This article was first published in my 'Hoopistani' column on The Times of India Sports on November 4, 2017. Read the original version here.
Amjyot Singh is used to being a centrepiece on the basketball court. For the past six years, the 25-year-old, 6-foot-8 power forward has never played for a basketball team where he hasn’t featured in a leading role. He has been India’s leading scorer for half a decade of international competitions, starred at the domestic level for IOB (Chennai), Punjab Police, and the UBA League’s Delhi Capitals, and even when playing professionally abroad, has been a game-changer for successful teams in the Summer and Development Leagues in Japan.
But on a Friday night in Oklahoma City, deep in the Great Plains of central United States, Amjyot was sidelined. He sat on the bench through the whole game as the Oklahoma City Blue—the NBA G-League team that had drafted him two weeks earlier—secured a tense comeback victory over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. It was the first time since he was a wide-eyed teenager in Chandigarh that he wasn’t an important contributor to his squad.
And yet, he would count it as one of the greatest days of his life.
On his nonguaranteed contract, his future is blurry. He could be cut in the chance of an injury, of another prospect, or a player sent down from the Blue’s NBA’s affiliate, the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is likely to be the last man off the bench on the Blue’s roster until he proves his worth. But even in these uncertain times, the G-League possibility has shown him a path forward to his dreams that international prospects like him couldn’t even have envisioned several years ago.
The NBA, the world’s finest basketball association, launched their official Development League in 2001 with just eight teams, but with the ambition for it to eventually become into a true minor league ‘farm’ system to develop talent. Over the past decade and a half, this minor league has grown rapidly. Now, the recently renamed ‘G-League’ has 26 teams, each with a one-to-one affiliation with an NBA franchise. Over the past four years, around 15 percent of G-League players have received “call-ups” to play in the NBA.
The NBA remains every basketball player’s ultimate destination, the finest level of the game with promise of legacy, competition, fame, and money. But only the rarest of the rare cases make it to this stage.
Most other hoop dreamers around the world have to settle for other options. Players in North America have had a competitive NCAA college basketball circuit and other minor leagues. Professional leagues around the world—from Europe to China to Australia—have been alternative tickets to basketball success for so many others while they kept their NBA ambitions alive.
But the expanded presence of the G-League has helped create the most direct secondary option for players who are on the cusp of an NBA roster, who need to refine and retool their games enough to make those dreams come true. Additionally, it has become an option for NBA teams to stack their assets, to oversee young, raw players develop into future potential contributors.
Two and a half years ago, Punjab-born seven-footer Satnam Singh made history when he became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA. Satnam was picked by the Dallas Mavericks, who immediately placed him in their minor league affiliate squad Texas Legends. Satnam played for the Legends for two years, earning bit minutes off the bench and never impressing enough to warrant an NBA call-up. Last month, he announced that he would be leaving the G-League behind to continue his basketball journey back home in India.
Last year, Palpreet Singh, another Punjabi big man, was drafted into the G-League by the Long Island Nets, but he never made the team’s final roster after training camp.
When he was drafted with the 103rd pick of the 2017 draft (the 25th pick of the fourth and final round) by the Blue, Amjyot became the third Indian citizen in a space of three years to begin an affair with the G-League.
Amjyot is the eldest, most-experienced, and most talented of the three, but still no closer to playing in the NBA itself. No Indian has yet made an NBA debut. The rise of the G-League, however, has suddenly opened new doors for Indian prospects. Realistically, his path to the NBA is still highly improbable; but thanks to the G-League, players like him can begin to envision the path for the first time.
As the league’s profile continues to rise, watch for many more Indians to follow on Satnam, Palpreet, and Amjyot’s footsteps in the near future. One of those players will eventually become a centrepiece for their team, become a G-League star, and make the next big leap and become the first Indian in the NBA.