October 23, 2017

Short of NBA opportunities, basketball trail-blazer Satnam Singh returns to India


This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India Sports on October 12, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

In the climactic moment to the documentary about him “One in a Billion”, Satnam Singh is in New York City, being driven to the 2015 NBA Draft. It is a life-changing convention that turns selected amateur athletes into full professionals in the world’s most-prestigious basketball league. Even at 19, Satnam has already lived numerous lifetimes: with the help of basketball, he has gone from a small, nondescript Punjabi village to an American education and world-class basketball training at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida.

Now, he is en route to discover his destiny, suited in his sharpest gear, but looking as nervous as you would ever see a seven-foot giant. He is about to find out if years of toil and turmoil will lead him to the ultimate glory: a selection in the NBA, making him the first Indian citizen to be drafted into the league in its seven-decade history.

In the car on the way to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, Satnam talks to the agents and friends and mentions how Yao Ming opened the door for basketball in China. Someone tells him encouragingly, that he, too, has already opened the door. Satnam, in broken English, a language barrier that haunted him in his days at the IMG Academy, responds, “Just opened the lock,” he says with a sly smile. “Not door. Just opened the lock.”

A few hours later, history will be made. The NBA’s Deputy Commissioner will call Satnam’s name on behalf of the Dallas Mavericks with the 52nd pick of the draft. A young man’s life—and an entire country’s basketball expectations—will never be the same again.

Little did Satnam know that, his words on Draft Day would become a self-prophecy. After being drafted, Satnam spent the next two years with the Maverick’s affiliate team in the NBA’s minor basketball league (NBA G-League) team Texas Legends. He played only 7.1 minutes per game in 27 appearances over two years, averaging just 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds. The NBA dream and those over-enthused Yao Ming comparisons seemed to loom too far in the horizon.

Satnam was right: by getting drafted, he had only unlocked the possibility of an Indian even making it into the conversation of NBA athletes. The door for him still remained shut.

Earlier this week, frustrated with lack of opportunity and playing time, Satnam told gathered reporters at an event organised by the General Nutrition Centre in Mumbai that he had decided to return to India to develop his game.

“I had a big problem with no playing time at NBA,” Satnam said to India Today. “I would lose my mind.”

Now, he is hoping that India, and added opportunity, will help him showcase his skillset again. With additional competitive time on court, he hopes to improve this game as well as attract the attention of scouts again.

“If I play here, I will get more game time and my game will improve,” he said to The Field. “I just want to play and work on my skills and moves. If I want to improve my game, I will need somebody who I can work with.”

His decision is somewhat surprising, considering that Satnam joined fellow Punjabi baller TJ Sahi to comment last month that there was “no future” for basketball in India and aspiring players should look for opportunities abroad.

The lack of elite-level competition and no full-time professional league has hampered the growth and opportunities for numerous Indian basketball stars, which is why, many of our top current players—Amritpal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh—are looking for professional opportunities abroad. Satnam, who blazed the trail (while still being the youngest of them all) seems to have taken a step back to his roots.

“Now I have come back to India. I will play for the Indian team,” Satnam said to India Today. “I will work on my game as much as I can. I will play for Punjab, any small tournament. I want playing time. The more I play my game will improve.”

Satnam’s last foray with the Indian national team - at the prestigious FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon in August - didn’t go as well as he would have expected. He was not in ideal game shape and was behind Amritpal, Amjyot, and Arvind Annadurai in the big man rotation. He played less than nine minutes per game and couldn’t help India as they lost all three of their preliminary round games.

If he continues to stay fit, however, he should have no trouble eventually getting playing time in India. He will likely play for Punjab in national tournaments and hopefully find a place for himself in the UBA Basketball League. He will have to evolve his style to fit into the faster pace of the game, which was part of his struggle in breaking into the Texas Legends line-up back in the United States, too.

By returning to India for more playing opportunity, Satnam will be sacrificing the exposure, facilities, and competition that was available to him in the US. Could playing without a fully professionalised league, against inferior opponents, with worse coaching and infrastructure, truly help him find future international opportunities?

From farming in the Ballo Ke village in Punjab to rubbing shoulders with the best in the basketball world, Satnam has already taken Indian basketball further than anyone before him. Indeed, he has unlocked the door to the NBA. Hopefully he - or a successor — will kick it wide open very soon.

India's Amjyot Singh and Indian-American Gokul Natesan both selected late in 2017 NBA G-League Draft


The NBA G-League draft is a marathon, including four rounds and over a 100 picks from a selected pool of players who all have the opportunity to taking a small step to their hoop dream through the NBA's minor league. One of the players waiting in this pool was Indian basketball superstar Amjyot Singh, who had tried and failed at last year's G-League draft, and returned to the United States again last month with renewed zest to prove his worth to coaches and scouts.

But on draft day on Saturday, October 21, as time passed, one pick turned to the next, and the final round of selections came close to its conclusion, it seemed that Amjyot was going to be let-down once again

In true clutch fashion, however, Amjyot got a game-winning play just before time expired. With the 103rd pick of the afternoon (the 25th pick of the fourth and final round), the Oklahoma City Blue - an affiliate of the NBA's OKC Thunder - selected Amjyot Singh! With this pick, Amjyot became the second Indian player to be picked by the G-League (after Palpreet Singh last year) and the third Indian to be selected into the NBA universe (after Satnam Singh was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 2015).

If Amjyot passes his physical, he will have the opportunity to join the Blue in their training camp roster. The selection doesn't guarantee that Amjyot will actually play for the team. G-League squads can release their draft picks at any time - last year, Palpreet only lasted with the Long Island Nets for a week before he was released.

Amjyot is one of India's most talented basketball players, one of the national team's "Big Three" along with Amritpal Singh and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. For the past five years, he has been India's most consistent scorer on the international stage and helped India to many high-profile victories. Amjyot played professionally in Japan's Summer League and Development League a few years ago and is an accomplished international 3x3 basketball star.

Originally from Chandigarh, the 6-foot-8, 25-year-old forward was India's captain and leading scorer at the recently-completed FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon. Amjyot was trained at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in Punjab and played domestically for IOB (Chennai), Punjab Police, and the Delhi Capitals of the UBA League.

The top pick of the 2017 draft on Saturday was Eric Stuteville, who was picked by the Northern Arizona Suns.

The Indian diaspora have another important reason to celebrate the 2017 G-League draft. Just a few picks before Amjyot, the Canton Charge (affiliated with the Cleveland Cavaliers) selected Indian-American Gokul Natesan with the 97th pick (Round 4, Pick 19), a swingman who had starred for the Colorado School of Mines last season in NCAA Division II. Natesan is from California, and his parents originally immigrated to the United States from Tamil Nadu. He finished 2016-17 season in the All RMAC (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) First Team and as the RMAC Academic Player of the Year. He led his team in minutes, scoring (18.5 ppg), and assists (4.1 apg) while leading the Mines to the NCAA D2 Elite 8 stage for the first time.

The journey forward is still going to be long and arduous for these two players, but their selection shows the continuing improvement and visibility of Indian basketball players from home and abroad. Hopefully, they can carve a path for many more to follow in their footsteps.

October 22, 2017

Hoopdarshan Episode 54: FIBA U16 Women's Asia Championship Preview with Zoran Visic


This week, India will host the FIBA U16 Women's Asia Championship in Bengaluru. To preview the tournament for the home team, Hoopdarshan invited India's head coach, Zoran Visic for Episode 54, for an illuminating conversation. Visic spoke about India's preparation, our biggest challengers, lessons from coaching India's Senior Women's team, and coping without Serbian food in India.

Hoopdarshan hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok also discussed the beginning of the NBA season, the G-League drafting of Indian basketball star Amjyot Singh, and the conclusion of the Sub-Junior Nationals in this episode.



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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October 19, 2017

India U16 Women's team ready to host FIBA U16 Women's Asia Championship in Bengaluru - Roster, Schedule, and Preview


Three months ago, Bengaluru proved its place as a worthy basketball host city, as the city's iconic Sri Kantaveera Stadium hosted the FIBA Asia Women's Cup. This was the first major FIBA basketball event to be held in India in eight years, and in front of the home fans, Team India finished the tournament in style by winning promotion to Division A.

Now, India's youth squad will be hoping that the same arena, in the same city, can provide them the boost that the country's leading ladies received, too. From October 22-28, India will host the FIBA U16 Women's Asia Championship in Bengaluru, featuring the top youth teams from around Asia and Oceania in the youngest FIBA international tournament. India's U16 team, which fell to Division B at the previous iteration of this tournament, will hope to return to the higher stage by the end of next week.

Fifteen teams, divided into two levels of two groups each, will take part in this tournament. In 2015 in Medan (Indonesia), China completed a three-peat at this championship with a win over Japan in the final. India finished the group stage losing all five preliminary round games, and then losing their playoff match against Hong Kong to fall to Division B.

Participating Teams
  • Division A - Group A: Australia, Korea, Chinese Taipei, New Zealand.
  • Division A - Group B: China, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong.
  • Division B - Group A: India, Sri Lanka, Iran Nepal.
  • Division B - Group B: Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Maldives.

Team India will be led by Zoran Visic, the experienced basketball coach from Serbia who also led India's Senior Women's team at the FIBA Asia Women's Cup earlier this year. Visic's assistant coach will be his captain from the senior team - the basketball star Anitha Paul Durai - for whom this will be the first foray into international coaching. The squad is completely changed from the one that played in Medan two years ago. Some of the top players that made a mark in recent Youth and Sub Junior nationals will be featured in this roster, including Vaishnavi Yadav, Ann Mary Zacharaiah, and Elijabet Ekka.

Team India Roster
  • Vaishnavi Yadav
  • Riya Baliyan
  • Ann Mary Zachariah
  • Neha Karwa
  • Khushi Sanjay Dongre
  • Elijabet Ekka
  • Monica Jayakumar
  • Pushpa Senthil Kumar
  • Grishma Niranjan
  • Sreekala Rani
  • Asmat Taunque
  • Sanjana Ramesh
  • Head Coach: Zoran Visic
  • Assistant Coach: Anitha Paul Durai

India will top to top their group in the preliminary round, and then defeat the top squad from Group B of their Division in a playoff, to secure Division A promotion.

India's Preliminary Round Schedule - All timings IST
  • October 22 - India vs. Nepal - 8 PM
  • October 23 - Iran vs. India - 8 PM
  • October 24 - India vs. Sri Lanka - 8 PM

India is the highest ranked team in this group and their entire division. They should be able to cruise past Nepal, although Iran, whose women's teams haven't played in international tournaments for many years, will be the wildcards. Sri Lanka will pose somewhat of a threat, but hopefully, India can propel past them, too. Group B feature two legitimate challenges to India's promotion ambitions: Malaysia and Kazakhstan. The Senior Women's team had to slay the Kazakhs in dramatic fashion in their final game in July; there's a good chance that one of these teams could be testing India to the limit at the FIBA U16 Women's Asia Championship, too.

Meanwhile, the Division A matches should add for some intrigue as now Oceania's powerhouse Australia will challenging China and Japan's place at the top of this fray. Korea and Chinese Taipei are two other teams that could make some noise in this tournament. India's demotion to Division B is a pity, but it could give the home fans the opportunity to see India notch up more victories and end up with a good record - even if it only comes against worse teams.

October 16, 2017

Sony plans to broadcast 100 NBA games with Hindi commentary in India this season


After a short, eventful off-season where (thankfully) it felt like the NBA never really went away, the new season is almost here, tipping off on October 17 - or the morning of October 18 if you are watching from India. There are going to be a number of players in new jerseys this season, and many teams literally wearing new jersey designs, and the potential of new legends to be made.

In India, there is also going to be a lot more NBA in Hindi.

With a mission to penetrate the popularity of the game deeper into the Indian market, the NBA and its Indian broadcast partner Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) have decided to air almost a 100 regular season games with Hindi commentary this season. The games will also, of course, continue to be simulcast in English as usual in Sony's other sports channels live.

According to the Economic Times, the move comes on the back of a trial period last season, when fourteen playoff games were broadcast with Hindi commentary on the Ten 1 channel. As per data provided by NBA India, the games with Hindi commentary were viewed on TV by 8.9 million people in India.

Sony SIX and Sony SIX HD, for the last few seasons, have broadcast two live games almost every morning during the NBA season in India in English. Now, two games per week - during the weekends - will be broadcast on Sony Ten 3 and Sony Ten 3 HD in Hindi, along with the Live wraparound show ‘Around the Hoop’

More via The Economic Times:

“India is one of the top 2 priority markets for us,” said NBA India managing director Yannick Colaco. “We want to popularise the game of basketball and NBA in India. That means we should make it more accessible for the audiences. With this move, we will be able to engage with not just existing, but also potential fans.”
Talking about statistics from last season’s trial run, Colaco said in the Hindi-speaking markets (HSM), the viewership of the telecast with Hindi commentary was double of that with English commentary.

A panel of expert commentators has been engaged to deliver analysis in Hindi for each game, said Rajesh Kaul, president of sports and distribution business at SPN.
The commentators have undergone training to fine tune their abilities in presenting NBA games, which included personalised training by long-time Indiana Pacers’ play-by-play announcer Chris Denari.

चलो बहुत अच्छी बात है. अब पहले से और ज़्यादा प्रशानशक NBA बॅस्केटबॉल का आनंद ले सकेंगे. With the Warriors sure to make another deep playoff run, I'm waiting to see who will be the first commentator to call Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson the छिड़कना-वाले भाईलोग #Splash Brothers.

Rajasthan (Boys) and Tamil Nadu (Girls) win 2017 Sub Junior Nationals in Didwana, Rajasthan


The annual gathering of India's finest, youngest national-level basketball players - the 44th Sub Junior National Basketball Championship for Boys and Girls - came to a conclusion in Didwana, Rajasthan, on Saturday, October 14 with some celebrations for the home side. Rajasthan boys got sweet vengeance in the final over Madhya Pradesh, who had defeated them in last year's final. Tamil Nadu girls also upset Chattisgarh's hopes of retaining their 2016 title with a final win earlier in the day.

The Sub-Junior Nationals - also known as the "minis" - featured 30 boys' teams and 24 girls' teams in the U14 age group from various Indian States and Union territories competing from October 8-14 this year at Didwana's Bangour College Stadium. The Championship was organised by the Rajasthan Basketball Association under the aegis of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI).

Madhya Pradesh boys, the winners from last year, came into the finals with hopes of adding another jewel in their crown. But backed by an enthusiastic home crowd, Rajasthan came out fired up, taking a 28-17 lead in the first quarter and extending the game to a blowout by the end of the third. Prashant (28) and Lokendra (21) led Rajasthan to an impressive 87-59 win and a gold medal. MP were led by Rishikesh's 16 points.

The girls' final was a close, fast-paced game, where Tamil Nadu's rising star Sathya stole the show, dropping 43 points for her squad. Chattisgarh, looking to repeat their 2017 win, were leading 37-29 at halftime, but a 39-22 third quarter run by TN turned the scores around, and TN held on the final period to win 88-81. Kirti (24) and Ruksar (18) led the way for Chhattisgarh in the loss.

Earlier in the day, Chhattisgarh's boys defeated Uttar Pradesh to secure the bronze medal. The girls' 3rd-place game was won by Maharashtra, who defeated the host team Rajasthan.

Final Scores
  • Boys: Rajasthan (Prashant 28, Lokendra 21) bt Madhya Pradesh (Rishikesh 16, Bhagat 14) 87-59 [28-17, 7-10, 31-18, 21-14].
  • Girls: Tamil Nadu (Sathya 43) bt Chhattisgarh (Kirti 24, Ruksar 18) 88-81 [18-18, 11-19, 39-22, 20-22].

Final Standings

Boys
  • 1. Rajasthan
  • 2. Madhya Pradesh
  • 3. Chhattisgarh
  • 4. Uttar Pradesh
  • 5. Punjab

Girls
  • 1. Tamil Nadu
  • 2. Chhattisgarh
  • 3. Maharashtra
  • 4. Rajasthan
  • 5. Karnataka

October 14, 2017

2017 SLAM Top 50: Paul George, No. 9


In a new role on a new team, Paul George is in position to reach his lofty goals.

This article was first published in my #SLAMTop50 contribution for SLAMOnline.com on October 4, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

Four summers ago, I interviewed a 23-year-old Paul George at an NBA carnival in China. It was the ‘NBA Nation’ in Wuhan, a fan-event in the most populous city in central China featuring basketball clinics, Pop-a-Shot games, and the Phoenix Suns Dance Team. The main event, however, was George. Then a rising star for the Indiana Pacers, PG was coming off a breakout 2012-13 season where he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, became an All Star for the first time, and was named to the All-NBA Third Team. But just months before, his magical season had ended in heart-breaking fashion as the Pacers went down to the Heat in a memorable seven-game Eastern Conference Finals.

In going up against the best in the League, George had gotten his first whiff of success, and he sounded confident when he told me that his rise to superstardom was just getting started. “I’m nowhere close to getting what I want to achieve,” he said, reflecting on his NBA journey so far. “But I think I’m taking the right steps and going in the right direction. I can see myself being an MVP in the League. I think, if I’m not in contention for an MVP award, or leading my team to the Championship, then I think I’d be selling myself short as a player. In the near future, I wanna have the MVP award, be on the Olympic team, be a perennial All-Star, hopefully First-Team All-NBA as well.”

But sometimes, even the best laid plans of a super-athletic swingmen can go awry. A year later, George suffered a horrific compound fracture on both bones of his lower right leg during a 2014 FIBA World Cup scrimmage in Las Vegas. The setback virtually cost him an entire season of progress and raised questions if he could ever soar towards greatness again.

It put his ‘Wuhan Checklist’ on hold. MVP award? Nope. Championship? Not close. First Team All NBA? Nah.

But by 2015-16, George bounced back with a bang, playing 81 games and averaging career highs in scoring and assists. Last summer, he fulfilled his wish of playing in the Olympics and helped bring back a Gold medal from Rio. In 2016-17, he continued his rampage and boosted his scoring output to a career-high 23.7 points per game. The ‘perennial All Star’ wish had also been fulfilled. George put up an unstoppable performance in last season’s playoffs with 28 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists over nearly 43 minutes per game. Just like in the old days however, it was that old foe—LeBron James—that proved to be the thorn in PG’s side, and the Cavaliers swept the Pacers in the First Round.

Despite the loss, George’s comeback from the career-threatening leg injury was complete. Even if he doesn’t have quite the athletic hops he did in his younger days, PG has matured into a better scorer and smarter defender.

But with a drastic change of scenery, he will now find himself evolving into an exciting new role: George was traded over the offseason to Oklahoma City to join reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, not long before OKC pulled off another heist and presented Carmelo Anthony to the explosive Thunder mix, too.

He may no longer be the first option, or on many nights, even the second option on offense. But as the ideal two-way player who can be an elite perimeter defender, an offensive threat, and effect the game without the ball in his hands, George could have the Thunder soaring this season. None of that confidence I saw in Wuhan has wavered. George is still gunning for that MVP trophy. With Westbrook and ‘Melo by his side, he has said that the Thunder have the feel “of a championships team.”

Playing in a different NBA jersey for the first time in his career, this isn’t going to be the 2013 “Rising Star” PG, or the 2015 “Hobbled with Injury” PG, or even the 2016-17 “Bounce Back To Scoring Stardom” PG. The OKC version of Paul George will be something we’ve never seen before. Still only 27, we are going to see PG enter his prime years, a superstar in a new role. A man on a mission to complete his checklist.