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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Amjyot Singh: India’s globetrotting basketball star with sights on the NBA D-League

Jonathan Raymond profiles Amjyot Singh, maybe India's brightest basketball talent who is hoping to hear his name called in Sunday's NBA D-League draft.
India's Amjyot Singh plays defence during a game at the Fiba Asia Championship in China in September 2015. AFP Photo
India's Amjyot Singh plays defence during a game at the Fiba Asia Championship in China in September 2015. AFP Photo

Imagine not growing up with basketball. You were a cricketer, in fact.

You never even saw the NBA on TV when you were a kid. They didn’t have that in Punjab, your home. Instead you watched your father, a player with the Indian national team. That was as close as you got to Kobe Bryant or LeBron James.

Now imagine you got hurt. It interrupted your cricket development (you were a pace bowler, you were pretty good). You took up basketball in the meantime with your dad.

You stuck with it. Or it stuck with you. You were a tall kid, after all.

Either way you got good enough to keep at it, move up the ranks and play with the Indian national team, too, like your father.

Somehow you got noticed. By someone, somewhere, far away. You yourself aren’t even quite sure where or how.

And now you may be plucked out of relative obscurity and drafted into the NBA’s D-League.

You’ve never even been to the United States. You had never even shot a basketball nine years ago. Now you might be headed to the level ostensibly just one step from the NBA.

That would make you Amjyot Singh.

Amjyot, 24, is eligible for Sunday’s 2016 D-League draft, which will apportion players to the teams in the NBA’s developmental minor league. He is one of three Indians hoping to land a spot with a club.

If he does so, it will distinguish him in the very limited Indian basketball history as the first non-centre to pursue hoops professionally at such a level. You might remember the names Satnam Singh (no relation), also from Punjab, or Canadian-Indian Sim Bhullar. Satnam is 7ft 2in, Bhullar 7ft 5in.

Amjyot is a relatively modest 6ft 8in. But he has made it this far, via a season in Japan, on his impressive and still-improving skill. A skill that is considered maybe India’s finest. A skill that he didn’t even begin to develop until he was 15.

“In India there is no basketball, only cricket,” Amjyot said this weekend at the Fiba 3x3 World Tour Abu Dhabi Final, where he earned a runners-up medal with his team, Hamamatsu.

Amjyot, like everyone else, played cricket. And he was good enough to play for Punjab’s state side at the junior level.

His future was more Ishant Sharma than Michael Jordan. But basketball, through his father, was never as far away for him as it maybe was for a lot of his peers.

And it found him eventually. He got hurt, and he couldn’t play cricket, and basketball began to fill the void.

“I started one day only, never shot a ball before, when I got injured I got three months’ rest, so I would go with my father for conditioning and he would play at that time,” Amjyot said.

“I never used to watch TV because in India you have to study a lot, because they have a set future that you have to take a job and everything is finished. So I was not into that sport basketball.

“When I got injured only then I started playing and knowing about basketball. Cricket is a very boring game, you have to stand, and they were all moving. I got interested in that.”

Amjyot advanced pretty quickly. He said within a year he was representing India at the youth level.

“I’d say that I’m a quick adapter. Whatever someone tells me, I adapt it very fast,” he said.

It has been a quick ascent into the professional ranks for the small forward/power forward, who in an ideal development would offer a team the kind of stretch-four talents that have become en vogue in the NBA.

He played with Chandigarh at India’s highest level, still a non-professional one – “The players who are playing, only their friends and family will come watch them,” he said.

Then last season he caught on with Tokyo Excellence, a team in Japan’s own D-League, where he won the second-division championship.

“Japan was very good exposure for me, my first time as a professional basketball player, learned a lot from that,” he said. “Because of that I think I got so much more experience to play.”

In India’s recent campaigns at foreign tournaments, Amjyot has acquitted himself pretty well. He scored 12.8 points per game at September’s Fiba Asia Challenge Cup in Tehran, as India beat more-established basketball countries like the Philippines and China and fell to hosts Iran in the quarter-finals.

Amjyot grabbed 8.3 rebounds per contest, and blocked nearly a shot a game (0.8). His shooting percentage was only 37.0, as he struggled from three (21.4 per cent), but his three and a half three-point attempts per game are indicative of his ambitions in expanding that part of his game.

“I’m working on three point shot, my former coach Scott Flemming (formerly India’s head coach, now with Division 2 Northwest Nazarene at the US university level), he asked me to shoot from the outside,” Amjyot said.

He shot a more promising 30 per cent from three at the 2015 Fiba Asia Championship, the continent’s premier basketball competition, held biennially. He was also India’s leading scorer at that tournament, pouring in over 20 points per game (20.9) in nine contests. He had 8.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and nearly shot 50 per cent overall (49.6) as India scored wins over Malaysia, Palestine and Hong Kong.

His game has the right look for a stretch-four. He is fluid in his movements and he will instinctively hang near the three-point line. His shot is a little elongated, but it looks very nice on release. The makings of a capable ball-handler, especially for his size, are there and he showed exceptional passing vision with his close-knit 3x3 team in Abu Dhabi. As someone who has always been among the taller players on the court, he’s also experienced with working at the rim.

With his length and agility, he can be a good defender. He also brings a good motor – with little depth in the Indian team, he and two teammates were among the top ten in minutes per game at the Asia Challenge Cup.

As a player who has had very little high-level experience, there is naturally a lot of coaching still needed to be done with Amjyot. But there are real tools to work with here.

It runs in his genes, after all.

“I play because my father was a basketball player, so I used to look at him, I grew watching him. So I thought I should also become a basketball player.

“My father invested a lot of time in me and he really helped me learn.

“It was his dream to go into the NBA so I am fulfilling his dreams.”

He’s realistic about that (“I don’t think so,” he said of actually making it all the way to the NBA, with a laugh) but he wants to show the wider world what he can do all the same.

“It’s on my work ethics. If I work hard I will prove myself, because I am not that much experience.

“I am still young, I will work, I think I can do it.”

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