Meet Sahaij Sekhon- The diamond among the other gems of Indian Basketball
The young two-way star has been making a name for himself with his performances with the National team. He will also soon make his presence felt in the big leagues.
Most of us, while we were growing up, dreamt of wearing the tricolour with pride after securing a major win for our country. Sahaij Pratap Singh Sekhon is a highly talented 19-year-old basketball player that had the privilege of doing just that. Sahaij's entry into the game against Palestine tilted the tie in India's favour, as the feisty guard locked down top scorer Kendall Dykes. Dykes seemed to be in great form as he hit big-time shots to extend Palestine's comfortable lead. India looked destined to drop another game before the Cagers rallied behind performances from their seasoned veterans and youngsters like Sahaij to win.
His urge to take up the toughest assignments and ability to multi-task, being both a lockdown guard and a facilitator, makes him stand out from the rest and are skills some players take years to perfect and master. The youngster from Chandigarh has truly arrived with a bang, but certain qualities are developed over time using your own experiences and learning from others. We were lucky enough to catch up with Sahaij as he took us down memory lane after India's momentous victory against Palestine, where he helped the team qualify for the FIBA Asia Cup.
Early Years- The rise of a young star
At a very nascent stage, you start by playing multiple sports, especially in India, where we have diverse tastes. Sekhon was no different as he started out playing cricket, wanting to be a budding batsman but that did not work, unfortunately. He eventually shifted into football which he has played since the second grade.
It was while playing football that his first coach Rakesh Kumar, spotted the bright, eagle-eyed boy, who played with quickness and guile that was like none other he had noticed before. Despite his relatively short stature back then, coach Rakesh recommended him to take up basketball as he felt that it would be the right fit for him. Playing with the school u-19 team in 2017 while being one of the youngest and shortest players instilled habits and an aggressive mindset that he still carries with him to date. His ability to hustle and not give up on plays while trying to outwork his opponents and never backing down from a challenge came from the impact playing with his seniors had on him.
Coach Rakesh's impact goes beyond the court as he was a key reason behind moulding him into a great player and a great human being. Sahaij candidly talks about how teachers in his school would take him to coach Rakesh if he got into any trouble to set him straight. His coach was strict, emphasising discipline over o and taught him to stay humble, work hard and stay disciplined while also being a guiding light whenever he needed one, he adds. The school also played a role with their pro-sports policies where they had sports as a compulsory part of their curriculum leading to future sporting champions such as Sahaij.
Growth spurt and the beginning of a long journey at the next level
It was after a run of brilliant performances from the youngster who eventually started dominating that coach Rakesh recommended to his family that they take him to the legendary coach Amarjeet Singh in Chandigarh if he wanted to play at the next level. Coach Amarjeet Singh has trained and mentored ace Indian players such as Amjyot Singh and Ravi Bhardwaj. The coach is renowned for being able to mould talent while helping the player become the best version of themselves. Sahaij took a giant leap with his move to transfer to SD school during the 11th grade. He also had a massive growth spurt, where he grew 8 inches, just like NBA star Anthony Davis, to stand at a towering 6 foot 4 inches.
It was with coach Amarjeet Singh's guidance that he transformed his game into that of a more well-rounded talent while staking his claim as one of the brightest young stars of the country, if not the best.
There is usually a stigma in Indian basketball where the tallest player in the school is usually played at the centre position to match up with other big-bodied players. The smaller players play at the guard position, so taller players with guard skills like ball handling and a pass-first mentality usually lose their touch due to the transition. The centre position requires a different skill set than that of a guard as most of their game is built around post-work, pick and roll and pick and pop situations. Guards, on the other hand, are more ball-dominant and are required to orchestrate the offense with elite ball-handling skills while finding open shots for their teammates and themselves.
Coach Amarjeet Singh noticed that Sekhon's skillsets were leaning more towards a defensive pass-first guard with the ability to score than a centre. Despite his growth spurt, the coach encouraged him to stick to being a guard rather than playing him as a centre. This move, according to Sahaij, helped him establish himself as one of the best in the country since he played to his strengths rather than starting over new in a different position. The guidance of his legendary coach helped him stay focused and locked in on his goals and targets as he knew he could fall back on him at any point and that he would always be there to pick him up. His ability to scan the court and make the best plays under duress while picking up the opponents best players and locking them down, helped him stand out as the accolades kept piling up, and people started taking notice.
First National Team Call Up- The start of something special
It was during the Senior Nationals tournament that he first caught the eye of Indian national team coach Veselin Matić. " We were playing against Uttar Pradesh in the senior National Championship. He was sitting on the sidelines, and that's where I met coach Matic for the first time. I checked in during the second quarter and was handling the ball. That is when coach Matic enquired with the team manager as he was looking for a tall point guard whose height is somewhere around 185-190 cms. After which I got the call to join the National team training camp on January 15th 2020," says an excited Sahaij as he reminisces about his first Indian team call up.
It was a dream come true for the youngster to have the opportunity to play alongside legends and idols such as Amjyot Singh, Ravi Bhardwaj and Vishesh Brighuvanshi. The immense happiness of receiving the news of his national team call up while celebrating Lohri with his family will be something he will cherish for life as he could share his joy and excitement with his parents and his family.
Coach Matic saw something special in the youngster and wished to mould it at a nascent stage. His confidence in Sahaij's ability was shown in the Palestine game, where he gave him the task of guarding Dykes, who was the opponent's best scorer. That kind of faith and trust shown on a prospect by a coach goes a long way with the player's development. That kind of confidence also bodes well for India's current generation of highly talented young stars.
A diamond among other gems
When looking at the current Indian squad with a magnifying lens, you could see that they have very few glaring chinks in their armour, with the right mix of veteran leadership and supreme young talent. This squad will maybe go down as the best squad in the history of the game in the country as they have the right tools to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
The talent levels present in the current squad is through the roof, with young stars such as Princepal Singh, Muin Bek Hafeez, Pranav Prince, Pratyanshu Tomar, Harsh Dagar, Arvind Kumar Muthu Krishnan, Prashant Singh Rawat and Sahaij. The different skill sets that each one brings to the table, along with their competitive mindset, can rub off on each other the right way and help propel them to chase a common goal of taking their country to the top. What stood out among the current group was not only the talent these players possed but also their work ethic and their ability to remain humble despite their achievements. Picking up pointers from each other would not be that hard when you are that humble as you can drive each other to be the best and, that is what these young stars did.
"Arvind's hustle on the court remains unmatched. The amount of effort he puts in to recover the ball and put pressure from defense to offense makes it harder for the other point guards to get the ball, whether it was Muin Bhai, Jogi Bhai or Vishesh Bhai," says Sahaij, while heaping praise on his peer from Tamil Nadu.
Harsh Dagar was yet another player who stood out as his ability on the defensive side of the ball stunned his peers. He also provided pointers to his younger teammates like Sahaij, helping them improve their game and the team as a whole.
Muin Bek Hafeez is a star guard touted as one of the key players for India at the FIBA Asia Cup. He has a work ethic that drives him and also his teammates to be better. " Our practice sessions usually start at 9 am, but Muin bhai wakes up earlier and heads to the gym along with his trainer at 6:30 to put in the extra work for an hour and a half. He is the hardest worker in a team full of hard workers. He kept up the routine till he sprained his ankle before the qualifying tournament," says Sahaij, inspired by the unreal work ethic of Muin Bek.
Princepal Singh is India's brightest prospect and a ray of hope right now in terms of one of our countrymen making it to the NBA. " Princepal will be the next Indian drafted to play in the NBA, and will it happen for sure," says his teammate Sahaij with pride. What made Princepal stand out as India's best prospect right now was his ability to grasp concepts quickly and the mindset to put in the work despite the difficulty levels without worrying about the consequences. " He put in the extra work and did not skip a session despite very little rest after coming back from training in the USA, and that is what has helped him get to where he is at," added Sahaij.
The future looks bright with these prospects, that possess the qualities that make them truly stand out and come together as a team at the same time.
Veteran leadership- A vital cog in a young player's development
Every great team in the history of sports has always had the right mix of youth and veteran leadership. One cannot go without the support of the other. The right advice from an older and wiser player can go a long way in helping a young star with their careers. Luckily for Sahaij and the other young stars of the Indian team, this year's squad has a whole range of savvy and experienced veterans who have seen it all. Big names such as Amjyot Singh, Amrtipal Singh, Aravind Annadurai and captain Vishesh Brighuvanshi have been through it all and know what it takes to get to the top.
Amjyot Singh has had experience playing at the highest level, both at home and abroad. The former G-League alum is considered one of India's greatest players to grace the hardwood, if not the greatest. He is a rare player who excels on the offensive end of the ball while picking his spots with perfection as he let rip. His ability to stay locked in and not lose focus on his targets is something he honed in on at a very nascent stage of his career. He was an inspiration for many youngsters like Sahaij, who grew up idolising him while watching him play as they were from the same hometown. "Amjyot bhai practices in the same facility as I do in Chandigarh, and I have grown up watching him play. He has taught me a lot about the various aspects of the game, like how to use screens and how to be confident while handling the ball, apart from inspiring and motivating me," says Sahaij, while talking about the impact his idol has had on him.
It was during the Palestine game that we got to witness Vishesh Brighuvanshi's leadership at its finest. The captain did not stand out in the score sheet but led his boys from the front as they mounted a comeback for the ages. His leadership is bar none and is a factor in developing young stars like Sahaij, Muin, Princepal, Pranav and others. " Vishesh bhai observed me shooting during practice and corrected my form. He made me throw the medicine ball around 200 times every day till I corrected my shooting form.
He followed up by observing me during practice to make sure that I shot the ball with the right form. He also motivates us in difficult situations in matches. In the Palestine game, he pulled Prashant and me aside to motivate us to do our best. He does not get mad if we commit mistakes as long as we put in our maximum effort," says Sahaij, while talking effusively about his captain.
This Indian team has the right mix of talent, experience and skill, along with a mentality that will help them overcome any challenge thrown their way.
The future looks bright for Sahaij and Indian basketball
Despite the problems posed by the pandemic, the team managed to give it their all and stuck to their training routines to help India qualify. Sahaij worked hard to bulk up as he used the time off to train on his terrace during the lockdown. He stuck to his routine and worked hard despite the challenges posed and delivered when it mattered the most for his country.
The young ace now has his sights set on playing professional basketball while earning a scholarship with a college in the United States of America. " I am talking to a couple of colleges in the United States with the hope of getting a scholarship to play with them. When I am 22, I want to be playing in a professional league. Let's hope for the best," says Sahaij while talking about his future plans.
Sahaij is a huge fan of Amjyot Singh, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum and looks to pick up skills and other qualities while watching these stars battle it out on the court. " Luka is one of a kind and is my favourite player right now. I have followed his games at the Olympics, and scoring the way he did in that tournament was unbelievable. He's going to be in the GOAT debate at some point in the future," says Sahaij when asked about the current crop of young stars taking over the NBA.
Indian basketball is surely on the rise and will eventually make its mark on the world stage at events like the Olympics and the FIBA cups. The support showed by the BFI, along with the hard work of the players and staff, will start showing results sooner than later. This Indian team will be the catalyst for success down the line as they take the role of being the torchbearers to take basketball in the country to the next level. " In the next 5-7 years, you will see Indian basketball take the leap to the next level. We are going to be a top 8 team in Asia for sure.
Right now, we are doing great as we are training with a keen focus on doing great in the FIBA Asia Cup. The BFI has provided us with all the facilities, and we also have international coaches training us, with camps being organized every two months. In the coming years, we will have a professional basketball league in the country which will help catapult the popularity of the sport in the country, helping us take the game to the next level," says an enthusiastic Sahaij, when asked about the future of the sport in the country.
The young star has a bright future ahead of him, with his do or die mindset every time he steps onto the court, along with his ability to stay humble off the court. His urge to outwork his peers and his opponents is what makes him stand out from the crowd, and will continue to do so as he believes in giving in more than 100 % as 100 is the least effort you could give if you want to establish yourself as one of the best.
Sahaij lives by the quote, "If you want to shine in front of thousands, you will have to outshine thousands in front of nobody," that is the Mamba Mentality right there, and that is what separates the best from the rest. The support of his family, his coaches, his seniors and friends, along with the same mindset he picked up as a 5'6' kid playing against his taller seniors, will continue to take Sahaij to greater heights. Sahaij Pratap Singh Sekhon, remember the name as you will see the youngster shining with the bright lights on him sooner than later.