As Harsimran Kaur earns NCAA Division I scholarship, examining how it can help a player break into the WNBA

In July this year, Harsimran Kaur became only the third Indian women’s basketball player to earn a NCAA Division I scholarship. But why is playing in the NCAA Division I a big deal? And how does playing in Div I help a player?

Amit Kamath September 13, 2020 19:26:03 IST
As Harsimran Kaur earns NCAA Division I scholarship, examining how it can help a player break into the WNBA

Over the past few years, a steady trickle of Indian women players have made their way to USA to sharpen their skills at the high school, or collegiate level.

In July this year, Harsimran Kaur became only the third Indian women’s basketball player to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship after Kavita Akula and Sanjana Ramesh.

Harsimran, who is 6’3”, has committed to play for the University of San Diego from the 2021 academic year.

But why is playing in the NCAA Division I a big deal?

In simple terms, the Women’s NBA, or WNBA, does not have a development league like the NBA’s G League. This makes NCAA Division I colleges drafting hotbeds for WNBA teams. As per the NCAA website, almost 95 percent of the players currently on the rosters of WNBA teams have played Division I women’s college basketball. As many as 31 of the 36 draft picks at the 2019 WNBA Draft were players from Division I colleges.

While those numbers are encouraging, the fact of the matter is the WNBA is more difficult to break into than the NBA, considering there are just 12 teams in the women’s league (as opposed to 30 in NBA), each with 12 spots available on their roster for the season (Some like Indiana Fever have 13 players on their roster for this season).

According to NCAA’s own estimates, just about 2.8 percent ― 31 out of 1,120 ― of draft-eligible Division I players were chosen in the 2019 WNBA draft, showing just how narrow the tip of the mountain is.

So how does a stint at a NCAA Division I college help a player?

“In my first year here, I’ve learnt to play in a system. In India, it’s more of a freestyle system, you play just as your heart desires. You just go with the flow,” says Sanjana, who studies with the Northern Arizona University after earning a Division I scholarship in 2018. “The Americans have a system for everything: what to do when you are defending or while you’re transitioning to offence. It’s very detailed and technical. I had to understand these technicalities of what it’s like to play every game.”

As Harsimran Kaur earns NCAA Division I scholarship examining how it can help a player break into the WNBA

Indian basketball player Harsimran Kaur in action during a basketball camp. Image courtesy: NBA Academies

Ask Sanjana if she had to unlearn things when she started out at the Northern Arizona University, and she tells Firstpost: “One thing I had to unlearn is that when I was in India we would play like a full 40-minute game. I used to not get tired at all. But here, I will play five minutes and I will be exhausted. It’s because they prefer five minutes of full intensity, like at 100 percent, than the 40 minutes of 60 percent or something.

“In India, I would walk back or relax a little bit during games. I had to unlearn that. You have to give 300 percent in every single play, every possession, every fast break because everyone’s putting in that much effort. You have to reach at that level. You have to stop loitering around and try to save energy, give everything you have got and come out for a few minutes if you’re tired and then give everything you’ve got again.”

Sanjana adds the first year was a steep learning curve in every aspect, from understanding the culture to training in the gym.

“Basketball-wise I realised that US is another level and their players train for so many years, and we haven’t had those kind of training sessions or weight room sessions. There were new things I did that I have never done before, be it in the weight room or on the court… Another thing was creating a team bond. It’s a little difficult here. I come from a place where if you’re on the same team, you’re just friends. In America, people are more individualistic I guess and you have to make a team bond with everyone, It’s a little tricky if you come from a different country. You have to understand someone’s culture… so it does take time,” she says before narrating how she has been teaching her friends dance moves to songs like kaala chasma and getting them to taste Indian food.

Need for strength

Nearly a year and a half before Harsimran got the University of San Diego offer, in January 2019, Jennifer Azzi had picked her as an athlete who had the potential to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship.

“What sets Harsimran apart are her attitude and her mental strength,” says Azzi, the Global Technical Director for the NBA Academies Women’s Program. “She started out as more of a post player, but given her skillset eventually if she does go to the WNBA, she’ll need to be a wing, a three player. What sets her apart is her toughness. You could almost mistake it for a bad attitude, but it’s not. She just really wants to succeed.”

Ask Azzi what Harsimran needs to work on to make the leap from NCAA Division I to the WNBA, and she says, “Strength. It is the physical step that is the toughest to take. It’s the same with all young women who’re going to college. I remember when I went to college it was an eye-opener. Everybody is so much stronger and faster. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.”

Having spent a year in university, Sanjana agrees with Azzi, believing that she needs to add some muscle to make the WNBA cut.

“I believe I need to be more versatile. I have the moves for a power forward and post because I’ve learnt it all my life in India. I’ve changed my game slowly to a more outside game ― shooting more three pointers, driving in more, using my long legs to get a step in and stuff. But my body is a little lean and American players are very strongly built. That’s what I think I need to change in my game to make it to the WNBA.”

Sanjana says she was constantly in touch with Harsimran regarding picking a college as she had four to five offers on the table. But the one thing Harsimran, and other players in the future, will realise quickly when they get to college is how fast they grow up.

Sanjana says, “Living on your own is hard. Sometimes you do everything like you’re an adult. You might be really homesick. But you have to be positive and look at the bigger goal of making it to the WNBA.”

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