Choosing basketball over football was tough for Jalen Suggs

Published 8:35 pm Thursday, July 22, 2021

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Jalen Suggs was the first athlete in Minnesota history to be named Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the same year, so choosing one sport to pursue in college was difficult.

He made the right choice.

The 6-foot-5 guard is expected to be a top-five pick in the NBA draft following a stellar freshman season at Gonzaga. Suggs averaged 14.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists and hit one of the most memorable shots in Final Four history, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer against UCLA that sent Gonzaga into the national championship game. The Zags lost to Baylor in the title game.

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“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Suggs said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “Had many conversations with my dad, with some close family, close friends, coaches, and ultimately, just time to myself in making the best decision for myself, for my family, for my future.”

Suggs played quarterback and defensive back at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, leading the private Christian school to a state championship as a junior. He said he received scholarship offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State, Iowa, Georgia and Alabama.

“He definitely would’ve been a Power Five quarterback,” Minnehaha football coach Chris Goodwin said. “I know he really deliberated about it and that surprised some people because he’s so elite in basketball. I think he made the right decision.”

Gonzaga hasn’t had a football team since 1941, so there were no temptations for Suggs going to a basketball powerhouse.

“I had no distractions,” he said. “I didn’t have to walk past the football facility and have it looking at me every day because I know that if I did, I would have taken that left or right into the stadium and I would have gone in and done something with the football team. But I wouldn’t take anything back. My experience at Gonzaga was second to none. It was amazing and I enjoyed it.”

Suggs often looks like a quarterback on the basketball court. He displays his passing skills with precision accuracy, finding open lanes and delivering the ball.

“I think the biggest thing that crossed over was his vision and awareness,” Goodwin said. “He knew where all the wide receivers were. He could see them even when he’s scrambling and that was his great ability. He’s so elusive. No one can catch him. He’d run around and you’d think he’s going to make a nice run and then he’d stop and hit a guy 20 yards away. It was jaw-dropping stuff. He made plays I’d never seen before.”

Suggs wasn’t running to the sideline to avoid hits, either. Plus, he was so physical at safety that Goodwin said he is considering posting a highlight tape of his greatest hits before the NBA draft.

“One of the things that’s underrated about him is he’s a very disciplined football player,” Goodwin said. “He’s not a prima donna quarterback. He loves to hit. He has some big hits knocking guys out. He was a true dual-threat and he was not afraid to run right over guys.”

Suggs developed his toughness playing with older kids as a youngster. He recalls taking two crushing hits as a second-grader playing against sixth-graders.

“I remember vividly one under-center, play action,” he said. “I’m sitting back there ready to pass and one of the hardest hitters, one of the biggest dudes in our league came off the blindside and killed me. And I remember laying on the ground crying. They came and picked me up, brought me off the field.”

The other shot came from one of his good friends

“He had promised me he wouldn’t run me over,” Suggs said. “He said he would either stiff-arm me or run me out of bounds. But he mistook me for one of my teammates and he ran me all the way over. I remember laying flat on my back. I couldn’t feel my left arm. But yeah, I’ve always played up.”

Suggs won’t have to worry about blindside blitzes or bone-crushing tackles on the basketball court.

The Pistons have the No. 1 pick in the draft followed by the Rockets, Cavaliers, Raptors and Magic. The consensus opinion has been that the No. 1 pick will be either a one-and-done college player — Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham, Southern California center Evan Mosley or Suggs — or someone from the G-League development program like guard Jalen Green or forward Jonathan Kuminga.

“Just trying to stay humble and stay focused on getting better every day right now,” Suggs said. “I’m not looking too far ahead or being caught up in the future. Trying to control what I can control and enjoying the whole process and taking it all in.”

While Suggs is heading to the NBA, his high school teammate Chet Holmgren is following his footsteps to Gonzaga. Holmgren, a 7-foot-1 center with guard skills, was the nation’s top recruit. He’s already been projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft.

Suggs surprised Holmgren last month with the news that he was chosen the 2020-21 Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

“It was special being able to be a part of that moment with him,” Suggs said. “It was great just because we’ve been so close. That’s my little big brother and I know he’s worked so hard to be in the position he’s in right now. I couldn’t be more proud.”