It is safe to say India is not known for its basketball, but with a population of over a billion people there surely would have come a time when an Indian would appear on America’s biggest stage, the NBA. Two players have appeared on the world stage in the last few years who have caused the world to take note of Indian-origin talent, as the battle to become India’s first basketball superstar heats up.
Enter Satnam Singh of the Texas Legends and Sim Bhullar of the Raptors 905, both currently playing in the D-League.
He may have been born in Toronto, but Bhullar is undoubtedly of Indian stock. His parents, who are Sikh, arrived in Canada for a new life. Little did they know that their family would live the American dream in just a single generation. Blessed with a height of 7 ft 5, he compares with Yao Ming. A center, he joined New Mexico State Aggies and spent two years there. He was even joined by his brother Tanveer, in his second year. His averages of 10.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game were enough to squeeze the college into the NCAA tournament.
He declared for the draft in 2014, but went unpicked. He signed with the Sacramento Kings after being impressive in the Summer League. He bounced around in the D-League for a bit, before getting his big break for the Kings. In April 2015, he became the first ever player of Indian descent to play in the NBA and five days later scored his first points with a hook shot against the Utah Jazz. He returned to his hometown team in Toronto and the D-League to further his game with the 905.
A true Indian success story, Satnam grew up in a remote village in Punjab, miles from the nearest road. His father was exceptionally tall and was encouraged to try basketball out, but chose to remain and continue with the family tradition of wheat milling. Satnam, however was not the same. Standing at 6 ft 11 by the time he was 13, Satnam practiced on a homemade hoop made by his father, despite his lack of knowledge about the sport. Seeing the opportunity that Singh Senior had got him involved in Punjab basketball. He quickly impressed, and his incredible height dominated the Indian junior ranks. After joining the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, he was part of a unique marketing opportunity with Reliance Industries, to go to high school in Florida. He attended the famed IMG academy, who have produced names such as Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups. After one year he was not academically skilled enough to go to college, and so announced his entry into the 2015 NBA draft, while still at IMG. He was the 52nd pick by the Dallas Mavericks, making him the first ever Indian player to be drafted. They failed to make the conference finals that year and Satnam could be their key to success for the next campaign. He currently works on his game and dreams of a future with the Mavericks in their feeder team having now played 19 times for the Texas Legends.
Who Will be the First Indian-origin Star in the NBA?
Both players have their own individual merits and are well adapted to the American game after playing through the High School or College systems. Bhullar, at 360 lbs can dominate the post with sheer mass. He has the reach which allows him to dunk on anyone, at the level that he is playing at. Ally-oops too are an easy option for the point guards of the D-League. During his time at Reno, Sim gained a reputation for his blocks too, able to swat away many a lay-ups from under the hoop. His size may be a benefit at either end of the court, but it is in between where Sim seems to struggle. Getting up and down the court is vital to being an accomplished center, and in the NBA this is what separates the admittedly skillful players from the starters. If you can’t do the miles and be at the right place at the right time, then coaches will quickly replace you with someone who can. Bhullar often finds games played around him and quick counter attacks fly past him, as he tries to haul his immense weight. If he is able to lose some weight and make some gains in his aerobic fitness, it will be a big step towards NBA basketball for Sim. I have my doubts about his attacking prowess against the top players as well. He may be able to dunk to finish on every point in the D-League, but players here are noticeably smaller and when he comes up against Dwight Howard and the like, will he be able to dominate? If he can’t, it doesn’t seem he has too many other scoring options in his repertoire.
Playing for Raptors 905 as a stepping stone into the league, is a difficult route. They made the Conference Finals this year, and with a plethora of exciting young talent, Bhullar finds himself in a tough era to break through. His place is blocked by Jonas Valanciunas, who has 4 years of NBA experience as well as being young himself, at 24. While Bhullar has done a lot for the image of Indians playing basketball it is tough for me to envisage him being an NBA regular. Unfortunately, his biggest asset, his size, is also his biggest weakness in my opinion.
Satnam sits in the Dallas Mavericks feeder team the Texas Legends, and has 24 games under his belt at the time of writing. The Punjab native does not have the sheer size of Bhullar, but at 7 ft 2 he is hardly lacking in that category. The advantage he has over Sim, is his ability to move across the court. When you see him play for the Legends, you see his hunger and energy to do well, something I am sure growing up in rural India instilled in him. Singh possesses great reach and has a nice finesse around the rim, with rebounds and tips a key part of his attacking game. Days toiled away on his home made basket has seemed to work, as unlike Bhullar, he has a jump shot in his arsenal. He is at an advantage when it comes to his franchise, with the starting center for the Mavericks being Javale McGee. The butt of many jokes, JaVale McGee has a decision to make with regards to his future. With Dallas having an eye on their salary cap, and with Dirk Nowitzki able to cover at center, it has not been a priority for them. With Satnam in their feeder team, and with the marketing potential of an Indian star, it is more likely that Singh will break through and have an impact on Indian basketball. Of course he has his weaknesses, with his inconsistency on scoring, as well as some misses off of easy lay ups, but these are things that can be ironed out in training, as he has shown he can make intelligent plays.
Whilst it is exciting to have two Indian origin players knocking on NBA doors, I truly believe out of the both of them, Satnam Singh will prove to be a bigger star. This is because he has the attributes to cut it in the league with some polishing. Of course, the NBA is one of the hardest sporting leagues to enter, and the odds are still stacked against him, but with a potential windfall for the NBA, in terms of expanding its presence into South Asia, a basketball star from India would be incredible, and who better than a boy from the farms of Punjab making it all the way to the NBA. It would certainly make for a good film.