India's Princepal Singh and the construction of an international NBA project

·11-min read

Talk to any international NBA scout worth his salt, and he will tell you there is nowhere in the world a potential draft pick can go unnoticed. The league's reach stretches its fingertips to every corner of the globe, plucking even the most unlikely prospects. Nobody embodies the NBA's foreign developmental philosophy better than Princepal Singh, an electrician's son from the small farming town of Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab, India, who is the country's latest and greatest hope to become its first NBA player.

"We may have a few slip through our hands, but not many," Scott Flemming, the technical director for NBA Academy India in Delhi, told Yahoo Sports. "We've kind of turned over every rock trying to find players."

Princepal played volleyball. He knew nothing of basketball when in 2015 coaches at Punjab's Ludhiana Academy noticed his size and athleticism and convinced him to give a different sport a shot. Six years later, he is a 20-year-old draft-eligible graduate of the NBA Global Academy, fresh off a season on the G League's Ignite, training in Los Angeles as he awaits word on an uncertain but promising basketball future.

How he got here is a testament to the NBA's investment in both basketball in India and Princepal as the most promising prospect in a nation of 1.4 billion people. The two are in the nascent stages of their growth, and Princepal is holding the ball on a precipice, having already lifted it higher than any of his countrymen, standing atop the NBA's developmental pyramid and still staring up at a a professional career in the sport.

'You've got to see this kid Princepal'

Two years into his basketball education at Ludhiana, around the time the NBA was launching its academy in India, word was beginning to spread in the league's international operations department. There's this kid Princepal. You've got to see this kid Princepal. He was only 16 years old, growing into the 6-foot-10, 220-pound frame he carries today. He was athletic and instinctive, intelligent and coachable, raw and driven.

"We finally got him to come visit the academy and work out with our coaches," said Chris Ebersole, the NBA's senior director of international basketball operations, "and right off the bat you could see he had a level that was uncommon in India at the time. Just from his physical traits and skills, the touch and natural basketball instincts he showed shot-blocking and rebounding, he had a special command of those things."

Princepal accepted an invitation to join an inaugural class of two dozen at NBA Academy India, leaving to attend the boarding school on scholarship nine hours from home, where basketball would be his major. Within 18 months, the quick study had graduated to the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia.

"The longer he stayed, the more dominant he became," said Flemming, "and we just got to a point where, as much as we would have liked to keep him, it was for his good to move on and face better competition."

The way NBA Global Academy technical directory Marty Clarke remembers November 2018, Princepal arrived as a 17-year-old with good size, great athleticism, nice touch and a limited basketball background.

"He was very raw in terms of his understanding of the game itself," said Clarke.

Princepal Singh played four games for the G League Ignite this past season. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Princepal Singh played four games for the G League Ignite this past season. (NBAE/Getty Images)

'There's 1.4 billion people'

Basketball in India was just as raw in 2010, when Troy Justice was the first NBA employee on the ground. A player of Princepal’s potential at the time would have graduated from Ludhiana and played his career on a government institution's club team, like the Bank of India or the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) or the railway services. Now the vice president in charge of international development, Justice stayed for five years, partnering with the Basketball Federation of India and state-level associations to grow the game. 

The NBA applied the same "grassroots to high performance" system it has employed in other pockets of the globe, training coaches and officials and funneling players from its popular Jr. NBA programs through its basketball schools, Basketball Without Borders, seven NBA Academies and finally the Global Academy.

The game existed in Australia for 50 years before the 1981 establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport's Basketball Centre of Excellence, now home to the Global Academy. Within a decade, the country finished top-four at the Olympics and sent Luc Longley to the NBA. He was followed by a handful of others before Andrew Bogut was drafted No. 1 overall in 2006. That's 25 years. Another 15 years later, more than half the national team's roster is in the NBA, and that does not include three-time All-Star Ben Simmons.

"Nearly a quarter of the world's global population lives in India," said Clarke, who coached under Brett Brown on Australia's national team at the 2012 Olympics. "There's got to be good basketballers in there, if we can get in there and do the work and find them, and part of that is inspiring them with basketball. Obviously, they're a massive cricket nation. They've got their own sport, but we would be foolish not to want to get into nearly a quarter of the world's population and hopefully inspire them to play basketball."

India's population and the sport's infancy stage there makes for an incredible opportunity, and the hope is that with the experience of fostering the game elsewhere will come an expedited growth rate. In that sense, India presents a unique set of challenges, but it also holds the potential for massive returns on investment.

"There's 1.4 billion people," said Justice. "So, when you compare it on that scale, you have small European countries who compete at the highest level with multiple NBA players, which in those countries basketball is king. Every youth in that country grows up dreaming to be the next Luka [Doncic] or whatever the case may be, whereas in India that didn't exist. There was not that, so we are creating that culture."

'Somebody's got to be the first'

Early returns are promising. By 2015, Amjyot Singh Gill and Satnam Singh were breaking barriers. Amjyot and Amritpal Singh became the first players from India to sign professional contracts when they joined the Tokyo Excellence. A staple of the national team, Amjyot has since played for the G League's Oklahoma City Blue and Wisconsin Herd. Satnam was the first player from India drafted to the NBA, taken 52nd overall by the Dallas Mavericks. He played 27 games in two seasons for their G League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

These were Princepal's predecessors, and he is already a role model to a younger influx of talent. Pranav Prince and Amaan Sandhu, products of NBA Academy India, earned scholarships to First Love Christian Academy outside Pittsburgh last year. Both played AAU for Team Takeover in the Peach Jam last week. The number of participants in the nation's Jr. NBA program has exceeded 11 million kids from 13,000 schools.

"When I do these coaching academies in India for Jr. NBA, I'll tell them, 'Hey, the same NBA that LeBron James and Stephen Curry are in is the same NBA we're talking about today,' and maybe you'll be the first coach of somebody who makes it all the way to the NBA," added Flemming, who also coached the India men's national team from 2012-15. "The chances of that I don't know, but somebody's got to be the first."

For years, Princepal has carried that weight for his country, and by all accounts he has shrugged it off his broad shoulders. The enormity of what his making the NBA would mean for the sport in India might be too cumbersome for a teenager to bear, but he has accepted it, instead harnessing it into his daily work ethic.

"I can't imagine being 20 years old and having the attention and pressure that's for better or worse put upon him within a massive country and a population looking to you as one of their great hopes in the sports world," said Ebersole, "but I hope that he's able to stay focused on himself and get a little better every day and know the rest is going to sort itself out. I think it's impossible for him to completely tune it out or ignore it. The noise is always there. It always finds its way through, but I think he's done a really good job."

'We're always looking for the next LeBron'

Three years into his playing career, Princepal joined the best international prospects from Asia, Africa, South America and Australia, many of whom hailed from countries with established basketball cultures. The first English word he ever spoke to Clarke was "charger," for his phone. The next two were "rebound" and "run," the first two stepping stones on his path to becoming a stretch big tailored for the NBA in the 2020s.

"He can just get a task and do it, get a task and do it and build up," said Clarke, who along with everyone else on this journey lauded Princepal's willingness to learn and focused determination. "A lot of people want to start at the NBA level, and they don't get good at anything. For Prince, it was rebound, run, catch and shoot, catch and drive. I do see him as the type of player who could fit into the modern-day game."

At the Global Academy, elite athletes from around the world are improving at such an accelerated rate that it can be hard for them to measure their own improvement. But when Princepal returned to India in October 2019, when for the first time his home country hosted NBA preseason games, he played some with his old NBA Academy India classmates, and Flemming was blown away by how far his star pupil had come.

As Clarke says, "I think in development people undersell the importance of being the man."

In April 2020, the NBA announced the advent of the G League Ignite, a team of elite prospects paid to play against G League opponents, NBA academies and foreign national teams. In July of last year, Princepal joined the roster as the team's first Global Academy graduate and his country's fourth G League signee.

The coronavirus pandemic limited Ignite to a 15-game schedule inside an Orlando bubble, and Princepal's commitment to India's national team further interrupted his first professional season. He played just four games for Ignite, collecting nine points on six shots and four rebounds in 24.9 total minutes of action. His dream of showcasing for NBA scouts all he has learned in his six years playing the sport was put on hold.

Where he next picks the ball up is anyone's guess, most likely a Summer League invitation or another G League contract from an NBA affiliate. He is not Josh Giddey, the 18-year-old Australian who will be the first Global Academy graduate drafted on Thursday. Princepal will almost surely be an undrafted free agent.

"As a sport, we're not very patient," said Clarke. "We're always looking for the next LeBron. You have to be patient, especially with bigs, especially when you look at their training history. What is their starting point? If Prince was a 20-year-old in America, he's played for 15 years, so he won't be as good until he's 25. If he can get into a situation where someone's patient and wants to work with him, they'll get the rewards from 25-35. There are stepping stones where a lot of kids unfortunately fall through the cracks, because people just aren't patient and haven't done enough research on where this kid is on his development pathway."

Those NBA fingertips that plucked Princepal from Dera Baba Nanak have to release him into the basketball wild, where he is still working in an L.A. gym to be the first Indian-born player to perform on the sport's grandest stage. He has seized every opportunity the league has given him, and the ball is in his hands now.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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