METAIRIE, La. – When Jimmy Graham was still a college basketball player at Miami, he got some sound career advice from people with backgrounds as divergent as university President Donna Shalala and former star quarterback Bernie Kosar.
Shalala, who attends Miami sporting events and gets to know the athletes, repeatedly urged Graham to try playing for the Hurricanes' football team.
"I guess I was fouling so much," Graham, a former power forward known mostly for defense and rebounding, recalled with a grin.
Then one day nearly two years ago, Graham was throwing a football around with Kosar, who also broached the subject of switching sports.
"It was weird. I just remember throwing the ball with him in the backyard," Graham began. "He said, 'Jimmy, I think one day you can be a play-maker in the NFL.' I just kind of laughed."
Last Sunday, when Graham was making a leaping, twisting, one-handed touchdown catch — one of two TDs the Saints rookie tight end scored in Baltimore that day — it was apparent that Kosar was on to something.
So, too, were the Saints when they made Graham their third-round draft choice last spring.
New Orleans hoped to develop the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Graham into a player like Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez or San Diego's Antonio Gates, two tight ends with college basketball backgrounds who've thrived in the NFL.
Gonzalez leads all tight ends in NFL history with 1,061 catches for 12,398 yards and 87 touchdowns.
Graham has a long way to go to approach those kinds of numbers, but Gonzalez said the young Saint is showing that type of potential.
"I've been watching him," said Gonzalez, who'll be on the opposite sideline from Graham when the Saints visit the Falcons on Monday night. "When it's all said and done, I think he's going to be one of the best tight ends in the league if he stays healthy. He has the ability and the talent, and he seems like a real smart kid."
After playing basketball for four years at Miami, Graham played only one year of college football in 2009 while taking graduate courses. But Saints quarterback Drew Brees said that year may have been the key to Graham emerging as a trusted receiving target in his first NFL season.
"Jimmy's so much further along than Gates was when Gates first came in," Brees said, recalling how Gates, who didn't play college football, spent his first NFL season on the Chargers' practice squad.
Gates eventually became one of Brees' top targets in San Diego before Brees left for New Orleans in 2006.
"The benefit that basketball players have is most of them have pretty soft hands, so catching the ball is not a problem," Brees said. He added that basketball players have "great body control and body position on a defender," which they learn from playing offense in the low post and from rebounding.
Graham said his circus catch for a score at Baltimore reminded him of rising in transition to grab an alley-oop lob with one hand. He added, a bit bashfully, "I definitely got lucky there."
Graham said he's grateful to Gonzalez and Gates for showing NFL scouts how effectively some basketball players can transfer their skills to football.
"They kind of led the way for me and made this process a lot easier," Graham said. "I owe a lot to them."
"He teaches me everything," Graham said. "He's there every day in practice and every game, telling me what I'm doing wrong."
Like Graham, Shockey played in college for Miami. The pair met while Graham was still in school and have grown close.
Shockey said Graham is blessed with natural athletic gifts — speed, height, jumping ability and good hands. What gives Graham the whole package, Shockey said, is his ability to process information quickly.
"I was like, 'Damn, that's a lot of things to remember,'" Shockey said. "The first couple years, it sucked. I'm not going to lie to you. And (Graham) has done a great job with knowing what to do."
So far this season, Graham has 25 catches for 315 yards and three TDs, and Payton and Brees say he's improving rapidly.
He has also come a long way, personally, from his poor and emotionally straining childhood in North Carolina. Since Shalala honored him during commencement ceremonies at Miami, many have learned of how Graham, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother as a child, became a popular athletic and academic success in college. Much of the credit, Graham said, went to his adoptive mother, Becky Vinson, who was going to nursing school and living in a trailer with a daughter of her own when she took Graham in.
Now Graham, 24, has an NFL career and an apartment in downtown Miami near the Miami Heat's American Airlines Arena, which will make it easy to see his favorite player, LeBron James, after football season.
Graham also pledged that Vinson will "never have to worry about anything."
Vinson "helped me and believed in me when nobody did," Graham recalls. "I remember being a kid and everyone told me I was going to be nothing and she believed in me. I owe her everything."
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.