Armed with athleticism and confidence, Princepal Singh 'powers forward' towards NBA dream
The NBA G League has remained the closest any Indian player has come to breathing in the rarified air of the NBA. 19-year-old Princepal Singh could buck that trend.
Princepal Singh answers questions like there’s a shot clock ticking down at the back of his mind. His answers are short, crisp, and usually end with a flourish, like a three-pointer hoisted from beyond the arc.
The NBA G League-bound teenager is a boy with a height measuring 6’10”, a 7’2” wingspan, and immeasurable confidence. Two Indians ― Amjyot Singh and Satnam Singh ― have treaded the path that the 19-year-old will when he plays in the NBA G League this year (Palpreet Singh was on the verge of the G League, but was unpicked). But the G League, the NBA’s development league, has remained the closest any Indian has ever come to breathing in the rarified air of the NBA.
Ask him if he feels the pressure to deliver and he says: “Nai, nai, merepe koi pressure nahi hai. Freelance kheloonga wahan. (There’s no pressure on me. I’ll play freely there). Don’t worry!”
Ask if there’s the pressure of competing against top high school talent from the USA like Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, and Isaiah Todd, who will be in his team (called Ignite), and he’s certain he can match up.
Ask if the cultural differences will be difficult to cope with, and he says, “Culture ki koi dikkat nahi hai. Who toh adjustment karna hi padega. Koi mushkil nahi hai. Easy hai! (Adjusting to the cultural divide won’t be an issue. It’s something that needs to be done. But it’s not a problem).”
Mentions of his confidence, athleticism, and his height routinely find their way into conversations about Princepal with people who have coached him or seen him play.
Scott Flemming, who was a coach with the Indian basketball team, says that Princepal is a player with a ‘high upside’.
“What I mean by that is, he can get a lot better,” says Flemming, who is currently the Technical Director of the NBA Academy India. “You look at some players, and they’re very good, but they’re where they’ll ever reach. They’re not going to get a lot better. I think Princepal has the potential because of his athleticism.”
Having coached in the G League, Flemming believes given Princepal’s skillset and his athleticism, in two years he can be a different player than he’s now "provided he puts the work in."
“Princepal will be able to hold his own with his athleticism. He just needs to tighten up his game and become more skilled from the perimeter: ball-handling, shooting,” he tells Firstpost.
Power, athleticism, and flair
Ordinarily, you would find a player of Princepal’s height playing in a power forward or a centre’s role, both positions traditionally requiring players to do a lot of rebounding. It’s likely that Princepal will continue to play in the power forward position for Ignite.
But as Flemming points out, the role of a power forward is now rapidly evolving.
“They’re in a really important position because they are both inside and outside players. These days they’re increasingly expected to put the ball on the floor more and dribble, drive, score as well as being an inside player (rebounding and boxing out players). They have to be more versatile,” he says.
Anatomically, power forwards are tall and athletic. While Princepal has both attributes, he also needs to bulk up in order to make it work.
“Princepal is very athletic and tall. Those are two attributes you cannot teach. When I say he’s athletic, he can really jump high, and he can run the floor. Personally, I think he’ll go farther as a power forward (than as a centre). If he keeps working on his game he might even be a wing (a shooting guard or a small forward). I always tell him to keep working on that three-point shot, and those perimeter skills. You can get away with staying inside at a younger age and in India, but when he gets to the G League, he’s going to have to develop those outside skills. I think he’s really working on those.
“The other thing is that it’s such a physical game that he’s going to have to really keep working on his strength. That’s true for any young player. He has a great body to build on. He has the natural gifts (of height and athleticism), but now he needs to pound that weight room and get stronger and get his body bigger so that he can take that physical play that he’s going to encounter,” says Flemming.
Because he started playing basketball only at the age of 16, Amjyot believes that he got lesser opportunities than he would have otherwise.
"I played in NBA (G-league) at the age of 24. Had I started at 12-13, I could have reached that stage at the age of 18. I would have had more opportunities because they give more chances to youngsters in the US. By the time I got to know about those opportunities, it was already too late," he had told Firstpost back in June.
Despite the late start, Amjyot has had stints with two teams in the G-League. First, he was drafted by OKC Blue in 2017 ― where he spent a season and a half ― and was later picked by Wisconsin Herd.
Princepal has a five-year head-start on Amjyot, so there might be a temptation to conclude that this gives him a better chance to thrive and make the elusive cut into the NBA.
But Satnam was just a few months older when the Dallas Mavericks drafted him and assigned him to their D League (as the G League was previously known) affiliate, the Texas Legends. At 7’2”, Satnam was also not lacking vertically.
So what gives Princepal a better chance at catching the eye of NBA teams through the G League?
For one, Princepal has benefitted from being in the NBA Academy system for the past three years, unlike his predecessors. He’s also spent time at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, by which time he was already on the radar of American colleges like Oklahoma City University, a Division I college.
“When he first came in, he was pretty singular in his approach: he could do one or two things pretty well,” says Troy Justice, NBA VP and head of International Basketball Development operations. “But now coaches have helped him to open up his game. He can play with his back to the basket, he can play facing up, he can play short corner, and he can play from the free-throw line.”
For another, the G League Select Team ― the alternate pathway created by NBA, which will focus as much on skill development of players as on getting them competitive exposure ― is not an opportunity that existed back when Satnam or Amjyot were playing in the G League. The Ignite team will be heavily scouted as it has some of America’s top high school players, headed to the NBA Draft next year.
“There will be unbelievable scouting opportunities with this team, not only the games but even practice sessions,” says G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim. “This team will get a significant amount of interest… more than any other team… because these are young players heading towards the 2021 NBA Draft.”
On his part, Princepal believes in two years he can make it to the NBA. Until then, as Princepal says, “Freelance kheloonga. Don’t worry.”
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