.6 points and 8.9 rebounds. He was also a member of Carolina’s 1999-2000 Final Four team.

The following season, he was named the nation’s Top Two-Sport Athlete by The Sporting News per his UNC basketball bio.

It’s not hard to envision a Charles-Barkley-type role for Peppers in the NBA had he chosen to focus on basketball. He would have been a rebounding machine and, with his athleticism, could have developed a low-post and mid-range scoring game.

He made the right call with football, though.

NBA champion Matt Barnes

Moreso than any other player on this list, Barnes may be the biggest surprise to casual fans.

The 6-foot-7 UCLA product was a second-round pick of the Memphis Grizzlies and carved out a 16-year NBA career as a role player. He holds a ring as a member of the 2017 Golden State Warriors NBA championship team.

But Barnes was also a standout receiver at Del Campo High in California, according to BasketballNews.com. He was named an All-American after tallying 100 receptions for 2,070 yards and 45 touchdowns across two seasons.

Barnes caught 58 passes for more than 1,000 yards during his senior campaign and led the country with 28 touchdown grabs.

At 6-7 with the athleticism to play more than a decade and a half in the NBA, Barnes would have made for a rather unstoppable NFL receiver.

NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss

Moss is widely considered the second-greatest receiver in football history behind Jerry Rice. He took a long and winding journey that eventually landed him at Marshall, where he took college football by storm before becoming a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings.

Moss is one of the most physically gifted athletes of all time in any sport. It’s not hard to envision that athleticism translating to the NBA. It certainly allowed him to dominate the state of West Virginia as a high schooler.

Randy won back-to-back state Player of the Year Awards on the hardwood in 1993 and ’94. He was a member of the Nike All-American game as well his senior year.

Via FanSided, the 6-foot-4 Moss posted more than 30 points, 13 rebounds, five steals, three blocks, and three assists while shooting 60% from the field that season.

He may not have been the most skilled player, but considering there weren’t any corners who could shut down Moss in the NFL, there weren’t going to be any high schoolers who could defend him in basketball.

Had he stuck with his second sport and put time into developing his ball skills, a Vince-Carter-type player who could drive by and jump over any defender isn’t hard to imagine.

Four-time NBA MVP LeBron James

This one has been discussed hundreds of times since LeBron put himself on a path to becoming one of the two best basketball players of all time. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the 6-8 physical marvel — who’s played center in the NBA at 37 years old this season — could have been a Hall of Famer in football.

Via NFL.com, LBJ was an all-state receiver at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, and Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy was the team’s defensive coordinator while James was there.

“I’ve been around a lot of great receivers,” Murphy said to ESPN in 2009. “I tell people that I rate my top receivers — coaching, playing, or watching — as James Lofton, Jerry Rice, Steve Largent, and LeBron James.”

LeBron could have been dominant at any position of his choosing — receiver, tight end, even defensive end. But someone his size, with his speed and leaping ability, would have been the definition of a matchup nightmare for 6-1, 200-pound corners.

Had his dedication to basketball transitioned to football, LeBron could have been in Murphy’s grouping of Hall of Fame receivers in a more than hypothetical way.

NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson

No. 1 on this list is a player who was on track to becoming Michael Vick before anyone knew Michael Vick.

Iverson became a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as one of the best and most influential players in NBA history. But there’s a legitimate argument to be made that AI would have been a better football player than basketball player.

The Answer himself has repeatedly stated so, and the stats back it up.

In Virginia, Iverson was a dual-threat quarterback, kick returner, and defensive back at Bethel High School. Before an off-field incident derailed his career, he threw for and ran for a total of 2,204 yards and 29 touchdowns his junior season.

He had 21 interceptions over a two-year span, including five in one game.

He led Bethel to state championships in both sports that season and was named the AP’s High School Player of the Year in both sports as well.

The same skills that made Iverson unstoppable on the court — his speed, agility, change of direction, and leaping ability — would have served him just as well as a dual-threat quarterback. His physical style of play would have lent itself to a career as an NFL corner as well.

AI was so dominant and highly thought of as a high school football player — and to his admission, he was a football player — we could see a bust of him in Canton instead of Massachusetts.

Unless otherwise noted, basketball statistics courtesy of Sports Reference and football statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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