This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on July 7, 2017. Click here for the original piece.
With no shortage of talented bigs, India’s immediate basketball requirement is in the backcourt
In the very first game of the BRICS Games in Guangzhou last month, India were down by 10 to China, 38-28 at halftime. The deficit, considering the circumstances, wasn’t really a worry up: China were always going to be heavy favourites over a developing Indian basketball team and the BRICS Games were largely serving as practice for the larger challenge ahead, the FIBA Asia Cup in August. India were playing in the tournament without star big man Amritpal Singh, but had seen good early performances by their other two stars Amjyot Singh and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi.
But early in the second half, tragedy struck. Bhriguvanshi, India’s most experienced player, a former captain, and one of the best shooting guards in Asia, took a hard fall and then writhed on the floor clutching his right knee. It took the help of medical staff and teammates to carry him back to the locker rooms. His night was over.
There is a common belief that basketball is a game for tall players, and scouts in India have long been in the hunt for the most talented bigs around from around the country to hone and develop them into game-changers. The swing towards looking for those athletic bigs took such a turn over the past decade that India now enjoys a glut of tall talents. The Men’s national team is loaded with a logjam of frontcourt riches, featuring Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh (set to return to the team for the FIBA Asia Cup), Satnam Singh (India’s first NBA draftee who will return for the championship, too), Yadwinder Singh, Rikin Pethani, Ravi Bhardwaj, and our first NBA G-League draftee, Palpreet Singh Brar. With a variety of skillsets and experience levels, these big guys will ensure that India will have the might to go up against any frontline in the continent.
The real problem for India, however, lies in the backcourt. Any regular player or fan of basketball knows that, while the big guys are the muscle on the court, the “smaller” guys (relatively) are the engine. It is the guards and the “wing” players who are usually every team’s best ball-handlers, creators on offense, shooters, and perimeter defenders. Even in teams where the big guys are the best and highest-scoring players, it is the players in the backcourt that set the pace of the game.
In recent years, especially with the way that the game has developed in the NBA and worldwide, there is now an urgent need for elite guards and wings for every successful team. Over the past few decades, guards have been faster, stronger, better shooters, and more athletic. A team with great big players will only be half as useful if it doesn’t have creative and talented options in the backcourt, too.
A great current example of this unbalance in the NBA is with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans’ frontline features arguably the two best big men in the league: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. But without too many backcourt options to set up plays for the big guys and stretch the floor for them to have space in the middle, the ‘Twin Towers’ experiment hasn’t worked so far.
The Pelicans will serve as a good learning experience for India’s rumoured new men’s basketball team head coach, Phil Weber. Weber has been a long-time NBA assistant and most recently finished working with – you guessed it – Davis and Cousins in New Orleans. In India, he will get a sense of déjà vu in that first practice, as Amjyot and Amritpal (and Satnam and Palpreet and Yadwinder etc. etc. etc.) will provide limitless options for dominance in the post, but the backcourt will continue to be a point of major concern, from New Orleans to New Delhi.
The good news is that Bhriguvanshi’s injury has turned out to be less serious than initially diagnosed; the player I fondly like to call the ‘Banarasi Mamba’ is now likely to return to the team in time for the FIBA Asia Cup next month. Bhriguvanshi will be asked to excel at multiple backcourt positions for India as both our best creator and best scorer at the FIBA Asia Cup. He will be a little rusty, and even if he’s at his best, India has no other players in the guard or wing positions who can match the best backcourts in Asia.
While Akilan Pari, Hafeez Muin Bek, Prasanna Sivakumar, Anil Kumar Gowda, Arjun Singh, Arshpreet Bhullar, and the aging TJ Sahi are all great players at the domestic level, they will struggle against the top guards and small forwards in the continent, such as China’s Guo Ailun, Philippines’ Jayson Castro and Terrance Romeo, Iran’s Samad Nikkah Bahrami, Lebanon’s Wael Arakji and Fadi El Khatib, and many more.
A couple of talented young perimeter players, like Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi and Prudhvi Reddy, are in the pipeline for India already, but still need to add muscle and match experience to be ready for the biggest stages. In the long run, however, India needs to begin focusing on developing young talent all across the board, and not just the “readymade” big players.
So, start dribbling kids: India needs a point guard. Keep working on that outside shot, on those passing skills, on your court vision, and learn to put the ball on the floor to drive and dish or to take it all the way to the hole. Basketball is as much a game for the quick and dexterous as it is for the big and strong, and India’s future excellence depends on finding elite-level talent to cover all ends of the spectrum.