Can India produce an NBA superstar?
Amaan Sandhu and Pranav Prince are the latest Indian basketball players to get into the collegiate structure in USA as they chase their NBA dream. But could an Indian leave a mark on the world's top league in the near future?
Manu Ginobili was the poster boy as the National Basketball Association (NBA) wrapped up its latest Hall of Fame ceremony on Sunday. The Argentine became just the fifth overseas player in history to feature in the NBA's Hall of Fame. This number is set to see a steep rise in coming years with many other overseas players like Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antentekoumpo spearheading daily headlines in global basketball.
A revolution is afoot in how basketball - and the NBA - is seen in many countries. Like in Japan, where T-shirt sales of Rui Hachimura or Yuta Watanabe have gone through the roof.
As for India, while Satnam Singh Bhamara made it to the NBA draft, no one has featured in a match in the main NBA season yet. The likes of Princepal Singh and Amjyot Singh have NBA experience from playing in the D-League or Summer Leagues.
How far is India from producing a basketball player who leaves a mark in the NBA?
Not far, going by the number of Indians competing in the collegiate league structure in USA. On August 5, Amaan Sandhu announced joining Division 1 Monmouth University, New Jersey. Pranav Prince joined AIA Prep academy on the September 4. Sanjana Ramesh and Harsimran Kaur are already part of strong Division 1 basketball teams at Northern Arizona University and the University of San Diego respectively.
"The NBA is currently focussing on the NBA Africa programme but their next global market - they want it to be India. So we are not far from seeing a genuinely good Indian player in the NBA," said Aahil Shermohammed, who became the youngest NBA player agent at the age of 22 two years ago.
Aahil said representation in the top tiers of the NBA can be a game-changer in some countries, where people can forget about everything except how their country's player fared on the American stage.
"I worked with refugees for nine months in Athens, Greece. There were some kids there, they had lost their families and homes, they were in this random place, but all they cared about was Giannis Antentekoumpo. That's it. They went, 'Oh, you're from America, tell me about Giannis'. I ran basketball camps with them, just free throws, layup lines, just playing knockout, very basic, and to see the smiles on their faces! It was as if their problems didn't exist on the basketball court," he said.
Not just Greece, the NBA has found hordes of followers in countries like Serbia, Slovenia, Spain and Japan, which have their own NBA stars.
Possible routes to the NBA
To lay out how difficult it is for an Indian player to get into the NBA, Aahil shared some figures.
"Out of the 1000 players entering the draft each year, only 60 make it into the teams. Out of those 60, around 40 get to play in the NBA, some never see NBA minutes," he said.
Which was the case with Satnam Singh Bhamara.
Among the 60 players drafted each year, on average 12 are freshman college players from NCAA D1 and 12 others are international players. That leaves 36 spots up for grabs for sophomore players and others.
But what does all of this mean? What is NCAA and Prep School? What is Division 1? And how can this structure affect Indian basketball?
The easiest ticket to the NBA is through America's collegiate basketball structure, or NCAA.
NCAA is National Collegiate Athletic Association. It has three Divisions - D1, D2, and D3. D1 (Division 1) is the highest of all and covers 400 universities. Most of the NBA talent comes from this division, D2 and D3 are not so highly rated. These divisions also differ in other aspects, which can be found in the NCAA Guide for the College Bound Student Athlete.
The other option for players to get into the NBA is to take the international route.
But Aahil cautioned, "In the entire world, there are 12 players making it to the NBA each year. This route might take time, and the older you get, your chances of getting into the draft grows thinner."
Now that we know that the best route for Indian players is to get into D1 colleges, how do they get there?
There are three ways - walk-ins, prep schools and high schools. It is important to be part of good high school teams to catch the attention of D1 scouts. In such a competitive environment, getting into good high schools plays a crucial role. For example, Amaan Sandhu and Pranav Prince were in the same high school - First Love Christian Academy, Pittsburg.
Most international players opt to go to prep schools to prepare for college basketball. Which is what superstar European players like Giannis have done.
Satnam Singh Bhamara was part of the IMG Academy, and now Prince is part of AIA Prep School. But Prince's route might be different from Singh's as he might be eligible for an NCAA D1 scholarship next year, which was not the case with Satnam. Satnam had been drafted without playing in college, overseas, or in the developmental league.
Walk-ins are for the players who are not offered scholarships and are not approached by the head coaches to join the team. These players usually fill spots in the team after the coaches have recruited players or have a place after senior players leave the team.
Time will tell when an Indian truly makes an impact in the main season of the NBA, but surely we are getting closer to the league each day.