Indian basketball was a roller-coaster in 2016, providing in equal measures joy and despair to fans and players. While the national men's team made waves with historically great performances, Palpreet Singh was drafted to the D-League, and a new NBA Academy promised to hone the nation's best youth talents, there were some downers, too, like the cancellation of basketball at the South Asian Games, the banning of 122 individuals of the UBA by the BFI, and a major setback for the U18 Women's team.
1. Fireworks at the Senior National Championship in Puducherry
Every new year in India begins with Indian basketball's biggest domestic event, the Senior National Championship, where dozens of India's men and women teams from around the country come together for a showcase of the best of the country's talent. This year, the Senior Nationals will be held in Puducherry from January 7-14, and as always, will be organised by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). The tournament won't be without controversy, as there is a chance that powerhouse units Railways and Services may not take part in the event. If so, they will be sorely missed; the rest of the fray of talent from Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Delhi, and more will have to do their best to provide fireworks at this championship.
2. More Satnam in the D-League
He may have starred in the riveting documentary 'One in a Billion', but India's first NBA draft pick Satnam Singh continues to play an incredibly small role in his D-League squad, the Texas Legends. So far this season, the 21-year-old has only appeared in three games off the bench for the Legends, playing a total of less than eight minutes in the season. Satnam still harbours dreams of playing in the NBA one day, but without a chance to showcase his skills in the D-League, that dream may be fading away. Hopefully he can earn more minutes and start to make a bigger name for himself.
Satnam is just the highest profile Indian citizen playing abroad right now, but there are many more making waves around the world. Palpreet Singh Brar became the first Indian to be drafted directly to the NBA's D-League a few months ago, even if he was dropped just a week later by the Long Island Nets. Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh have already cemented their greatness in Japan's D-League and will once again try to take their talents to the USA later this year. Youth player Harshwardhan Tomar is learning the craft in Italy's Stellazzurra Basketball Academy. Hopefully, more Indian players join their numbers this year, and the likes of Palpreet, Amjyot, and Amritpal take a next step forward.
4. The 24 elite talents for NBA Academy India
The NBA is currently hosting the ACG-NBA Jump programme around the country to find the best players from six top cities in India. The top 24 youngsters - between the ages of 13 to 17 - will be recruited as the first batch of student-athletes at the NBA's groundbreaking elite India Academy. The Academy is set to be opened in the Delhi-NCR region in April 2017. The young students will be provided top-level basketball coaching, fitness training, and infrastructure, as well as provided scholarship for the rest of their school education. Hopefully, this programme can make it easier for the NBA to find, scout, and hone young Indians with potential at an early age and provide them the platform to follow in Satnam's footsteps.
5. FIBA Asia Champions Cup
Just seven months after the previous iteration of Asia's top club championship, the FIBA Asia Champions Cup will return in May 2017. In the tournament's recently-concluded edition in Chenzhou, China, the host nation's loaded squad Kashgar took the gold medal. India's usual representatives - ONGC (Dehradun) - had a poor performance and finished at last place. Hopefully, they can use the failure as motivation to bounce back with a better performance this year.
The upstart short basketball league, held so far in cities like Pune, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru, has already completed three seasons and is aiming ambitiously for a fourth this year. UBA has provided Indian players with another platform to participate in, since the country is yet to have its official BFI-endorsed full professional league. UBA will return for another season with its usual slate of eight squads and hopefully is able to expand to more cities.
7. Can our U16 squads bounce back in continental championships?
Both the 2017 FIBA Asia U16 Championships for Men and Women are currently scheduled for June this year. India's youth players have six months to heal their wounds from two years ago and bounce back with respectable performances. In 2015, the boys' team fell to 13th place in the continent, while the girls' team went without a win and dropped to Level II. India will need concentrated efforts to ensure that the young players who make this year's teams have ample experience and are in good shape as they go out for the championships again this year. The boys should aim for a top 10 finish, and for the girls, the priority will be to return to the higher Level I.
8. A bigger, badder FIBA Asia Cup
New name, new cup, and a bigger challenge for Team India. Asia's biggest basketball tournament, the FIBA Asia Championship, gets a remodel this year as the FIBA Asia Cup. This tournament will feature 16 of the best teams from Asia, and for the first time, from Oceania. This means that, apart from going against continental giants like China, Iran, Korea, and more, India will also have to contend with world-class talents from Australia and New Zealand. If all goes well, I will be hoping for that Amjyot Singh x Ben Simmons matchup! The tournament is set to be held mid-to-late August and will determine the composition of the joint FIBA Asia and FIBA Oceania qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
It's been a long time since we've seen India's Senior Women's team in official, international, 5x5 basketball action. Unfortunately, India's women's squad hasn't received the same attention as the men in recent years. Back in mid-2015, India's women took part in the last FIBA Asia Championship, where they returned winless and dropped to Level II. They had another opportunity to get some international exposure last year, but FIBA banned official basketball events at the South Asian Games. India played some games anyways, but they didn't count. This September, finally, the Women will play again. Times have changed, and its unlikely that the legendary Geethu Anna Jose will make a comeback to the team. The new roster with youngsters like Jeena PS will have a chance to script a new story.
10. Hoping against hope: India's professional basketball league?
Every year, I welcome January 1st with the same reoccurring, foolishly-optimistic hope: will this finally be the year when the BFI launches India's professional basketball league? Sports like Cricket, Football, Wrestling, Badminton, Kabaddi, Hockey, etc, etc, etc, have all made the jump to professional leagues. But basketball, one of the world's most popular sport with a long history in India, continues to fall behind. The split within the BFI and the federation's tensions with the government's Ministry of Sports have been major speed-bumps in basketball's progress. Hopefully, this is the year when the BFI can find the right partnerships and take the already existing school/college league platform to the next level, and provide our best players with a proper pro basketball option.