Sung Tao was the first Asian player drafted to the NBA, selected in the third round of the 1987 draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Wang Zhizhi was the first player from China to play in an NBA game, representing the Dallas Mavericks five times in 1999. Yao Ming was the first international player to be selected first overall in the NBA Draft (2002) without having played college basketball in the United States.
Ming was also the first true Asian superstar to emerge in the NBA. He was 7-foot-6-inch tall and had a shooting touch too. It made him hard to guard and even harder to stop. His eight-year career included eight NBA All-Star selections.
Over the years, we have seen players from Asia starting to find their way into the world’s toughest league and do well too. But the high standard of the league often means that they need to level up rather quickly.
Indians, though, haven’t managed to find any sort of foothold in the league. Satnam Singh, Palpreet Singh Brar and Amjyot Singh Gill have been drafted in the NBA’s developmental league earlier. While Satnam in 2016-17 and Amjyot in 2019 played for respective G-League teams, Palpreet remained unpicked after he was drafted in 2016.
They weren’t huge successes but it is important to note these were important milestones for Indian basketball players. It told all those who play the game in India that there is a way forward.
Now, another Indian, Princepal Singh, a 6-10 forward, will make his way to NBA G League next season.
Princepal Singh, who will train and compete alongside the new G League team featuring elite youth prospects, is the first NBA Academy graduate to sign with the NBA G League and first NBA Academy India graduate to sign a professional contract.
Now, Princepal Singh is different from those that went before him mainly because of the training he has received. His basics are stronger, he understands the physicality of the game better and he has had international exposure by way of training at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra. He also participated in several high-profile international basketball events, including Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Asia 2018 and BWB Global 2018 while representing India in international competitions as part of the Indian Men’s Senior National Team.
But perhaps his most important qualification is his age. At 19, Princepal Singh will have the opportunity to accelerate his on-court development alongside top high school recruits from the class of 2020 – Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, Daishen Nix, Kai Sotto and Jonathan Kuminga – who have signed to play in the NBA G League for the 2020-21 season.
Princepal Singh was a volleyball nut till the age of 14 but then a quirk of fate sent him to the basketball court and he hasn’t looked back since then.
“I didn’t know anything about the game when I started out but I was eager to learn,” said Princepal in a conversation with Scroll.in. “My coach, Jaipal sir, encouraged me a lot and used to tell me that I could go places if l worked hard.”
Princepal added: “The thing that helped me at the start was being surrounded by beginners. We were all new to basketball so I never felt inferior or uncomfortable. It was exciting to learn something new each day. And slowly I kept improving with hard work and dedication.”
Tall players in India usually have a mobility and strength problem but perhaps Princepal Singh’s volleyball experience helped him there as well. He took to basketball quickly and his talent was apparent to all those who saw him on court.
“Jaipal sir gave me a lot of individual coaching,” said Princepal. “We would work on specific skills and that helped me improve rapidly. Even Rajinder sir was very helpful. Our training schedule and diet plan was handled very well.”
But despite being in a different league in India, Princepal’s experience at the NBA Global Academy showed him that he had a lot to learn.
“It was challenging to match the physical strength of the foreign players,” he said.
“When I was just starting out in Canberra, I used to struggle to keep up with the players. But then I worked hard to gain more strength and muscle which helped me keep up with the others. Foreign players play much more aggressively than what I was used to in India. So it took some to get used to that.”
The lessons of that experience should hold him in good stead in America too. The bigger picture is obviously about honing a weapon that will make him stand out for all the scouts and coaches who see him. Being big isn’t an advantage in the NBA; it is what you do with the size and the skills you bring to the table that matter.
“At the Global Academy in Australia, I even spent extra hours doing individual training. I worked extensively on my dribbling and shooting skills. I feel my strength, speed and stamina set me apart. These qualities can take me a long way,” he said.
He added: “I want to focus on honing these skills and also improve on my movement without the ball. My goal is to make it to the NBA and I’m sure I will make it if I work for it sincerely.”