Try to get a basketball to dribble off the floor without picking it up. It takes practice at first to get the ‘dead ball’ to bounce back up. You must slap the ball in the right way, and when it gains just enough levitation, you must capitalise on its rise to slap it back down, again, doing it just right so it bounces back up higher instead of falling flat on the ground. Soon, you will see that the bounces will become bigger and your dribble will gain steady momentum.
Over the past few years, it seemed that the sport of basketball in India was finally gaining that momentum, finally rising off its stupor to claim its true potential. India got some big victories at last year’s FIBA Asia Challenge for their best international performance in 27 years, oversaw the development of several star players that began to make their mark overseas, hired an NBA veteran coach to helm the troops ahead, and named the strongest team possible for the prestigious FIBA Asia Cup in Beirut, Lebanon, last week. The ball was finally ready to bounce up high.
Alas, India’s performance at the tournament turned out to be a dud, and the ball has fallen back flat down on the pavement. The recent improvements, the presence of our “Big Three” stars, the return of NBA draftee Satnam Singh, and even the coaching of NBA veteran American coach Phil Weber didn’t help in propelling the team to better results. At the FIBA Asia Cup, India lost all three of their preliminary round games and got knocked out before the knockout stage.
Weber was appointed to coach the team only a month before the squad was to travel to Lebanon, and less than a week before the team’s first exhibition tour. For nearly two decades, he has served as an assistant coach in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and New Orleans Pelicans. Now back in the United States, Weber picked out the lessons learned from his experience with Team India this summer.
“Despite the results, I must say that it was tremendous experience, and I really appreciate this opportunity from the BFI [Basketball Federation of India] and SAI [Sports Authority of India],” says Weber. “The people of India are amazing. But I didn’t turn out the way we wanted it on court. We need to have a discussion about how the summer it set up to prepare for these tournaments and become better. It’s a process.”
India campaign in Lebanon got off to an ominous start from the beginning. They faced one of Asia’s powerhouses, Iran, in their very first game, in a matchup where India were supposed to be heavy underdogs. But few expected how flat the team performed on the day, especially on the defensive end. Only one Indian player (Amjyot Singh) touched double digits on offence, while Iran raced to a 20-point lead within the first 10 minutes and ended up decimating India by 47 points.
India improved in the next game against Jordan, who were playing without their star import players, and stayed close from wire to wire. But India couldn’t capitalise on Jordan’s shortcomings, and without the injured guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, made silly errors at crucial moments to fall to a 61-54 loss.
Most disappointing for India was their final group game, against Syria. It was a game of two halves, as India dominated Syria in the first period and even held a 19-point lead early in the third quarter. But an epic collapse followed, and Syria turned the game around in the second half to reverse the score and knock India out with a third consecutive defeat.
So, just when it seemed that all the stars were aligning for our national basketball team, what went wrong? Weber answered some of the questions regarding India’s performances – and where the team could improve for the future.
Lack of preparation and availability
Even before the tournament had begun, Coach Phil Weber discussed his reservations about the team’s preparations. A number of Indian players had arrived to training camp out of shape and overweight. Weber gave the example of the past NBA schedules, where teams had a month of training camp and the players were given an opportunity to get in game-shape. In India, however, Weber only had six days with the team before they headed out to a preparatory tournament in Taiwan called the William Jones Cup.
There, the team played nine games in nine days without any time for Weber to actually teach in practice.The team had no consistency among the top players — Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi — as they prepared for the FIBA Asia Cup.
Amjyot missed the SABA Qualifiers for this event in May, Amritpal missed the two practice tournaments at the BRICS Games (in China) and William Jones Cup, and Bhriguvanshi suffered a serious knee injury at the BRICS Games, which meant that he couldn’t practice with the team until the last few days. Satnam joined the team late because of his time with the Dallas Mavericks at the NBA Summer League and point guard TJ Sahi was a late addition after missing in international action for over a year.
Vishesh Bhriguvanshi sits – and the backcourt suffers
Weber had ambitious plans for Bhriguvanshi, India’s most-experienced star player. Alas, the coach couldn’t see the ‘Banarasi Mamba’ at his very best. Bhriguvanshi returned to the court just days before the FIBA Asia Cup. He started in the first game against Iran but sat on the bench in the next two losses.
“Vishesh was my James Harden,” says Weber, comparing the role of the Varanasi-born guard to the NBA superstar. “He was gonna be my guy, someone who is normally a ‘two’ [shooting guard] but would play the ‘one’ [point guard] for the team. Once he gets through this injury and gets his body in shape there’s no reason why he can’t get into the G-League [the NBA’s development league]. But he was only at 50 to 60 percent. I didn’t want to play him because it wouldn’t have been fair for his long-term career.”
Bhriguvanshi played only 16 minutes against Iran and was clearly a step slower than the other players on either side, finishing with 4 points and a lone assist. He ended up having six of India’s 33 turnovers in the 101-54 blowout loss.
The backcourt options were thin beyond Bhriguvanshi. In his absence, Weber started Sahi against Jordan and Syria, a more explosive point-guard with the ability to score in quick bunches, but he was recovering from a long-term injury, too. Akilan Pari, another experienced guard, was out with a groin injury and wasn’t named in the squad at all. 17-year-old Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi got an upgraded role and showed some flashes of his potential.
“If you look at the NCAA bracket, or look at the NBA, the best players are guards,” says Weber. “It’s a guard-dominated game right now. We had no great outside shooters, and in our loss to Syria, a veteran like Vishesh would have helped us in getting organised. That’s what great players like Steve Nash, James Harden, or Chris Paul do. With Vishesh healthy, we would have also had greater depth and more minutes to spread around.”
From the very first minutes into India’s FIBA Asia Cup campaign, it became apparent that the team was going to struggle mightily on the defensive end. Iran scored 29 points in the first 10 minutes against India, and finished the game with over a 100 in the win. India got scrappier on the defensive end against Jordan and managed to hold their opponents to just 61 points, and continued the good work again for the first half against Syria. Unfortunately, the dam broke loose in the crucial second half of the game, when India gave up 52 points in 20 minutes to see Syria turn the result in their favour.
The defensive woes hurt India on both the inside and outside, as India did not have the toughness to defend against the talented bigs in other teams (like Iran’s Hamed Haddadi) nor the speed or athleticism to keep up with the zippy backcourt opponents (like Jordan’s Mousa Al-Awadi).
No easy baskets on offense
Even without a healthy Bhriguvanshi, India had two reliable scoring options in the team: Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh. A third forward — Arvind Annadurai — made the most of his opportunities with a couple of good scoring nights.
But for most of the tournament, India struggled to get easy baskets and found it difficult to get into a smooth offensive flow. The best stretch of basketball for the team came in the first half against Syria, as they excelled with great ball movement and a faster pace. The rest of the time, however, India were ice cold on offence. They had the worst field-goal percentage of any team in the tournament (34.8 percent) and finished 14th out of the 16 teams in points scored per game.
“We were 4 for 22 shooting in second half against Syria,” says Weber. “Physically, Syria started to push the tempo, so much that Arvind and Amritpal couldn’t even get back. We weren’t scoring enough to get back into a zone. Our shots were good shots - wide open. Syria went into a zone defence and gave us easy shots: we just didn’t make them. It’s a make or miss game. Basketball is an unforgiving sport. Our transition defence and weak-side defence wasn’t good and we lost confidence. I’ve been on coaching staff for over a thousand NBA games and I’ve seen these moments. Some night, it all just falls off.”
An ineffective Satnam Singh
The answer to India’s post-game woes was supposed to be their most famous player. After four years focusing on his development in the USA, during the stretch where he made history by becoming the first Indian to be drafted to the NBA and was made the subject of a Netflix documentary ‘One in a Billion’, Satnam Singh finally returned to Indian national colours.
Satnam’s conditioning, however, rendered him completely ineffective at the tournament. The 21-year-old played only 26 total minutes combined in the three games for India — just over 8 minutes per game — and barely got an opportunity to get going, making just one basket for three total points in the entire tournament. It soon became obvious that, just like it had been for Satnam for the Texas Legends in the NBA’s G-League the last two years, the big guy simply didn’t have the agility to keep up with the pace of the game.
“Satnam gained a lot of weight since he got into the camp,” says Weber, “I gave him a chance at first, but it’s a transition game and his speed is an issue. He has to be able to get up and down the court.”
What should Indian basketball fans look forward to?
Despite all the gloom and doom, there are a few silver linings to the dark cloud. India can look forward to the possibility that several of our top players will now be getting an opportunity to gain competitive experience in top leagues around the world. Bhriguvanshi has become the first Indian to sign a contract with the Australian NBL league and Amritpal got an opportunity to train with another NBL side last month, too. Satnam will continue to grind away and improve steadily in the NBA G-League. Amjyot was India’s top scorer and will undoubtedly be hearing offers for his talents soon.
For the long term, India has found a great young prospect in Tamil Nadu’s Poiyamozhi. In his first outing with the senior national team, the teenager showed some moments of poise mixed with a little recklessness; but an opportunity like this could prepare him for a long future as one of our top options in the backcourt.
“Bala [Poiyamozhi] may have improved more than anyone else on the team,” Weber says. “He has a very positive attitude, he is so young and so fast. He still has to learn how to play though and strengthen every aspect of his game.”
“Amjyot was the most consistent player for us,” Weber adds, “Muin [Bek Hafeez] played well in our last two games and is another young guard who can evolve.”
What’s next for the team?
India’s men’s team will now turn their attention to the qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup, starting later this year. For the first time, FIBA has expanded the qualifying format so that every FIBA nation around the world can take part in several rounds of home-and-away games. In the Asian Qualifiers, India were drawn in Group C, where they will see a couple of recent familiar opponents, Syria and Jordan, as well as Lebanon.
India will play their first qualifying game against Lebanon away from home on November 23, and host Syria three days later back home. India will host their next two games against Jordan and Lebanon in February, and spend the 2018 summer on the road to play Syria and Jordan. To qualify for the second round, India will have to finish within top three of their group.
Weber, who will turn his attentions towards his front office position with the Pelicans, remains open-minded about a return to India. “There will be a discussion with the BFI, and we’ll see what happens,” he says. “I’d like to be involved at some level. I think the passion and the energy towards the sport is there in India. I just think that the focus on the guard-play and physical conditioning need to be paramount, as well as the structure of how we prepare for each tournament.”
Karan Madhok is a freelance basketball journalist in India and he tweets here.