A 20-year-old draft prospect from a small village in Punjab, Singh can’t imagine how his homeland would respond if he became the first player from India to appear in an NBA game. He’s determined to find out.
“Everything that I’m doing, it’s for this one thing: to become the first to play there,” Singh said through an interpreter in a recent Zoom interview.
Last month, Singh took another step toward that milestone outside Orlando, where he’s playing in the NBA’s developmental league. In garbage time of a blowout loss, Singh, a 6-foot-9 forward, put down a two-handed dunk and buried a three-pointer as time expired, his first points as a professional on U.S. soil.
Singh’s presence in the G League’s bubble doesn’t guarantee he’ll ever move beyond it. He’s not on any of the analysts’ draft boards. But after more than a decade of the NBA developing the sport in India, Singh and some younger prospects have the league closer than ever to busting open a market of 1.3 billion people.
“He’s definitely one of our best young players, for sure. He has the things you can’t teach,” said Scott Flemming, technical director of the NBA Academy in India. “It’s hard to predict where he’ll go. Now it’s just a matter of putting in the work, developing his skills, and let’s see what happens.”
From the ground up
In a nation where cricket rules, basketball is slowly making headway. It and soccer are the second-fastest-growing sports in the country behind kabaddi, according to the Basketball Federation of India.
The NBA has been there since 2009, starting with a Basketball Without Borders camp, and has worked to see India’s untapped potential start to gush.
Troy Justice, NBA vice president and head of international basketball, went to India in 2010 and was tasked with building a foundation. As he traveled the country, people repeatedly asked the same two questions: When will an Indian player get drafted? And when will a game be played in India?
Both happened within a decade: The Dallas Mavericks drafted Satnam Singh in 2015, and the Sacramento Kings, whose owner, Vivek Ranadivé, is the NBA’s first from India, played the Indiana Pacers in two exhibition games in Mumbai in 2019.
But at a time when foreign-born superstars are ubiquitous — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic sit comfortably among the league’s upper echelon — the NBA lacks representation from the world’s two most populous nations, China and India. Gaining traction in those countries, which have almost 3 billion people and two of the world’s largest economies, is imperative as the league seeks to widen its net, financially and talent-wise.
China has had six players reach the league, including Hall of Famer Yao Ming, the 7-6 center drafted No. 1 by the Houston Rockets in 2002 who became an international sensation before retiring because of leg and foot ailments. But no Chinese players have stuck in the league since Zhou Qi appeared in one game for the Rockets in the 2018-19 season.
Only one player of Indian descent has appeared in an NBA game: Sim Bhullar, a Canadian who played three games for the Kings in 2014-15. Finding a Yao-caliber star could do wonders for the league’s hope of generating interest in India, but Justice insists the goal isn’t to find a single savior.
“What we’re trying to do is create a basketball ecosystem that works,” he said in a recent interview. “We want to champion each of them. … And we know that if we do that, they will rise to the level that they’re capable of rising to.”
That starts, league officials say, with infrastructure: constructing venues for kids to begin playing at younger ages; educating coaches to properly teach the game; and creating competitive grass-roots and professional environments for the players to improve.
Kenny Natt was hired to lead India’s national team in 2011, after 25 years as a player and coach in the NBA. When he showed up to his first tryout in Ludhiana, 50 of the nation’s best players were lined up, military style, with their arms behind their backs. Natt scanned the indoor gym, a rarity in India, which had no heat, no air conditioning and openings in the roof that proved inviting for birds to leave souvenir droppings on the hardwood.
He looked the prospects up and down and quickly recognized the promise — and the problems.
“Their bodies look okay, and then you look down at their feet and they’re wearing the worst sneakers,” Natt said. “Unless you take the trip to India, you [don’t] understand the conditions and everything they have to endure.” Natt said he was moved by the scene, which reminded of his own journey from poverty to the league. “I understand what it takes to get there,” he said.
A decade later, India being represented in the NBA is a matter of when, not if. Several prospects have come close. Satnam Singh, the nation’s first great hope, never advanced further than the developmental league. Palpreet Singh and Amjyot Singh were drafted into the G League, which remains an imaginary ceiling for players from a nation that’s still playing catch-up with the rest of the world.
“I would say that basketball is viewed in India as a very cool sport,” Justice said. “Cool people play basketball.”
A new generation
Princepal Singh is closest, but Amaan Sandhu, Singh’s former roommate in the inaugural class of the NBA Academy in the Delhi National Capital Region in 2017, is right behind.
Although he first fell for swimming, Sandhu didn’t have much choice about which sport to settle on: He comes from a basketball family. His parents and sister all played.
Upon arriving at the academy, Sandhu was given the nickname “Big Baby Punjab,” a nod to his home state and his “chubby” 6-8, 300-pound frame. Within two years, he grew three inches and lost more than 50 pounds, a transformation he credits to an intense workload, swapping butter chicken for grilled chicken and trading parathas for protein shakes and salads.
“At that time, I realized this is what I’ve got to do. This is what I want to pursue,” Sandhu said in a recent interview. “Cricket is crazy in India. I don’t like cricket.”
Now a junior in high school, he plays for a prep school outside Pittsburgh alongside another NBA Academy alum, Pranav Prince. At 18, Sandhu was the youngest player in India’s FIBA Asia Cup qualifier last month.
Back in India, Sandhu and Singh would ride around in Sandhu’s car, discussing their NBA dreams and Anthony Davis fandom. The two still have weekly video chats. Sandhu said he’s rooting for his “homeboy” to be in the NBA by the time Sandhu becomes eligible for the draft in 2023.
“I don’t think it’s a competition,” Sandhu said. “It’s just chasing your goals. I always want to make my nation proud. I don’t care about if I’m the first one or the second.”
Singh’s path started in a different sport, too. He arrived on those pigeon-poop-covered courts in Ludhiana in 2015 for a volleyball tryout. But a basketball scout, enamored with Singh’s height, thought he should try a sport he had never seen, played with a ball he had never held in his hands. Seeing other players dribble between their legs and do other tricks provided confusion — and motivation.
“I’m going to soon do that,” Singh said he told himself.
Within six months, Singh was offered a scholarship at SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio, but visa problems kept him in India. After separating himself at the NBA Academy, Singh was sent to the league’s Global Academy in Canberra, Australia, where the best international prospects are housed and trained.
Singh has no regrets about the sacrifices he has made — family and friends left behind, fun swapped for ambition — to chase what no one from India has ever done. His time in the G League bubble at Disney World has been the most challenging, with players confined to their hotel rooms, the arena and makeshift training areas. He has spent a lot of time at the pingpong table or on video chats. His teammates taught him to play Uno.
“Maybe I couldn’t spend as much time with my friends and family, but I wanted to spend more time with basketball,” Singh said, “going places and doing exactly what I want to do.”
His current team, the Ignite, includes projected lottery picks Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga as well as complementary veterans with NBA experience. It has been inspiring and humbling, exposing Singh to the significant gap, in talent and physicality, he needs to close.
“That’s how guys are going to get better, when they come over here and compete on a regular basis against guys that are better than they are,” Natt said. “Not you being the best over there.”
With his primary assignment being to groom the more advanced players for the NBA, Ignite Coach Brian Shaw could only find time for Singh in four of 15 regular season games.
“He’s in a different space than the rest of the guys on the team,” Shaw said. “He’s improved the most out of all the guys on our team, but he also had the furthest to go.”
Singh has found his basketball journey from the small town of Dera Baba Nanak too enchanting to be overwhelmed by pressure. The burden to be first only exists, if at all, because of what he has already made of himself.
“I’m still not where I’m supposed to be,” he said. But, he added, “I’m more than happy to be where I am.”