September 29, 2016

India's Palpreet Singh signs D-League contract and will be eligible to be drafted next month


India's basketball expectations are about to get updated once again. Palpreet Singh (21), the winner of the ACG-NBA Jump - India's first national basketball talent search programme - has now signed a contract with the NBA's D-League. This contract makes him eligible to be drafted in the NBDL on their draft night on October 30, 2016. Palpreet hopes to become the second Indian national to play in the D-League, following in the footsteps of Satnam Singh of the Texas Legends, the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA.

Palpreet Singh is a 6-foot-9 power forward originally from Sri Muktsar Sahib in south western Punjab. His big international breakthrough came with India’s junior squad at the 2012 FIBA U18 Asia Championship in Mongolia. Over the next three years, he played for India’s senior team and secured a backup spot behind our current superstar Punjabi frontcourt of Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh. He was part of the Indian squad that defeated China at the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup.

Palpreet's potential was spotted by NBA coaches at the ACG-NBA Jump Finals in Greater Noida earlier this year, coaches that included former NBA champion Brian Shaw. With his victory, he won an opportunity to take part in the D-League's National tryouts. Palpreet spent the first half of 2016 working with coaches in India to get his skillset ready for the NBA D-League. In early July, he headed to the USA to continue his training. He began training at the John Lucas Academy in Houston (Texas) and later, took part in the tryouts in New York City in mid-August. He remains on the grind now, still in New York City, where he is practicing with the New York Athletic Club.

The new contract doesn't mean that Palpreet is guaranteed to play in the D-League for the upcoming season; it only guarantees that he'll be among the eighty or so names who will be eligible on draft night.

"This opportunity only comes to a few people, I don’t want to lose it," Palpreet told NBA India over a phone interview recently. "This is a special chance and challenge for me, I want to make the most of it."

"The competition is tough but it is great to know you are competing with the best to play in the best league in the world," he said.

In an interview with the Indian Express' Shahid Judge, NBA India's Senior Director Carlos Barroca, who has followed Palpreet's improvements over the last few years, seemed optimistic of his chances to be drafted.

Off the over 300 hopefuls, the 21-year-old was one of the 80 who were eventually shortlisted to proceed to the draft phase of the selection. Yet within the final list, senior director of NBA India Carlos Barroca asserts the 6-foot-9 athlete has a strong chance of getting selected. “I’d say he’s somewhere in the middle of that 80. Everyone loved him during the trials,” he says.

Years ago, Palpreet Singh and Satnam Singh shared a common room at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA), Punjab's premier hoops institution where they both trained to become the Indian basketball stars that they are today. Hopefully, the two Punjabis will see their paths cross again across the pond and double the butter chicken order in the D-League for the next season.

September 27, 2016

India internationals Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Rikin Pethani are playing professional basketball in Maldives


Two prominent members of India's national basketball team, including one superstar former captain of 'Young Cagers', are currently in the tiny island nation of Maldives taking part in the country's Division 1 basketball league, the Maldives Basketball Association (MBA). Varanasi's Vishesh Bhriguvanshi (25) and Tamil Nadu's Rikin Pethani (25) have both been signed by the MBA's reigning champions team T-Rex. The league is being held from September 20 to October 3, 2016

Bhriguvanshi and Pethani will be the second pair of Indian men's national teammates to play professionally abroad. The duo of Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh took their talents last year to play in Japan's D-League and BJ Summer League.

The 6-foot-3 Bhriguvanshi has been a staple of the Indian national squad from the youth and junior levels for nearly a decade. He has formerly served as the captain of the national team and has become one of Asia's finest shooting guards. He is a member of India's famed basketball 'Big Three' and played an important role for India at the recently concluded FIBA Asia Challenge in Tehran, helping the team to a historic seventh place finish.

Pethani (6-foot-10) has developed into an important player for Tamil Nadu and a reliable backup big for the national team over the last few years. He was also part of Team India at the FIBA Asia Challenge.

This is great news for Bhriguvanshi and Pethani. However, their decision to go to Maldives is yet another confirmation of the stunted growth of basketball in India. Maldives is about 11 thousand times smaller than India (you read that right). It's a pity that two important Indian players cannot play professional basketball in their own country - a self-proclaimed rising basketball superstar - and have to head abroad to a nation that doesn't even feature in the FIBA rankings. There is still no full-time professional basketball league in India that is supported by the government or the Basketball Federation of India (BFI); an independent, short league run by the Universal Basketball Alliance (UBA) is at odds with the BFI, which means that players like Bhriguvanshi and Pethani can't play for them if they want to continue playing for the national team.

India needs to either a) start their own national basketball league or b) allow players to play both in the UBA and for India, or maybe even c) all of the above. I don't blame the players at all for their decision. They must do what they have to as professionals, and if they can't play in their homeland, they have the right to take up basketball opportunities wherever they may arise. Congratulations to both: hopefully this stint can provide them with more much-needed basketball exposure.

September 22, 2016

NBA planning to open youth basketball academies globally - including in India!

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The global NBA basketball network is about to get a lot larger.

Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical broke the story yesterday about NBA's ambitious global programme, where they will be targeting the development of 14 to 18 years old basketball prospects in a huge grassroots project in Africa (specific countries not mentioned yet), China, Australia and, yes, India! According to The Vertical, the NBA will make a formal announcement about this programme soon.

If successful, a programme like this should help the NBA pinpoint the best young players in India from the age of 14, and then spend their resources and expertise on each of those players for the next four years to help develop their game. The end-point ambition for every young athlete will be, of course, to play in the NBA. But the programme will seek to have an educational and charitable angle, too: the NBA will save resources for the athletes higher education and other career options, beyond just the league itself.

More via The Vertical:

Photo via: Ekalavyas
The NBA’s mission is ambitious: Find the best young athletes on the planet – deliver them high-end training with a focus on fundamentals and education – and ultimately strengthen the league’s pool of potential players.

The NBA is still finalizing locations and contracts, and a formal announcement is expected in the near future.
The academy program will seek to serve players in the 14-to-18-year-old range, partnering with and upgrading existing facilities and educational institutions. Prospects will be scouted and identified throughout the regions and offered the chance to join a regional academy.
The program plans to work closely with players’ families and mentors to help them understand the academic component of the program and how that’ll assist them in achieving higher educational goals – regardless of how their basketball careers play out.
The NBA will provide coaching, strength and conditioning specialists, scouting, video and technical specialists, and will partner with local infrastructures to create what the NBA calls a “360 degree” development experience for the prospective players.
Elite prospects from other regions and countries with underdeveloped basketball infrastructures could be invited to Australia, where the NBA’s initiative will be headquartered. Australia will be considered a “catch-all” for high-level international talent, including players from beyond the initial scope of Africa, China and India.
The NBA wants to create a destination for young players that’ll give them an option beyond playing professionally at a young age overseas.

The NBA also is working to educate and train scouts and coaches in these regions to create ecosystems that’ll allow them to better administer the programs and develop the players in the long run.
The NBA will offer educational components that will include college scholarship funds for players to pursue higher-level education. For players who don’t earn scholarships or professional contracts – and even for those who do – a fund will be provided to draw upon for higher education.

For players interested in taking the professional route, agents will be allowed to meet with players in designated windows. The league believes that another natural extension of the global academies could come with the NBA Development League, which the NBA is planning to bolster. The D-League eventually could be a draw for elite players before they are draft-eligible.

This programme will allow the NBA to go out and nurture the talent themselves, instead of waiting for the end product to arrive to them on draft day. What this means is that, instead of waiting for state level federations or the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to identify and develop our players in their own, flawed way, the NBA will be able to give the best young Indian players a higher level of of coaching, administration, development, and educational options.

Every country has its own specialised conditions. In India, often the biggest loss is when young prospects with potential aren't discovered by top quality scouts/trainers until it is already too late for them. Lost opportunities have limited the potential of many star Indian players. Players who have NBA or at least NCAA potential at 14 have to eventually settle for competing only in Indian basketball. Stars like Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh are prime examples: both players, 24, are now two of Asia's top big men and have played professional basketball in Japan. But if their talents were scouted and improved upon in the right manner at the right age, both should have played college basketball and at least the NBA D-League in the US by now. Often, domestic conditions hamper the growth and opportunities for Indian players, the worst case of which has of course been the rift for the BFI's executive committee and the BFI's rift with the UBA League.

Instead of young Indian players getting stuck in the cobwebs of age-fraud, regional favouritism, infighting between federations and leagues, or unhelpful training and coaching practices, they will be honed with a directed focus to develop under the umbrella of the world's finest basketball association.

The league already has a hundred or so international players, many of them present and future superstars. For the NBA, their vested interest in developing more international talent will help basketball as a whole become a larger sport worldwide and help spread the NBA brand globally. If India, China, Ghana, Kenya, or Australia have more players in the NBA or in NBA contention, then those country's are more likely to become larger consumers of the NBA brand, too. Yao Ming's influence transformed China, and thus transformed the way basketball business is conducted worldwide. A similar effect could help grow the game and its influence in other countries, too.

By focusing on education and supporting the athletes beyond their NBA dreams, the league is also signalling that this programme will not just be about the money. There are only between 400 to 500 players every year that get to play in the NBA. Not everyone's hoop dreams are going to come true. With an educational or another foundation, the programme should be able to help these young players find success in other fields of life through basketball.


As Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress mentioned in this interview with Wojnarowski
, long-term, this programme should level the playing field - somewhat - between North American and foreign talents competing for spots in the NBA, the D-League, and NCAA programmes.

Hopefully, India can be one of those countries producing basketball talent to join that competition, too. Not every great young Indian player is going to make the NBA; but this programme should help young Indian players to make a career out of their basketball talents, and thus, encourage more youngsters to consider basketball. India already has a player - Satnam Singh - who was drafted by the NBA last year and is currently playing minor minutes in the D-League. Satnam's story was incredible, but his development mostly took place in Bradenton, Florida's IMG Academy after he was taken out of Punjab. Satnam had to arrive ready-made (sort-of) for the NBA; hopefully, this programme will help the NBA catch others like him and hone many more Satnams in India itself!


September 20, 2016

2016 FIBA Asia Challenge: Iran win for 3rd straight time; India have best performance in 27 years!


The headlines from the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge - deservedly - will be about Iran. Led by Hamed Hadadi's continuing brilliance, Iran won the tournament (previously known as the FIBA Asia Cup and the FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup) for the third straight time, this time defending the crown as the tournament's hosts. Iran were nearly flawless throughout the 10-day tournament and put the cherry on top of their dominance with an impressive 77-47 victory over Korea in the final on Sunday, September 18, at the Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran.

But there was much more to this tournament than the headlines. Cushioned between the mid-tier teams at 7th place, the Indian Men's Team return from Tehran after one of their finest international basketball basketball performance in decades. Entering the 12-team tournament as one of the underdogs, India upset several higher-ranked teams and announced - once and for all - that they will be a threat in the Asian basketball circuit for the foreseeable future.

The tournament ended on Sunday with Iran - hosts and reigning champs from 2014 in Wuhan - defeating Korea with a monstrous, 20-point, 23-rebound performance by Hadadi. After a tense, low-scoring first quarter, Iran opened up a ten point lead at halftime, and then completely dominated after the break, outscoring Korea 47-27 in the third and fourth quarters. Hadadi's performance took his overall tournament averages to 18 points and 13.8 rebounds per game.

Earlier in the final day, Jordan started off strong against Iraq to run away to a 94-72 victory and win the bronze medal. Jordan's Darquavis Tucker led all scorers with 19.

A day earlier, Jordan had fallen victim to Iran in the semi-final 74-63, giving them one of their only close matchups of the entire tournament. The game was led by the usual suspects: Hadadi had 26 points and 20 points for Iran while Tucker scored 25 for Jordan. Korea defeated Iraq 78-72 in the second semi-final which came down to the wire. Iraq held a surprising two-point lead at the end of the third and only a final period surge helped see Korea through to the final. Seonghoon Lee (22) and Ilyoung Heo (18) were the leading scorers for Korea, while Iraq were paced by Mohammed Al-Khafaji (17) and Kevin Galloway (16).

The FIBA Asia Challenge is the second-most prestigious tournament in the continent, and because of its secondary status, many of the top teams like China and Philippines chose to send younger or less experienced teams to Tehran. Due to this, there were several major upsets in the tournament, and both China and Philippines - ranked 1 and 3 in the Asia - didn't make it to the Semi-Final stage.

While the others rested, India rose. Although they were denied the services of NBA D-League chasing Satnam Singh and Palpreet Singh, players from the UBA League, and the injured duo of Arvind Arumugam and Aravind Annadurai, India sent the best of the available options. The lineup including the country's superb 'Big Three' of captain and center Amrit Pal Singh, superstar forward Amjyot Singh, and veteran guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. Flanking around the top three were the point guard duo of Akilan Pari and TJ Sahi, experienced forward Yadwinder Singh, and important role-players Prasanna Sivakumar and Rikin Pethani. Coached by Sat Prakash Yadav and CV Sunny, India were ready for the challenge, and their inspirational performances eventually earned them laurels and respect like never before.

In the Preliminary Round stage, India were grouped with Philippines and Chinese Taipei. The opener against the Philippines turned out to be just the confidence boost that India needed. The Philippines had sent an inexperienced squad to Tehran, and India took full advantage. After trailing by five in the first quarter, India dominated proceedings, outscoring their opponents in the second and third by double digits, and eventually, holding off a late game rally to win 91-83. It was a historic moment for India, as they hadn't defeated the Philippines at the senior stage for decades. The Big Three didn't disappoint: Amjyot Singh was marvelous with 24 points and 18 rebounds, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi scored 20, and Amrit Pal Singh added 16 points to go with 8 boards.

But India got a major reality check the next day against Chinese Taipei. After staying with arm's length at the end of third quarter, India lost their composure in the third and a 26-15 run for the opponents settled the game for good. Taipei went out to win by a blowout, 90-66, led by 18 points and 14 rebounds by Quincy Davis and 23 by Yi-Hsiang Chou. While most of the team struggled, Bhriguvanshi carried India's load in the losing effort with a valiant 34 points.

India then entered Second Round Group E carrying a 1-1 record when they faced eventual semi-finalists Jordan. This turned out to be one of the worst-ever performances by India. The lackluster team came out slowly from the gates and fell into a 37-17 pit by the end of the first quarter. Jordan's offense was irresistible all game, and the likes of Sinan Eid (19), Darquavis Tucker (17), Sami Bzai (17) and Zaid Abbas (17) were too much for India to handle. Jordan went on to win the game 121-65.

However, even after the hard fall, India bounced right back up, in the most spectacular of fashions. Two years after upsetting China in the legendary 'Wonder of Wuhan' when the tournament used to be called the FIBA Asia Cup, India faced them again. China was without most of their Olympics team, but still packed a punch and were undefeated thus far in Tehran. But India were not deterred. The duo of Amrit Pal Singh (23 points, 14 rebounds) and Amjyot Singh (16 points, 8 rebounds) dominated the interior in the close, back-and-forth game. India made up for a first quarter deficit to take a two point lead into halftime. They maintained their composure through the second half, and held on in the close finale to upset China - Asia's top-ranked team - once more, 70-64. Jinqiu Hu scored 19 for the losing side.

India were now guaranteed a Quarter-Final spot, and carried on their new confidence to their final Second Round game against Kazakhstan. It was a competition between two big teams, but the smallest guy on court became the most valuable of the night. India's point guard TJ Sahi hit six threes in a 14-minute stretch in the first half to give India a 51-43 lead. India allowed Kazakhstan to catch up and tie the game in another weak third quarter, but they finished in style to win 100-90, their highest-scoring game at the tournament. Sahi finished the game with 32 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Amrit Pal added 28 points and 7 rebounds. Kazakhstan were led by Mikhail Yevstigneyev (30) and Pavel Micheev (22).

Despite their strong performances, India finished fourth in Group E, an effect of the huge loss to Jordan. This handed them the toughest Quarter-Final matchup, against the loaded Iran squad. India stayed competitive for the first half while Iran led just 38-31. But the home team revved into top gear in the second half, relying on a huge 26-2 third quarter run to blow India out and secure a 77-47 win. Hadadi was the difference maker on the inside with 17 points and 23 rebounds. Oshin Sahakian added 16 for Iran.

Out of the tournament, India still had some work to do as they were placed in the 5th-8th place around. Their first game was against Japan, but a slow start proved costly for India. Japan took a 22-14 first quarter lead, and despite staying neck-to-neck with the opponents for the rest of the game, India couldn't close the game and lost 77-66. Ira Brown had 20 points and 14 rebounds for Japan, battling in the middle against Amrit Pal who notched up 22 and 14. Japan's Makojo Hiejima added 19 while India's Amjyot scored 18.

India's last game in Tehran was a rematch against their Preliminary Round opponents Chinese Taipei, and this time, India was out for revenge! Taipei led 22-17 in the first quarter, but India bounced right back to take a 33-32 lead into halftime. The game remained close until the final period, when India once again showed their ability to remain calm under pressure, as they outscored Taipei 28-18 in the fourth quarter to notch yet another huge upset victory, 80-68. Vishesh Bhriguvanshi was the star for India with 22 while Rikin Pethani stepped up in the absence of the ailing Amjyot to score 17 with 9 rebounds. Taipei, who lost captain Liu Ching earlier in the tournament to injury, were led by Yu-An Chiang (16) in the loss.

This finish saw India end the tournament at 7th place, a repeat of the previous iteration of this tournament, but with an impressive 4-4 record that included victories over China, Philippines, Chinese Taipei, and Kazakhstan. The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) declared this the best-ever finish for India since the 6th place finish at the 1989 FIBA Asia Championship. This is also the only time when India has beaten 3 higher ranked sides (China, Philippines and Taipei) in the same event. The performance marked India's rapid pace to improvement, as the team finished 8th in last year's FIBA Asia Championship, their best finish in 12 years.

From an individual performance standpoint, India’s ‘Big Three’ of centre Amrit Pal Singh, power forward Amjyot Singh and shooting guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi have reaffirmed their status as one of Asia’s best players in their respective positions. Amrit Pal led India in scoring (17.8 ppg) and rebounds (10.4 rpg - 4th best overall in the tournament). Bhriguvanshi added 16.9 ppg and 3.8 assists per game (fifth-best overall). Amjyot notched in with averages of 12.8 ppg and 8.2 rpg. The three stars were top three for India in all three major statistical categories: scoring, rebounds, and assists. Guard TJ Sahi scored 11 ppg, too, with most of this scoring coming in the outburst against Kazakhstan.

Recognising the significance of this performance, the BFI's President K Govindaraj announced a cash prize of INR 5,00,000/- to the entire team and coaching staff.

"Reaching the top 7 in Asia is an excellent achievement, especially considering the circumstances and opponents," said Govindraj. "We beat three teams who have better world rankings. This cash prize is a small token of appreciation for our players’ indomitable spirit. They have kept India’s flag flying high. This is a culmination of all that sacrifice by everybody involved."

"It is important to remember that even though our national federation has approval from the international body i.e. FIBA, we have not received any government funding for almost two years now," Govindraj added, "In spite of this we have been able to send our national teams for participation in ten international events and conducted all the National Championships."

BFI Secretary Chander Mukhi Sharma said, "Prior to the team’s departure, I had wished that the players put up a performance that is even better than in all the previous championships they have attended. They have superbly delivered."

Govindraj's comments are true. Because of rift between the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports with the BFI, the basketball federation has operated independently of support and funding from the government for one and a half years now. It is truly a testament to India's star players - who we may well remember as a golden generation - that they have continued to perform so well and improve against Asia's toughest teams.

Reflecting on the side’s performance, Head Coach Yadav said, “The Indian team has earned lots of appreciation from FIBA President (Horacio Moratore) and other officials as well as from other good teams in Asia. This time around we have focused especially on defence and were able to successfully execute our tactics as practiced in the training camps. Our boys and India overall are now confident about taking on any challenge in the near future. This achievement does not belong to a single person but was a good team effort by all."

“It feels good and I’m happy with the performance," added Bhriguvanshi. "We can still do a lot better in the upcoming tournaments and I hope we will continue with this energy and morale."

Despite the domestic uncertainties, these are truly glory days for Indian Basketball. The current team is definitely the best collection of Indian Men's basketball talent that I have witnessed in my adult lifetime, and clearly the best Indian squad since the "golden generation" - led by Ajmer Singh - of the 70s and 80s. However, if the likes of Amrit Pal, Amjyot, Vishesh, continue to improve, this team could have a lot more success scripted in the future. Hopefully, players like India's first NBA-draftee Satnam Singh (who will be playing for the D-League's Texas Legends) this season can contribute to the national team in the future. If India can add a few more solid pieces to the rotation - particularly the backcourt - they can have legitimate dreams of repeating this performance at next year's prestigious 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, which will be the highest-level of basketball competition in Asia.

Final Standings
  • 1. Iran
  • 2. Korea
  • 3. Jordan
  • 4. Iraq
  • 5. China

September 15, 2016

Hoopdarshan Episode 36: State of the UBA Basketball League with Paul Crane


On Episode 36 of Hoopdarshan, the VP of broadcasting of the UBA Basketball League in India joins Hoopdarshan to discuss the growth of the league, the exciting young talents propelling the movement forward, and the "confusing" situation of BFI banning UBA's players from national competitions. Hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok also discuss India's performances at the ongoing FIBA Asia Challenges, the Shaq-Yao-Iverson trifecta in the Hall of Fame, and a very special ox #OxWithHops.

Paul Crane, based in Atlanta, USA, is the Vice president of Broadcasting of UBA. He has worked extensively as a broadcaster in the states, with CST Saints, KTBS, CNN Sports, FSN, Comcast in the United States. He has been covering Indian university basketball and the UBA League in India since 2014.



Hoopdarshan is the truest voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

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September 14, 2016

Ready for the Challenge


This feature was first published in my column for Ekalavyas on September 4, 2016. You can find the original version here.

Team India aims to take a major leap – again – at the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge



When CV Sunny, former point guard of the Indian national basketball team in the 80s and 90s, got a chance to re-join the squad as coaching staff, his latest tenure began as easily as it possibly could. Sunny’s first order of business was to help India win the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Qualifiers in Bengaluru against Maldives, Nepal, and Bangladesh, a task the team accomplished while barely breaking a sweat: India won all three games by an average margin of 48 points each and qualified for the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge.

But less than a few weeks after the South Asian triumph, Sunny got a reminder of heartbreak on hardwood floors. He was moved from Assistant Coach to Head Coach for India in time for the team’s first game of the William Jones Cup – an invitational basketball tournament held in Chinese Taipei – against the American college squad from the California State University. Even without the presence of their captain Amrit Pal Singh and Basil Philip (who missed the first three games of the William Jones Cup due to a visa error), India battled neck-to-neck against the Americans. They seemed headed for a surprise opening win, when, Justin Strings – the star of the night for the opponents – hit a cold-blooded, well-defended three-pointer to push the score to 62-60 with 21 seconds left in the game. India failed to score in their final possession and Sunny experienced his first international loss as coach.

The eight-game tournament churned out a series of more disappointments, particularly India’s overtime loss to hosts Taipei Blue, once again, from a winnable position. India were the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, but by the time Amrit Pal and Philip returned to the squad, they had enough momentum to defeat the hosts’ ‘B-Team’, Taipei White 77-63. Against higher ranked physical teams such as Egypt, Iran and eventual winners Mighty Sports of the Philippines, India were neck-to-neck through most of the contest, but lack of concentration in small stretches cost them a victory. They showed potential throughout the tournament but finished 1-7.

A few weeks later, when I asked the coach about the final results, his disposition remained as sunny as his name. In the past, leading up to major Asian tournaments, India rarely got a chance to play in preparatory games to give their players exposure against top-level basketball players and develop team chemistry. This time around, the William Jones Cup seemed to arrive in the opportune time, a little over a month before the FIBA Asia Challenge, to give Sunny an encouraging sign of things to come.

“It’s very important to get exposure and the William Jones Cup was a fantastic opportunity for all of our players,” Sunny told me on Episode 35 of the Hoopdarshan podcast. “These were eight good matches against all better teams. This is going to help India in the FIBA Asia Basketball Challenge, one hundred percent.”

*

FIBA Asia, the continent’s governing body of basketball, have courted confusion when they introduced their ‘New Competition System’ earlier this year. The FIBA Asia Championship, the biggest Asian basketball tournament, is now renamed the ‘FIBA Asia Cup’ and scheduled to be held every four years starting in 2017. This newly-remixed Cup will also include teams from Oceania, like Australia and New Zealand.

But FIBA Asia already holds a biennial secondary Asian tournament called the FIBA Asia Cup (formerly the Stankovic Cup), and in lieu of recent changes, this tournament has since been renamed the ‘FIBA Asia Challenge’. From September 9-16, the sixth iteration of this tournament, for the first time under its new moniker, will be held in Tehran, Iran, the home of the two-time reigning champions.

Whatever the name may be, India will always have fond memories of this competition. Two years ago, when this tournament was last held in Wuhan (China), India achieved a miracle. Led by American head coach Scott Flemming and the ‘big three’ of Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, they defeated Asia’s top-ranked basketball team and hosts China 65-58 in the Preliminary Round, while giving major headaches top three sides Iran and Philippines later in the tournament. The ‘Wonder of Wuhan’ was India’s biggest-ever basketball victory. Flemming left the national squad a year later, but the spark was ignited for India to dream of greater successes in the future.

In the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship (which will be the FIBA Asia Cup from 2017) back in China, Indian basketball’s spark continued to burn. India relied on the all-round brilliance of Amjyot Singh to notch several key victories and make the Quarter-Final stage. They finished at 8th place, their best seeding in the continent in a dozen years.

Amjyot and Amrit Pal’s recent performances earned them professional contracts in Japan, first in the BJ Summer League and then in Japan’s D-League. The two Punjabi big men dominated both competitions.

Back home in India, basketball has been embroiled with controversy and speedbumps. Many players have suffered over the past year, first in a tug-of-war between the Basketball Federation of India’s (BFI) two opposing executive committees and later, further drama between the BFI and the UBA Basketball League. In the middle of this toxic atmosphere, the improved performances of the Men’s national team have provided much-needed respite.

*

Now with the FIBA Asia Challenge looming, the team seems ready to continue their improved run of play and take another major leap forward. While most teams consider this a ‘secondary’ tournament and some hold back their top talents, India will be sending their best-available line-up – a healthy mix of youth and experience – to Tehran. Head Coach Sat Prakash Yadav along with CV Sunny will marshal the troops from the bench.

There are a number of big names who were not able to make the cut, due to a variety of reasons. At the top of the list is India’s first NBA draftee Satnam Singh, who was named in the list of probables in mid-August but won’t be making the final cut due to his commitments in the NBA’s D-League in Texas. Also following his footsteps in the USA is Palpreet Singh, the winner of the ACG-NBA Jump programme this year, who is currently preparing for the D-League tryouts.

Coach Sunny reported that two of his important players – Arvind Arumugam and Aravind Annadurai – didn’t make the training camp due to injury. And BFI’s ban on UBA league participants meant that a couple of important members of the squad that defeated China in the FIBA Asia Cup two years ago – Narender Grewal and Joginder Singh – weren’t allowed to play for the national team, either.

Although India will definitely miss the star power of Satnam and the depth in reserve provided by the other key individuals named above, their absence has opened the door for several young prodigious talents. Recent senior team debutants Arshpreet Bhullar and Ravi Bhardwaj will continue their dream run with the senior squad. Following his stellar performances at the FIBA U18 Asia Championship – also in Tehran – young shooting guard Hariram Ragupathy will return to Iran now with the senior squad and hope to show his potential at the bigger stage.

The dilemma for Sunny and the coaching staff will be the starting point guard position, which is up for grabs between Akilan Pari and Talwinderjit Singh ‘TJ’ Sahi. Pari is better at combining with his teammates and, in Sunny’s words, is a better “organiser” of the game. But TJ is the better shooter and faster at getting from coast to coast. It’s the eternal battle between the ‘pass-first’ and the ‘score-first’ point guards. “The decision will depend game by game and opponent by opponent,” said Sunny.

As it has been in recent years, however, India’s performances will eventually depend on the performances of our Big Three – Amjyot Singh, captain Amrit Pal Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi – who will have to shoulder the heaviest burden for the ‘Young Cagers’. Vishesh, a versatile off-guard, has been enjoying a return to form and remains an elite talent across the continent. Amjyot and Amrit Pal, both in their early 20s, are two of the best big men in Asia. Amrit Pal has developed into a star post-defender, while Amjyot has added variety to his offensive game to dominate from the perimeter as well as the post.

“These three are going to be the best,” Sunny predicted. “They are the key players of our team right now.”

The rest of the roster includes experienced and energetic forward Yadwinder Singh, and backups Basil Philip, Prasanna Sivakumar, and Rikin Pethani.

In the Preliminary Round of the tournament, India have been grouped with Chinese Taipei and Philippines. Both teams are ranked higher than us, but Sunny has reason to feel confident after India’s performances against the two Taipei teams and Mighty Sports at the William Jones Cup. India defeated Taipei’s “B” team and lost to the “A” team in overtime. Chinese Taipei will be without many of their experienced stars at the FIBA Asia Challenge, although India will have to watch out for the explosive talents of Quincy Davis. Meanwhile, the Philippines will be sending a team without naturalised players and won’t have too many stars from their domestic league in this national team.

The format at this tournament is a strange one. All twelve participating teams from the four preliminary round groups will qualify for the second round, regardless of their results, but carrying on their previous win/loss records. They will be placed into two new groups of six teams each in the Second Round, and the top four teams from each of these groups (a total of eight) will then qualify for the Quarter-Final/Knockout stage.

India is likely to cross paths later in the tournament with several more of the favourites, including two-time winners Iran, who will feature Asian basketball legend Hamed Haddadi, and China, who are once again sending a weaker team but will still be a handful to deal with. India will hope to finish with a better record than teams like Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Qatar, and if they can finish in the top four of the Second Round, they will be looking at another top eight finish and the Quarter-Final stage.

“With this team, anything is possible,” said Sunny. “We have a very good side. If they play their proper game, we can fight against any team. I’m not assuring you that we can beat China again or not. But we can definitely play really well. Last time [the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship] we finished 8th. Surely we can make it to the Quarter Finals this time, and if we do well, we have a chance to make it to the semi-finals, too!”


If will take a miracle of epic proportions – another Wonder of Wuhan, perhaps – for India to take such a dramatic jump in the Asian standings. But, in contradiction to all the noise and drama back home, Team India is heading to Tehran with a sense of quiet confidence. They are experienced, talented, and ready. Now, it’s time to silence their doubters and let their on-court performances speak for themselves. 

September 10, 2016

Satnam Singh to promote UBAU university basketball in India


Satnam Singh's legacy in the Indian Basketball Hall of Fame is secure. The first Indian player to be drafted into the NBA, Satnam was picked 52nd by the Dallas Mavericks last year and played last season with their D-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

Now, with an assist back home, Satnam is hoping to make a more direct contribution to the rise of basketball in India.

Earlier this week, Satnam Singh announced that he has signed an alliance with Universal Basketball Alliance University (UBAU) and Elite University Sports Alliance of India (EUSAI) "to aid and enhance the advancement and infiltration of basketball throughout India". UBAU has been organising the All India Inter-Zonal Mens Basketball University Tournament for the last few years and has helped it gain in visibility through TV broadcasts and greater national news coverage. Satnam's role will be to help promote UBAU's national tournament. Going forward, the tournament's Most Valuable Player trophy will be known as "The Satnam Singh MVP Award".

The tournament, known as Indian Insanity, attempts to parallel the USA's March Madness. In addition, it is a rung in the ladder for players to move on to the affiliated UBA basketball league in India.

Ironically, for all his achievements, Satnam didn't attend college himself. He was recruited at 14 by the IMG Academy in Florida, where he played High School basketball, but could not meet the academic expectations to get a college scholarship in the United States. Instead, he declared for the NBA Draft at 19 and was picked by Dallas.