November 17, 2015

Amjyot's Ascent

Amjyot Singh’s rapid journey to become the superstar that Indian basketball desperately needed.

This feature was first published in my column for Ekalavyas on October 14, 2015. Click here to read the original article.

On one end of the court, Amjyot Singh defended the star perimeter player, and when his opponent switched on a pick, moved in to deny a scoring opportunity to a different player in the post. On the other end of the court, the 6-foot-8 forward stretched his slower defender out to the three-point line and bombed away. Through the course of the game, he continued to secure rebounds, assists, and steals as per his team’s need. Late in the game, with the result still hanging in the balance, he trailed on a fastbreak behind teammate Vinay Kaushik, cleaned up Kaushik’s missed lay-up off the glass, and slammed it home, securing the Indian lead and the tournament’s most crucial victory.

When the final buzzer rang, India had squeaked past the higher rated Palestine team 73-70 in the Second Round of the 2015 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship in Changsha (China). Amjyot’s teammates surrounded him in jubilation and supported him back to the locker room, just as he had supported them for the entire game. Amjyot finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds, playing 39 of the total 40 minutes in the game to earn India this surprise win and hand Palestine their first loss in the tournament.

Less than 24 hours later, while most Indians were still being awoken to the kook-ra-koo of the morning rooster or the hollers of the kabari-wallah, Amjyot was in China dominating opponents again, leading India with 26 and 12 to yet another close win over Hong Kong.

The stellar performances on all ends of the court – displaying both his motor and his versatility – would continue for Amjyot throughout the course of the 2015 FIBA ABC, which he finished as India’s leading scorer and the fourth-leading scorer in the tournament (20.9 ppg) and India’s leading rebounder (8.3 rpg) and helped the team finish at 8th place, their best results in 12 years. India lost to the mighty Chinese at the Quarter-Final stage, but Amjyot left Changsha as one of the top performers in Asia.

Hailing from Chandigarh, the 23-year-old Amjyot’s rise in prominence as the best player in Indian national colours has paradoxically been both expected and surprising. Amjyot used to be a cricket player in school, but a shoulder injury kept him out of the game for three months. He watched his father – a basketball player – on the court while injured and his interest for the game grew. Soon, he began to sneak out of his after-school cricket practices to play basketball instead. At 15, he ditched cricket for basketball forever.

He broke into the ranks of India’s youth (under-16) team in 2008, and then became the latest recruit to Ludhiana’s famed Basketball Academy – the same academy which has produced the likes of Yadwinder Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, TJ Sahi, Satnam Singh, Jagdeep Bains, Seema Singh and many more – under the legendary late coach Dr S. Subramanian.

The discovery helped his ascent, but it was not as early as a player of his potential deserved. In most countries with a better youth scouting system, a talent like Amjyot Singh would’ve been ‘discovered’ and moulded at the highest level available from his pre-teens onwards. Amjyot had to wait till was nearly of college age to receive elite-level coaching. His mastery of the game accelerated, but his late bloom also served as a reminder of how much better he could’ve become had he received serious instruction of the game earlier.

At 19, Amjyot was selected by the then-Head Coach Kenny Natt to India’s senior national team for the first time to play in the South Asia qualifiers and the 2011 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship. Amjyot showed great promise for India off the bench, and ever since – even as coaches and teammates changed – he became one of the lynchpins for the national team.

Of course, one can’t speak of Amjyot without speaking of two other Punjabi big men who made the national team debut in 2011 alongside him. Senior national team rookies Amjyot, Amrit Pal Singh, and Satnam Singh – all products of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy – beefed up Kenny Natt’s frontcourt together in an explosion of youth and size that Indian basketball had rarely been blessed with before. Since then, Amrit Pal has been Amjyot’s partner in the national team’s starting frontcourt for the last few years as the two big men dominated at the domestic level, improved at the international level, and headed together to play professionally for the same teams in Japan.

The story of Satnam Singh diverted sharply. Satnam – four years younger and five inches taller than Amjyot – spent much of his later teenage years in High School at the IMG Academy in Florida, USA, where he developed into a solid young player and eventually became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA earlier this year. Satnam’s focus on High School hoops in the USA and NBA tryouts kept him out of Indian national team duty after 2013. In his absence, Amjyot and Amrit Pal grabbed the reigns in the middle and flourished in the India jersey.

But it wasn’t until 2014 that the legend of Amjyot – and the Indian Men’s team around him – took a sharp turn into higher, uncharted territory. At the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China, Amjyot and Amrit Pal – both Sikhs who don the customary turbans to cover their long hair – faced the discrimination of FIBA’s “No Headgear” policy in their first game against Japan, leading to a distracted start and a loss. A day later, hair tied by headbands, Amjyot and India – led by Head Coach Scott Flemming – took out their frustrations on hosts China, the finest team in the continent.

Amjyot scored a game-high 13 points to go with five rebounds and was masterful on both ends of the floor against the Chinese bigs to help India upset China – for the first time in history – with a 65-58 win. A highlight of the victory was the clutch alley-oop dunk finished by Amjyot to secure the lead for India in the game’s dying minutes. Amjyot would go on to lead India in points, rebounds, and steals at the tournament and make waves with the local and continental media for his skill and versatility. Even more astonishingly, Amjyot and India earned respect at the FIBA Asia Cup despite having any professional basketball experience.

His work at Wuhan, and later, his domestic and international play at the Asian Games, got Amjyot recruited – along with Amrit Pal – to become the first Indian players chosen for Japanese BJ Summer League in summer of 2015. The two Indian bigs dominated the competition, so much so that they were handed Japanese D-League contracts with the Tokyo Excellence soon after.

By the time he re-joined Team India in preparation for the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship in Changsha, Amjyot had clearly elevated himself into one of the leaders of a national team in flux, along with Amrit Pal and experienced captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. India had a new head coach (Sat Prakash Yadav) and were missing five top players who had played a key role in the wonders at Wuhan. Lacking gravely in depth, the big three of Amjyot, Amrit Pal, and Vishesh had to shoulder the heaviest weights in carrying the squad – Amjyot finished the tournament playing a team-high 37 minutes per game, third-most in the competition.

But instead of pressing him down, the heavier load only pulled the rising star higher up. Amjyot always played like a guard blessed with more size than he had expected. He had the game of a swingman and the height to better most Asian forwards.

In Changsha, however, his game elevated to another level; there was fluidity with which he moved, handled the ball, and attacked the basket, a confidence that seemed to have been triggered at the recent realization that few in the continent could now stop him or match-up with the offensive arsenal that he had developed. Amjyot played with a combination of inside and outside, height and speed, strength and agility; the only way to guard him was to be as physically gifted as him.

But it isn’t enough to be only physically gifted: the reason that Amjyot has become one of India’s most prominent male players in recent decades is that he has played with a humility and duty to put team over self. While other prodigious Indian talents – think TJ Sahi or S. Robinson – came up short of their potential, Amjyot seems to be charging rapidly towards his. While many players halted the progress of team development, Amjyot’s rise has come in sync with the rise of Team India. He constantly deflected all the praises we lavished upon him in our Hoopdarshan interview towards his teammates, and speaking to FIBA after his big performance against Palestine, he laughed off his own 32-point, 11-rebound effort by talking about his teammates instead: “They do all the hard work, and I get to score.”

India has had several individual talents in the last few decades, but there have been few whose talents have worked consistently to provide positive results for the nation. As of now, it may not be a stretch to say that he can be the best male basketball player for India since Jayasankar Menon, who was named to the Asian All Star team in the mid-90s and was nominated for an Arjuna Award.

If this was cricket, Amjyot Singh – the best performer for the Indian basketball team and one of the best players in his position in Asia – would've been a household name in India by now. Unfortunately, every other sport in the country takes a major backseat in the eyes of the Indian mainstream after cricket.

The last Indian basketball player to make news across the country was Satnam Singh, on the day he was drafted into the NBA. But Amjyot has done more for the Indian national team, and may be a better overall talent than Satnam right now. Satnam, of course, has an age and size advantage, which will see him start his professional career in the NBA D-League.

Meanwhile Amjyot (and Amrit Pal) will be heading back to Tokyo for the Japanese D-League, but the former’s performances at Changsha have alerted basketball scouts across the globe of his talents and (still untapped) potential. It would not surprise me if offers from other Asian leagues or Europe come calling. And one can never discount the possibility of that dream NBA or NBDL trial, either.

In a short span of time, Amjyot Singh’s ascent into the Asian basketball elite has been marvellous and heartening. It should give hope to other late bloomers of the game as well as encourage coaches (and parents) in India not to waste the early, formative years of potential talents. Meanwhile, the Indian basketball family and fans will hope that Amjyot continues to improve, continues to rise up the ranks of Asia’s best players, and with him, carries India higher up, too.

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