December 5, 2011

Ajay Pratap Singh: The Future is here, now

On this basketball court, even when he is surrounded by other players of his age and his talent level, Chhattisgarh's 17-year-old phenom Ajay Pratap Singh - or 'APS' as his friends call him - manages to stand out. Even those in the audience unfamiliar with his young, yet experienced career, can tell that he is primed for big things. More than anyone else, Ajay moves like a basketball player.

The court was the indoor facility at the Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in New Delhi. The event was the BFI's Junior Basketball Expo, a showcase of the best under-18 basketball players in the country. In the audience were over a 100 Delhi high-schoolers and aspiring basketball players watching every move of Ajay and his fellow compatriots. The ringmaster is Kenny Natt, a former NBA Head Coach and now the Head Coach of India's Senior Men's team, who has organised this showcase to scout for the next generation of Indian stars who will take the mantle in the national team.

Each of the 26 players on the court and on the bench of the U18 All Star Game have made a name for themselves as junior basketball stars. Still, the crowd, and especially those who know of Ajay's capabilities, keep waiting for him to stand out, to do things that separate him from the rest, that make him special. But for the majority of the All Star Game, Ajay keeps us waiting.

But let's rewind this story back to the very beginning. How does the son of a Billai Steel Plant employee in Chhattisgarh, who hadn't picked up a basketball until he was 11-years-old, become one of India's most prodigious young talents six years later?

I'll let Ajay explain it himself: "It all started with a summer camp," he says, "I was 11-years-old and a friend of my father was a basketball coach, who encouraged me to try out basketball at the camp. Normally, players who are new to the game are encouraged only because of their height, but back then, I was no taller than the average kid of my age. At first, basketball was just 'time pass' for me at the camp, but when I returned, I realised that I had actually become very interested in the game, and so I continued playing."

Ajay says that is first coach was RS Gour in Billai, who was always backing the youngster to keep playing and keep improving his skills. Luckily for the youngster, his love for the game developed parallel to the golden period in Chhattisgarh's basketball history - a period that is continuing full-fledged even today - where good management and better coaching helped mould numerous stars to make a mark in the national and international level from the state. Ajay had no shortage of role models.

"I looked up to a lot of senior players from my area," said Ajay, "I saw what they did on court, I saw what they achieved, and I wanted tot he same. There was a senior at that time, Pratam Singh, who had been a star for Chhattisgarh and had even represented India. I wanted to follow in his footsteps."

A few years later, and it seems that Ajay has done well in following the course set by his idols, and then some more. For he didn't just follow the footsteps, he glided over some of them: at the SRCC court during the Junior Expo, Ajay gives a few glimpses of his amazing athleticism, all during practice time before the All Star Game. While other players touched the ball off the glass for neat basket during the lay-up lines, Ajay is one of the few who is intent to punish the rim with an electrifying dunk at each opportunity. I have seen this all before: he is one of the few junior players in India with both the audacity and the actual talent to ignite the crowds with regular in-game dunks. The crowd at SRCC move closer to the edges of their seats when the All Star Game begins, expecting fireworks from this athletic youngster. But Ajay keeps them all at bay...

Back to our story, though, and we find a 13-year-old about to make his first breakthrough at a national-level competition. Ajay played in his first Sub-Junior National Basketball Championship in his hometown of Billai back in 2007. His team had to settle for a third-place finish, but Ajay remembers this as the first time in his career when he began to develop real confidence in his abilities.

"I was a little scared at first at such a big occasion," he says, "But I was given ample chance to play, even though I was younger than most in the squad."

"Back then, I played more of the guard position, because I was a little shorter," Ajay adds, "This helped me improved my ball-handling, and now that I've grown taller, I can be a mismatch at the guard position because of my height."

Like many before him to have made the breakthrough in Indian Basketball, the accolades, success, and higher levels of competition began to follow thick and fast. Ajay kept playing, kept performing, until the day he first wore an 'India' jersey: his big break came with India's Youth (U16) team that was sent to the U16 FIBA Asia Championship in Malaysia in 2009.

"It felt very good to be playing for your country," he remembers, "Despite our final finish (13th place), we played very well. It was the first time that a Youth Asia championship for being held, so it was a new experience for us all."

In October 2011, Ajay would head out for the U16 FIBA Asia Championship again - this one in Nha Trang City in Vietnam - and it would be his most recent performance for India that would help further distinguish him from the rest.

The All Star Game begins at the Junior Expo. Ajay has been placed in a far better team of the U18s: he is part of 'Team Red', which include other rising players like Loveneet Singh, G Sivabalan, and Aravind A. Known for his prolific scoring ability, Ajay instead takes a back-seat to his talented teammates, choosing instead to focus on his other strong-point: play-making. With Ajay and Loveneet running the motor of this squad and Aravind finishing any and everything around the basket, Team Red take a 13 point lead over 'Team White' with less than four minutes left in the game. For Ajay, it seeded to be a routine, if relaxed, victory on the cards.

He has played the play-maker role brilliantly before, of course, but what makes him special is his ability to switch seamlessly became shot creator and shot finisher. In the most recent Junior National Championship in New Delhi, Ajay was perhaps the top individual player in the Men's section. He laid out his full arsenal for Chhattisgarh, which includes an above-average three-point range, blinding quickness with the dribble, an ability (and the will) to regularly attack the basket, a long wingspan to disrupt the other team's offense on the defensive end, and crystal clear floor vision to always keep an eye on other teammates.

Ajay carried this momentum with him to the 2nd U16 FIBA Asia Championship in Vietnam. In a talented team with other gifted players such as Satnam Singh Bhamara, Loveneet Singh, Rakesh Sangwan, and Karthickeyen Saminathan, Ajay was the crucial cog in the middle, running the team as its most experienced and consistent player. India surprised a few traditional heavyweights with Ajay contributing with scoring and assists. He had 17 points in a win over Malaysia and 25 big ones in India's surprise victory over Chinese Taipei. India didn't do too well in the Second Round of the tournament, but Ajay had another 20 point game against hosts Vietnam in a classification match. India finished the tournament at 10th place.

Ajay ended the tournament as India's second leading scorer (13.1 ppg) behind Satnam Singh, but he also made a name for himself in the assists department, averaging the highest numbers of assists per game (4.0 apg) of all players in the tournament!

"I'm very proud of what we accomplished in Vietnam," Ajay said after the tournament, "We were a very well-coached team, and were well prepared this time. The federation gave us good support to work hard and practice for months for this championship in Delhi before we headed out there."

"We made a few mistakes in the Second Round against Korea and Iraq, two close losses that prevented us from qualifying for the Quarter-Finals," Ajay added, "We really could have won those games: our team was very united, and it felt good to play together in such a strong system."

Ajay named his big performance in the group stage against Chinese Taipei as the high-point for him individually as well as team-wise (India won the game by 21 points), but he took heart even in India's losses against Korea and Iraq. "We worked hard on our team defense for those games. Our coaches were always defensive minded. For whatever I achieved on the offensive end, I feel I did more on defense, since I had more experience than the other players there."

Back in SRCC, and it seems that Ajay's defensive intensity from the FIBA championship could be sorely needed. 'Team Red' start to get careless in the game's last few minutes, and 'Team White' begin to script an epic comeback. Careless turnovers by the Reds and determined play by the Whites suddenly turns this into a six point, then a four point, and then a two point game. Team White go on a dramatic 17-2 run, and with only seven seconds left in the game now, find themselves ahead, 54-52. The game's momentum has been abruptly shifted, and Team Red have only one last chance for an answer.

My eyes were on Team Red, and on the young boy from Chhattisgarh. I had the unfair advantage of knowing enough about him that I was convinced that he would deliver. A few weeks ago, Chhattisgarh Basketball's secretary and legendary coach Rajesh Patel had marveled about the youngsters abilities, especially in crunch situations.

Here was Patel's scouting report: "Ajay plays well in big games. He's left-handed, but can finish with the right, tall, and has a very accomplished all-round game. He has good ball control, good three-point range, and good driving and rebounding ability. Ajay is a prolific scorer, but more than that, he is confident and mature for his age."

And Ajay himself had shown little doubt about his abilities, in the present or the future. He may have been in an All Star Game in Delhi, but a part of his mind may have already been plotting ahead to Chennai, where next month, the Senior National Basketball Championship is set to be held. It will be Ajay's third Senior tournament, and he will be amongst a talented group of Chhattigarh players like Ankit Panigrahi and Kiran Pal Singh as they attempt to improve on last year's seventh place finish.

And maybe a part of his mind is looking even beyond, at India's Senior National team, which will is coached by the experienced and influential Kenny Natt. "I dream of playing for India at the Senior level," Ajay says, "I was called for the Senior camp earlier this year before the FIBA Asia Senior Championship in China but I wasn't selected then. But I have a chance to make it in the future team, though, I know Coach Natt needs a shooting guard. I'll be working hard to prepare myself for this role."

Coach Natt is of course in attendance at the SRCC All Star Game, and has seen Team Red just give up their double digit lead in a matter of minutes. With seven seconds left in the game and his team trailing by two points, the ball is inbounded to Ajay Pratap Singh.

Seven seconds can be a long time in basketball, and an even longer time when, in a matter of seconds, hundreds of different elements of the same story come together. In the seven seconds, Ajay used his quick dribble and strength, honed from his childhood days, to attack the opposing team's basket. In those seven seconds, he uses his years of experience at the international and national level to catch his defender off guard. In those seconds, the player who had been passive all game suddenly moves like an aggressive scorer towards the basket. He dribbles with his left, but elevates with the ball in his right hand. He's fouled on his way up to the rim, and in the same movement he finishes the tough lay-up. Game tied at 54. One second to go. The foul gets Ajay to the free-throw line for one last shot.

Patel's prediction proves right. With a relaxed head on his shoulders, Ajay calmly sinks the free-throw. 55-54. The last second wasn't enough for Team White to get a good shot off. Game over. Team Red win.

The crowd erupts and the teammates from the bench rush the court to celebrate with Ajay. It's a brief, relatively minor successful moment in a young career of many other successes. But Ajay Pratap Singh is not defined by what he has done already: he will be defined by what he will do in the future. And he isn't looking too far ahead to stake his claim and show that he belongs amongst the best players in the country: for Ajay Pratap Singh, is future is already here, now.

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