The best of USC's Drake London is still to come

The Little Tikes hoop was a way to keep Drake London occupied. From the moment he could walk, just after turning 1, London was bursting with energy. His parents Dwan and Cindi bought the hoop for their backyard in order to entertain him, and to their surprise, their son knew exactly what to do. At just 2 years old, he would walk over to the "hoot" -- as his mom Cindi remembers her young son calling it -- and shoot the ball, his feet perfectly together and pointed toward the basket, his left hand following through.

"When I would come home from day care, preschool, I would go straight to the Tikes and start shooting," London said. "I know that if I couldn't play hoops that day, I'd be crying."

Cindi can vouch for those tears.

To say London was a born athlete would be an understatement. The innate ability to excel at any sport without much of a learning curve was a feature, and his parents treated it as such. Dwan, who coached him in football through middle school, calls it physical genius. Cindi calls it magic. Both avoided pressuring their son -- Dwan said he didn't want to come off as a LaVar Ball-type -- and adopted a posture of openness. If there was a sport London wanted to play, they let him play it, and usually, he thrived.

"The more he would move, the calmer he was," Cindi said.

Soon, London was able to take his talents outside of the family backyard to bumblebee soccer, T-ball, flag football, then tackle and even track and field.

"We always said, 'Even if you want to play chess, we'll be there.' ... But it always came back to basketball and football," Cindi said.

Basketball was London's first love, and it remains his favorite sport. It's why, even as he developed into a superstar wide receiver and potential first-round NFL draft pick, he stayed committed to both sports at USC, finally giving up basketball before his junior season. The decision was bittersweet, but it brought about a new, exciting reality.

For the first time in his life, London was able to focus exclusively on football.

The results? Through six games this season, he is second in the nation in receiving yards per game with 138.7 and leads the Pac-12 in yards after the catch, first downs, catches of 20 yards or more, contested catches, missed tackles forced and yards per route, per Pro Football Focus. London came into USC thinking he was going to be a "role player," but two and a half seasons in, he already has a spot at No. 10 on Mel Kiper Jr.'s draft board.

If a ceiling for London exists, right now it's nowhere in sight.

"In terms of character dedication, commitment, talent," London's high school basketball coach Ryan Moore said, "he's one in a billion."

Graham Harrell believes God to be fair.

If a wide receiver has been blessed with size and ball skills, then his route running and agility will not be up to par. If a wide receiver has great agility and route running, as well as great size, then the ball skills are a little off. It's how the football universe maintains balance. But in the case of London, USC's offensive coordinator questions that creed.

"Drake's somehow got everything," Harrell said. "He's a giant with incredible ball skills. If you're that big and have those kinds of ball skills, you can't get in and out of breaks, you're a little stiff. [God] can't give them everything, but he has the total package."

Harrell has been around talented receivers in the past, but when discussing London, his mind immediately goes to his former teammate Michael Crabtree -- a 215-pound wideout with great ball skills who "got in and out of cuts like a little guy." Still, London is four inches taller than the 6-foot-1 Crabtree, and he's listed at 210 pounds, though London's parents say he is around 217 pounds because he's not playing basketball and running as much anymore.

So, if London's mind still misses the sound of sneakers on hardwood, his body has responded well to concentrating on one sport. There has been more time for rest and recovery, and he was able to fully immerse himself in spring football, which has paid dividends this season. And now, more people are bearing witness to his talents.

"He's a quarterback's best friend," USC quarterback Kedon Slovis said. "When you get that one-on-one chance, you just kind of throw it up and give him a chance."

And that has been USC's most exciting and most effective play this season: Throw the ball up to London and watch the highlight ensue. The Trojans' 2021 campaign has been an up-and-down journey: a 3-3 record, Clay Helton's firing and a slew of injuries, including to both their quarterbacks. Were he playing for Alabama or Ohio State, London's season would be the kind that might culminate with a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

"He just turned 20, so he hasn't even hit his peak yet," Cindi said. "Now, he's able to take what he would put into basketball and focus solely on football. It's already paying off."

Those who saw him play before he entered the spotlight aren't surprised. Between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Ryan Huisenga, London's football coach at Moorpark High, told him he could model his game after Mike Evans because of their size and length and the fact that Evans had also played basketball. His marketing agent, Uche Anyanwu, who also represents former Trojan wideout Michael Pittman Jr., sees him as a cross between Evans and Davante Adams, which gives credence to Harrell's assessment -- catch like a big guy, move like a little guy.

"I love watching Megatron," London said of former Detroit Lions legend Calvin Johnson when asked about NFL comparisons. "I wouldn't say I try to model my game after Megatron, because he's a specimen of his own, but definitely Mike Evans. Our body types are pretty similar, so I try to mimic him."

But there are undoubtedly similarities between London and Johnson. Johnson was a two-sport high school star recruited to play both baseball and football at Georgia Tech. For London, basketball has only served his football career well. When he goes up for a ball against a corner in a one-on-one situation, Moore envisions him grabbing a rebound over taller players. When he jumps to catch a pass with one hand, former USC assistant basketball coach Jason Hart pictures a one-handed dunk off a lob. When he beats a defender on a route and breaks free, Dwan likens it to a crossover on the court. And when he tracks a ball in the air and gets to the spot before anyone else, London credits basketball for that footwork.

"It wasn't just football season I was being competitive," London said of the multisport approach. "It was also basketball season. So I was always on edge, always looking to win."

Competitiveness has always been a part of London's DNA, in part, because Dwan made sure it was. It was important to him to effectively balance playing the parent and coach roles, so after games, he'd ask his son if he wanted to hear from Dad or from Coach. The former commended him for his efforts, the latter would follow with feedback for improvement. Above all, he wanted to instill in his son an attitude of working to earn things. It's why A's and B's in the classroom earned London cash, while C's didn't.

If London wanted the flashy gear his teammates would be showing off, Dwan asked for touchdowns. Once, London wanted new receiver gloves. Dwan said three touchdowns would do the trick, only to watch his son reach the goal in just one game. Dwan raised it to 10 touchdowns, and after a few games, he had new gloves. When London wanted to convince Dwan and Cindi to let him play tackle football in fifth grade, Dwan had him put on pads and run at him, adding a bit more force every time until he knocked his fifth-grade son down. London popped back up and Dwan was convinced he could make the switch.

As Dwan used garbage cans to help his son run routes and tennis balls to improve his ball skills and agility, he also used reverse psychology.

"I would always try to just get him a little bit out of his comfort zone and push him, you know," Dwan said. "I would say that, 'You know I think you have the ability to do the drill, but you know it might be a little bit too hard for you,' or, 'You know, we might need to work on something else.' And he was always down to give it a try."

By the time London entered high school, his coaches and parents remember him having to deal with knee and leg pain due to the growth spurt he was experiencing. From eighth grade to freshman year, he grew five inches, followed by another three inches between his freshman and sophomore years. He went from running back to running quarterback to wide receiver, all while becoming the best player on the basketball floor. And sure, London was excelling, but who was he playing against? The school encouraged young athletes to play multiple sports instead of specializing, but it was no St. John Bosco, Mater Dei or Oaks Christian, Southern California powers that regularly churn out elite Division I recruits.

"We had a coach from Yale come to our third spring practice that year and I started telling him Drake's grades are good," Huisenga said. "He's like, 'There's no way we would ever get Drake. That guy's gonna be big.' And we knew that, but it was nice to get it affirmed by somebody else."

If London wanted to make it at USC, even he knew he would need to be tested against better competition eventually. Yet the Londons rebuffed any opportunities to transfer. They didn't want to mess with what London had going on, including his grades and his friends. They gave priority to those things and hoped that the on-field situation would figure itself out.

"It was a lot of fun to go through everything with him," Dwan said. "And now I just kind of sit back and marvel at the whole situation because it's like a fairy tale to be honest with you."

London peels off his helmet after a recent USC practice that featured a handful of NFL scouts observing, folds his hands behind his back and speaks in a soft voice. The higher pitch is a reminder that he's still, as USC tight end Malcolm Epps puts it, a "big kid." The subdued demeanor is evidence of what those close to him call a "low-key" athlete who still hangs out at the local Target and go-kart track in Moorpark with his longtime friends when he's back in town. Underneath those pads, though, are hints of something more confident burgeoning.

Just ask Moore, who once challenged London at a basketball tournament to not go soft at the rim, only to have London dunk the ball on consecutive possessions and shoot him a look each time. Or ask Cindi, who has seen her son become a little bit more confident with each interview, a little bit more open with each tweet he sends or Instagram posts.

London is not a phone guy. Or a social media guy. But he knows he needs to lean into those things as his profile gets bigger. Then again, he's still rewiring his brain after surprising himself and turning into the team's best player and one of the best receivers in the country.

"I don't like to post a lot of the time," London said. "Everything's not about you. I just tried to keep to myself a lot, but I've been working on it, especially in this era. You have to be good with that type of stuff, especially for NIL."

Anyanwu and his parents are encouraging London to post when the opportunity is right, while also only accepting NIL deals that make sense for him. (For instance, he's into cars and would like to be sponsored by a tire company at some point.) On the field, there's no question that he already has the tools to carry him far.

"It's all just rolling his way right now," said USC wide receivers coach Keary Colbert, who is from Oxnard, a neighboring city to Moorpark. "Like a basketball player, they get in a rhythm, and things just roll your way. I think he's just in a rhythm right now and everything is going his way."

And yet, London still hasn't reached his full potential. But the runway is now clear and with a single sport in mind, the big kid with the Little Tikes hoop is ready for takeoff.