Catch-anything style of Bengals' Tee Higgins rooted in hoops background

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Tee Higgins' 2020 NFL draft profile (0:46)

Check out highlights from Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins as we get closer to the 2020 NFL draft. (0:46)

Cincinnati Bengals rookie Tee Higgins thought he was done playing basketball.

He walked into the gym for an exhibition game before the start of Oak Ridge's senior season in 2016. After three years of playing varsity for the Tennessee high school, he didn't intend to play his final year. The wide receiver's future was already sealed as a Clemson recruit. He watched from the bleachers.

"After the game, he called me," Oak Ridge coach Aaron Green said. "He couldn't stand it."

The next day after school, Higgins was at practice.

Those years playing basketball became useful, as some of those crossover traits helped Higgins excel at Clemson. And after spending less than three full years in college, where he became one of the game's most dynamic receivers, he's not that far removed from his hooping days as a second-round pick of the Bengals. His time on the hardwood also means his ceiling could be higher than what he displays during his first season in the NFL.

"He has another gear ahead of him, athletically," said Jeff Scott, who recruited Higgins for Clemson's 2017 class and coached Tigers receivers until he took over as South Florida's head coach in December. "That's a really good thing."

Scott compared the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Higgins to Arizona Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins, another former Clemson standout whose frame lacked muscle mass when he entered the league because of his extended basketball career. Hopkins has been a first-team All-Pro selection the past three seasons.

Hopkins, like Higgins, was an excellent basketball player. Scott recruited them and Chargers receiver Mike Williams, another former Clemson receiver who played hoops. And Scott believes Higgins topped both.

"He was probably the best high school basketball player of all the receivers I coached at Clemson," Scott said.

Higgins was naturally a small forward. But with Higgins' combination of quickness and a 6-4 frame, Green felt comfortable playing his star anywhere on the court.

According to Green, Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes visited Oak Ridge to watch Higgins at a practice during the recruitment process. Green believes that if Higgins had committed to a future in basketball, he would have received more interest from major programs around the country.

At one point during Higgins' recruitment, the Clemson football coaching staff started to get a little worried.

Higgins, the No. 2 wide receiver according to the ESPN 300 rankings, was a prized prospect for the Tigers, one of college football's top programs. However, Scott said the Clemson staff was nervous that Higgins might get an offer to sway him to play basketball in college.

Higgins said he came "really close" to picking basketball over football. He wouldn't have been the first one in his family to play college hoops. His older sister, KeKe Stewart, played four seasons at Middle Tennessee and helped the Lady Raiders win the Conference USA title as a senior in 2014.

"I really wanted to work on my game in basketball, but it ended up junior year [of high school] that I knew football was my sport," Higgins said in April after the Bengals drafted him.

Oak Ridge football coach Joe Gaddis told Higgins early in his high school career that his size made him more unique in football and could help carry him to the NFL. Gaddis said Higgins responded with a laugh.

Those who lined up against Higgins rarely grinned. Gaddis said when Higgins lined up at cornerback, he intercepted enough passes that quarterbacks stopped throwing to his side of the field. When Higgins was a punt returner, Gaddis said, teams started kicking the ball several yards out of bounds to keep him from touching it. Higgins still returned three punts for touchdowns as a senior.

When Higgins was a wide receiver, the instructions to the quarterback were simple: just throw it anywhere in Higgins' vicinity. And his ability to make mind-boggling catches wasn't limited to games.

"His acrobatic catches at practice were just unbelievable," Gaddis said. "I would just look and shake my head and think, ‘Man, did he really just do that?' He'll do it in Cincinnati."

It's one of the reasons Higgins was so heavily recruited. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and former Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who initially landed Higgins' college commitment, showed up at Oak Ridge to watch the then-recruit play basketball games. (Swinney sat in the middle of the stands, while Jones attempted to be inconspicuous behind the team bench.)

Scott said Higgins is also similar to Hopkins because of his catch radius. Higgins was measured with an 81-inch wingspan at this year's combine, 1 inch longer than Hopkins'. Scott said that where some receivers are stiffer and need perfect ball placement to make a catch, Higgins can make receptions in a lot of awkward positions.

"A lot of that comes from his time playing basketball and the skills he was able to get on the court," Scott said.

The backgrounds of Higgins and Hopkins also show why their trajectories could be similar. Because of the constant shuffling between football and basketball, Higgins didn't spend as much time in the weight room as others and was relatively weak when he arrived at Clemson. Among Higgins' college accomplishments, Scott is most proud of his commitment to getting stronger.

Scott told NFL teams that Higgins' frame still has time to fill out, especially after he spent only five semesters at Clemson.

That bodes well for Cincinnati, as Higgins joins rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the top overall draft pick, as building blocks for second-year coach Zac Taylor. Higgins molded his game after that of current Bengals wideout A.J. Green, who was given a one-year franchise tag for 2020. After this season, Higgins and Tyler Boyd could be Burrow's top long-term options.

Higgins will be expected to contribute immediately and should be a cornerstone for the franchise. The Bengals are hoping the athleticism and production Higgins displayed at Oak Ridge and Clemson will be a weekly staple for years to come.

"I feel like we can really turn the organization around and come out with a winning season this next season," Higgins said. "I'm really looking forward to it."