With academy delivering and national league in the works, Indian basketball set to fly



Princepal Singh jumped high, caught the lob from Lokendra Singh and slammed down a dunk, before hanging on long enough to ensure he wasn’t fouled but his opponents Malaysia knew what they were in for.

In their 20-16 loss, India dominated inside the paint and along the perimeter in the opening game of the 3×3 men’s basketball tournament at the Hangzhou Asian Games.

They would then go out a few days later and beat Macau 20-12, with Pranab Prince’s swirling feints and dunks the epitome of the India playing.

It’s not normal for Indian basketball, but that has changed over the past few years. Now Principal’s aura, Lokendra’s relentless running, Pratap Singh Sekhan’s last nose and Pranab’s all-round prowess will face the power of China on Friday, September 29. And they will believe that anything is possible.

finishing school

That confidence comes from a solid foundation. Both Pranab and Principal are graduates of the NBA Academy, an offshoot of the league that is synonymous with basketball worldwide. They have been working in India for the past half a decade with the Reliance Youth Foundation, and the principal is arguably their most famous alumni.

From asking “Is that a Honda?” (What is it?) Asked about basketball for the 14-year-old to play in the NBA G League, his rise has been swift, and what has been the catalyst is the NBA Academy.

In modern basketball, size isn’t enough, nowhere near — everyone does everything and that kind of technical training made him such a good 3×3 baller. You can see it in Pranab’s movements too – the game’s seemingly natural lessons come from hours of fine-tuning. And it’s done in academia.

According to Bharatha Anantharaman, NBA India’s senior director of basketball operations, they have focused on identifying and developing talent across the country, but what the academy does now is “elite talent development”. School programs that introduce a structured approach to training are drivers of academies, but the primary focus is on developing elite talent.

Principal was among the first to benefit from this, and learned not only through training at the academy but also participating in programs like Basketball Without Borders where he trained with NBA academy athletes from around the world.

But finishing school alone does not make a race of bulls.

structure and below

The stronger the domestic competitive structure of any sport, the better off the players are: just ask Indian cricket. And this is where the Elite Pro Basketball League (EPBL) comes in. They had their first season last season, and it went so well that they are creating a women’s league to go along with the men’s. Also, 3×3 basketball league for both genders.

EPBL CEO Sunny Bhandarkar said the rationale behind starting a league was simple: dream of retaining Indian players. “Right now, a player’s only motivation is, ‘I want a certificate’, and that’s not enough. Take, for example, a leading basketball country like Serbia. The system is very transparent, and they know that if they play well, they’re in the national league. Picked up, if they do well there in the Euroleague and then even in the NBA.” In a country where employment with railways and services is still the primary driver of young athletes in sports, such a structure is foreign. And EPBL wants to change that.

To meet this goal, his league has a few changes that other professional sports in India do not. One is the minimum requirement of college players in each franchise: for which the league aims to replicate an NCAA type scouting system. The other is the no-foreign rule. “We want [youngsters watching] To see heroes and we want them to see local heroes. We want them to believe, ‘You know what, I can do it too’.

The demand from the players is clear: this writer has spoken to several national team athletes in the past, reiterating the importance of a professional league, official divisions that give young people the opportunity to play without relying on very limited slots. There have also been open trials to encourage transparency in player selection which has been a huge hit.

the challenge

But what is less clear is the other side, the league. Bhandarkar knows that they will not be minting money from off. For him, it’s a long-term game: From league owners to franchise owners, they have it in them to keep it up for at least a decade, he says. “We will pay the players [on time]. We will give them increments every year.”

Indian sports, however, have been burned many times by initiatives that dreamed big but could not sustain steam. Bhandarkar understands this intimately as the founders of the EPBL were also the founders of the UBA, which lasted for five seasons. “When we did it,” he says, “it was trial and error.” They learned their financial (and operational) lessons from it, he says.

For players to fully buy into the dream, for it to make a material impact on the system, however, they need to see it continue for a sustained period of time.

According to NBA’s Ganesh, leagues like the EPBL are a welcome development. “Our aim is to make basketball the number two sport in India. So, from that angle it’s great.” The more basketball, the merrier, basically, and that’s a win-win that can benefit everyone in the ecosystem. Players graduating from a finishing school will light up the league, and the league will provide an important employment opportunity for graduates from academies around the country.

Now, the league has big expansion plans – Bhandarkar sees the EPBL eventually playing like the NBA, dividing India into 4 zones to ensure everyone gets enough playing time. But before the dreams stop, though, there are still wrinkles to iron out. The main ones.

EPBL is currently an event that takes place in one city, the reason is simple: lack of infrastructure. Most of the country plays basketball outdoors, on concrete and cement courts with broken rims, and that’s something that will take a mass movement to change.

Another stumbling block is the calendar. Since most of India’s best players are employed by government departments, they are committed to playing in championships representing those departments. The clash meant that the EPBL had no choice but to go ahead with the launch of their inaugural 3×3 league despite India’s best at the Asian Games. They are missing 10% of their signed female athletes (as the 5×5 teams are also playing in Hangzhou) but that’s fine for her. If you’re committed to making a league happen, it’s bound to happen, and a hit is worth making some sacrifices.

They want two (short) seasons a year, which means athletes are engaged and can play competitive basketball for a long time: something that can only be a good thing for them.

As Principal and co are showing in Hangzhou, investing in sports will pay off. And with the optimism of organizations like the NBA and EPBL doing just that, the time has come for basketball in India.



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