In the weeks leading up to the 2015 draft, Satnam Singh carried a huge load on his shoulders. Not a big deal of a 7’2”, nearly 300 lbs (~130 kg) giant of a man. This load was one filled with the hopes of millions of Indian basketball fans.
That hope stands steadfast today. It’s foundation, however, has become shaky.
The story is now folklore. A 7’0, 16-year-old Satnam Singh, first discovered at a local basketball tournament, was admitted into the Ludhiana Basketball Academy by the legendary late Dr Sankaran Subramaniam. From there Singh made it to the final list of ten players selected to train on 100% scholarships at the IMG Academies in Florida.
In 2015, Singh created history by becoming the first Indian to be drafted by an NBA team. The Dallas Mavericks picked Singh with the 52nd pick. This pick, everyone said, was the breakthrough Indian basketball was seeking. Singh, they believed, would usher in the basketball revolution that Yao Ming did in China. And who could blame them; the Singh-Ming comparison was too hard to pass up – both 7-footers coming from countries with a billion-plus people.
Burden of hope and responsibility
It has, however, not been pretty since that historic day. While Singh continues to improve, his struggles on the court are undeniable. He averaged just 1.7 points and 1.5 rebounds while playing just 7.9 minutes per game in the 2015-16 season. All those numbers took a fall last season.
The media hype behind getting drafted to the NBA is partly to blame for this burden of hope. The NBA, arguably, is the highest platform for basketball in the world. But getting on an NBA team, let alone staying on one, is exceptionally difficult; far beyond a lay person’s imagination. Only ten out of the 30 players selected in the second round of Singh’s draft are still in the NBA. At the time of writing this, two of them were out of a job/contract.
Singh was also, unwillingly, burdened with the responsibility of opening up the Indian market for the NBA and possibly the Mavericks. Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban could weave a story about how Singh’s talents impressed him enough to give him a contract. The truth, however, could not be further than that. The Mavericks – trying to imitate the Sacramento Kings – and by that extension, the NBA sought to enter the burgeoning, promising, and seemingly lucrative Indian market.
Fans in India had the chance to see Satnam up close at the recently conducted 3x3 Road To Mexico tournament in Gurugram. Stepping on the court to a thunderous applause every time his name was called, Singh, however, disappointed. Some of his struggles could be attributed to his inability to adjust to a smaller ball (3x3 uses Size 6 instead of Size 7), and his lack of experience in the shorter, faster format. That, however, does not excuse his poor performance against shorter, smaller opponents.
The 3x3 game is tailor-made for two kinds of players to succeed; big men and dead eye 3-point shooters. Singh, being the former, failed to make an impact, unceremoniously exiting in the quarterfinals despite having last year’s finalist and his running mate from Ludhiana Basketball Academy, Amjyot Singh on his team.
To his credit, Singh has gotten stronger, faster, and more coordinated in the seven years he has been training in the US. But his struggles are apparent to the naked eye. He is a below average shooter, is still slow and laggard, and has difficulty keeping up with the other players when moving from defence to offence and vice versa.
Some of that struggle could be attributed to the evolution of basketball. The game has moved outwards, with a spike in 3-point shooting, and with traditional centres and forwards stepping out to knock down shots. In the light of this evolution, Singh – a big man who likes to play close to the basket - has to evolve; either get quicker or develop a 3-pt shot.
The European leagues, as promising as they look, are out of the question as well. All international teams within the FIBA framework as bound by an upper limit of non-domestic international players they can have on the roster. The European teams, most of whom have deep pockets, would rather use those roster spots to attract other non-domestic European players, or better yet, American players. Singh just doesn’t fit the bill.
Opportunities are aplenty outside the US and Europe, however. Sim Bhullar, an Indo-Canadian who was picked by the Sacramento Kings a year before Singh and played in the NBDL for two seasons, has found a home with team Dacin Tigers in the Taiwanese Basketball League. Bhullar showed more promise than Singh, averaging ten points and eight rebounds per game in the NBDL. He is more comfortable, however, in Taiwan where his size (7’5” / 350 lbs) allows him to tower over opponents and average 12 points and ten rebounds a game.
Team India captain Amritpal Singh, 7’2”, secured a contract with the Sydney Kings and became the first Indian player in the NBL, Australia’s professional league. This contract followed Amritpal’s championship stint with the Tokyo Excellence in the Japanese League last year.
All these signs point towards the inevitable: that Singh’s future lies outside the US and Europe. Teams in Asia and the Middle East, where size is hard to come by, would improve their chances with size like Singh has to offer. Singh will also gain some much-needed confidence against physically smaller opponents in these leagues. That confidence will, hopefully, rejuvenate Singh resulting in a respectable international career, as opposed to ending up at the end of the bench on an NBDL team.
At 21, Singh still has age on his side. He has seven years of the best basketball training under his belt. There is very little doubt that if and when he finds a situation perfectly suited for his game, he will thrive. Until then, however, he continues to carry the hopes of a billion.