Looking ahead to our 23rd appearance at the FIBA Asia Championship for Men (popularly known as Asian Basketball Championships or ‘ABC’), India will attempt to do better than last time by qualifying for the knockouts stages. In the 2011 edition, India lost all three of its group matches, enduring close losses to Lebanon (68-71) and Malaysia (67-71). This time around India is paired in Group D, with relatively easier opponents in Bahrain, Kazakhstan and another qualifier from South East Asia, still to be decided.
We spoke to India Men’s Head Coach Scott Flemming, vide an email interview, on the current standards of the National Men’s team, key players and Scott’s coaching strategies surrounding them.
You have said in previous interviews that you have been impressed with the talent in the 16-23 age bracket in India. What led you to reach such a conclusion? You really seemed to have stayed true to this assessment and put your money where your mouth is. In the current Indian squad that was on display at the SABA qualifiers in Delhi, out of the 12 players on the side, 8 players were 22 years old or younger, with the youngest player Loveneet Singh just 18 years of age! Tell us in detail about your selection process and what prompted you to choose youth over experience.
Although we do have veterans such as Yadwinder ‘Yadu’ Singh and Sambhaji Kadam, several of the experienced players we invited were not able to come to camp because of injuries and other personal reasons. We do have a strong group of young players on the national team and that is very encouraging for the future of Indian basketball. With the help of the selection committee, we were able to initially evaluate players at the top tournaments in India and then narrowed our selections at the training camps.In the same interview, you had mentioned that one of the most important challenges you faced was “the inability of the players to follow the training methods when they returned home from Delhi which had the best equipments in the country”. This seems to be a continuing problem. Even now, after the SABA qualifiers ended, most players returned to their homes for a two week break. Don’t these extended periods of break in between training undo all the fitness achieved by the players?
We have made some progress in this area but ideally it would be good to limit our break periods even more. Right now there are financial and practical restrictions that influence our training schedule. To overcome these restrictions, we give players assignments for skill development and strength/conditioning when they are home between camps. We will have about six straight weeks of training prior to the Asia Championships. This will be our third extended training camp, which I understand has not always been the case.
You have repeatedly stressed that your focus, as well as that of your predecessor Kenny Natt, has been on the defensive end, where you have worked on developing India’s individual and team defensive skills. The results are obviously showing. In the recently concluded SABA qualifiers, India’s smothering defense is what led them to wins in both the games, restricting the opponents to less than 50 points. It’s a beaten to death cliché that defense wins championships. However, looking ahead to FIBA Asia, defense alone is not going to do it for us. Most of our current offense (in the SABA qualifiers) has been generated in transition (where our defense led to easy fast break points). Against the stronger FIBA Asia opponents we will not get as many transition opportunities. You had told me in an earlier interview that the focus is now on developing our team’s half court offense. The final training camp before the FIBA Asia championships in early August has commenced in Delhi (June 21st to Mid July). Do you think just one month of focus on half court offense is enough to make a difference in the upcoming FIBA Asia?
Since the first week of training camp, we have been working hard on our half court offense. It is important to develop an effective transition game but you are correct in that teams need to be able to score in the half court against the better opponents. We have implemented our main continuity offense but we have also added multiple half court sets. It is important to be consistent in attacking in transition not only to try to score easy baskets but to cross the half court with as much time as possible on the 24 second clock. Defense is so important because it can keep you in games when the shots are not falling. I have been asked if I am an offensive coach or a defensive coach. I have always responded “both”. They are both very important to be successful.
Miami Heat is the newly crowned 2013 NBA Champions. Everybody recognizes Miami as Lebron James’ team. Throughout the history of championship winning teams, there has generally been that one superstar player at the centre around whom the rest of the role players have revolved. Apart from the current Miami team, other examples are Kobe and the Lakers, Jordan and the Bulls, Hakeem and the Rockets. You have been with the Indian team for over 9 months now. Who are your go to guys in the clutch, who are the role players, and who are your ‘glue guys’ i.e. the guys that socialize and keep everybody’s spirits up in the team?
We have proven scorers such as Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amritpal Singh, Narender Grewal and Joginder Singh, but we have other young players that are developing into scorers as well. Of course, Yadu is our vocal leader, but we have other players that are taking on that role as well. Although we are still finalising the roles of individual team members, we have young players such as Amjyot Singh and Vinay Kaushik that will have a greater role than they have in the past.
Is the Indian team from the SABA qualifiers going to remain unchanged for the upcoming FIBA Asia tournament, or are you looking for a few new faces? Are there any injury concerns with some of the players?
It will primarily be most of the same players. We do have a few back in camp competing for spots as they were not able to attend the last camp because of their involvement with the 3 X 3 team or academic responsibilities.
A lot of people, when they think of a Head Coach’s job, they envision a white board with a series of X’s and O’s. But beyond basketball strategy, a Head Coach’s job is in many ways highly management oriented, where you have to delegate work and ensure smooth functioning between your assistant coaches as well as be on the same page with your Strength and Conditioning Coach and his team of physiotherapists. Describe the challenges and experiences you have had working with your coaching staff.
I have two great assistant coaches in Jora Singh and Prasad Rama Linga. They are very knowledgeable and we work well as a team. I have learned from them and hopefully I have been able to influence their coaching. We are very fortunate to have Zak Penwell as a Strength and Conditioning Coach. He is outstanding in his field and he will play a big part in the advancement of our national team program at all levels. The book he has written is something that all of our players should take advantage of, especially when they are back home between camps. We have the right people in place to grow basketball in India.
All the NBA teams have a well oiled coaching staff. There is a Head Coach, a defensive coach and a shooting coach, apart from other assistants. Tell us about the work distribution between you and your assistant coaches Jora Singh and GRL Prasad. Do you plan to add more people to your coaching staff?
Although we all share in the total program, I have given particular assignments to our assistants. Coach Jora focuses on the defense and Coach Prasad focuses on the offense. They both handle many administrative duties and assist the players on and off the court. At this time, BFI designates positions for one head coach and two assistants.
In my earlier interview with S&C Coach Zak Penwell, he mentioned that communication with the players is not a problem, and when players do raise the language issue, it is more as an excuse to escape from training. Although most players would probably understand English, they might not truly appreciate the emotion that you might be trying to express through the use of certain words or adopting a particular tone. Is vocal leadership an issue? Also, who is the vocal leader of the team on and off the court? On the defensive end, is it perhaps Yadwinder Singh? (Question Courtesy Abhipsit Mishra)
From day one I have emphasized the need for enthusiasm and the players really responded. Our veteran players like Yadu, Vishesh, Rikin, Sambhaji and Joginder have all become good vocal leaders.
If you had to pick one current NBA team whose style you would have your team draw inspiration from, which would it be? (Question Courtesy Abhipsit Mishra)
Of course, from my days being in Dallas I have great respect for Rick Carlisle and the system of play the Mavericks have. They were the last NBA Champions prior to Miami. In 2011, they beat the Heat with less talent. That says something about their system and their team chemistry.
Figuring out an identity for a team is always a challenging process. Do you think the Indian team has a distinct identity? Is there a style of basketball which if you see, you would say “that’s the way we play basketball”? What are the traits you would look out for? (Question Courtesy Abhipsit Mishra)
Finding an identity for a team is decided by combining the coach’s philosophy with the capabilities of the players. We are establishing our identity as being a strong half court man to man defensive team. We will have an up-tempo offensive game with a balanced half court attack, with both inside and outside scoring. It is my intention to play 9 to 10 players to keep fresh players on the floor. We will also be known for sharing the basketball.
Sun Tzu once noted, “He who knows his enemy and himself well will not be defeated easily. He who knows himself but not his enemy, will have an even chance of victory”. On cue perhaps, in professional sports, preparation has taken a whole new meaning. Knowledge about the opposition, their strengths, their weaknesses, figuring out their style and identity and poking holes in them is now a bare minimum. Is your preparation, in this sense, exhaustive before a match? Do we have tapes of all our games we well as those of our Asian opponents, especially Bahrain and Kazakhstan who we are facing in the prelim rounds of FIBA Asia? (Question Courtesy Abhipsit Mishra)
We are gathering information on our future opponents. While I worked in the NBA, we had access to Synergy software where we could get detailed video on all our opponents. Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy here in Asia but we will pursue all avenues including video, if it is available.
In a format such as the NBA, there are designated low-intensity periods in the year such as the off-season which gives players an opportunity to work on different aspects of their game. For example, typically, players would work on their strength and conditioning and lift heavy during the off-season but focus more on functional drills during the pre-season. However, that not being the case in India where the players are playing different tournaments throughout the year, how do you differentiate between pre-season, season and off-season and consequently, how do you plan the preparation? (Question Courtesy Abhipsit Mishra)
The nature of a national team is very different than a team that is in a league that plays a regular season schedule. Our training camps not only prepare our teams for the next upcoming event but I see them as an opportunity to train our players for the future. In fact, in our first camp in February we used many of our training sessions for player development. We are giving them drills which allow them to work on their skills daily even when they are on their own between camps. The other need I see is to play more games throughout the year prior to our championship events. This will be my goal for next year.
* The author would like to thank Abhipsit Mishra, a final year law student from National Law University, Jodhpur, for contributing some insightful questions that form part of this interview.