India's Jeena Skaria makes the right leap

Jeena Skaria, vying for the ball against Uzbekistan at the FIBA Women's Asia Cup. Arjun Kalra/ESPN

For Jeena Skaria, timing is key. In her professional life, she times her rebounds to perfection, making her one of India's most important players. In her personal life, she timed the decision to try basketball from high jump also at the right time.

It was in school that her coach advised the then 14-year-old to pick up basketball over high jump due to her height. Now 23, Skaria is leading India's charge at the FIBA Women's Asia Cup, where her team has stormed into the quarter-finals of their division after beating Sri Lanka 88-42.

Skaria, usually a starter, had a bit-par role to play in the win, but only because the coaching staff gave the bench more playing time against a weaker Sri Lankan side. "We are taking this as a practice game to actually practice what we are going to play with," India's assistant coach Shiba Maggon told ESPN after the game.

Skaria is coming to the tournament in a rich vein of form. Hailing from Wayanad, Kerala -- the state that gave Arjuna Awardee Geethu Anna Jose to women's basketball - Skaria just led Kerala to their first women's senior national title since 1984. A title that was rotated between Chhattisgarh, Railways and Delhi for a decade finally saw a new champion. Skaria had 20 points and 18 rebounds in the semi-final and 20 points in the final. Many are already calling her "the next Geethu Anna Jose" or "the next basketball sensation from Kerala".

"She is my role model, but I can never become like Geethu chechi (sister)," Skaria says with a smile. "I do adore her, but our games are different and I don't think I can play like her."

Skaria does play a different game. Her deficiency in physical prowess is negated by an excellent leap. Early stages of high jump would have helped, meaning her rebounds, too, are a potent weapon. "I work on my rebounds more (than shooting). If you take more rebounds you have more chances of scoring," she says.

Captain and veteran of the team Anitha Paul Durai says of Skaria's rebound mastery: "If I think of the post I will always choose Jeena." Having one more rebound than your opponent often decides if you win or lose a close game.

But that's not her only value to the team.

Skaria's importance gets doubled because she can score hefty as well. She is deadly with her jumpers, something that makes her the trump card. While India were leading Sri Lanka 23-10 in the first quarter, Skaria was high on the scoring charts before the bench came in to play. Maggon, however thinks that's the part of the game she needs to work on.

"She has lots to improve," Maggon says. "She needs to move out of her range, that jump shot range. Start penetrating inside, because international teams scout and that is one thing she needs to improve.

"But whenever it is needed she always comes up stronger. She is one player who never comes under pressure. That is what is required at the elite level. She is always calm."

On Skaria's and the Indian team's mind, the upcoming quarter-final against Fiji comes as just another practice game. But Skaria wants nothing except a win in this tournament after what happened two years ago in China - the last International tournament the women played.

After losing all the games in the 2015 edition, India were relegated to the second tier of the tournament - called Division B - and now to get into Division A, nothing but a win in the final would do. Even though India were poor in 2015, Skaria was India's best player, leading the team in points and rebounds. Now, with two wins under their belt, she can't wait for the knockouts to get started.

To reach the level of her role model Geethu though, Skaria still has a lot to do. When India last hosted an international tournament of this stature back in 2009 in Chennai, Geethu, then the captain, finished as the top scorer.

To emulate Geethu is a tough ask, but Skaria is well on her way to becoming one of Kerala's - if not India's - best ball players.