D-League's Satnam Singh toils slowly toward NBA breakthrough

CEDAR PARK, Texas -- Satnam Singh and the Texas Legends are loosening up at halftime of their NBA Development League road game against the Austin Spurs, and their 7-foot-2, 285-pound center from India is displaying a smooth shooting touch.

The 52nd pick of the 2015 NBA draft dribbles between his legs, pulls up and swishes a 15-foot jump shot from the right wing. He then steps back and swishes one from 20 feet. As Legends teammates continue to shoot, he moves toward the basket, grabs two rebounds and dishes to teammate DeJuan Blair.

Singh then steps back out to the right wing and swishes from 18 feet and 20 feet. Finally, he misses an 18-footer, but then he banks in a shot off the backboard from the same spot on the floor. Mixing shots and rebounds, he eventually drifts over to the left side of the court and buries a 15-footer.

For good measure, he punctuates the session with a deliberate slam dunk. The rim announces a loud THUNK in response, and Singh turns to join his teammates as they huddle up to receive instruction from head coach Bob MacKinnon.

Surely, a player of his size who can knock down shots, clog the lane and protect the rim will be a factor in the outcome of this game.

If it were only that simple.

SINGH IS ONLY 21, but he has been the subject of global media coverage for the better part of seven years. ESPN The Magazine tabbed Singh as a future star in a 2012 article right after he turned 16. A recent Netflix documentary, "One in a Billion," chronicled his unlikely basketball journey up until his draft selection by the Dallas Mavericks.

For those unfamiliar with Singh's background, here is a thumbnail sketch:

He grew up on a family farm in rural Ballo Ke, Punjab -- a village with a population of about 800. As a child, he towered above his peers -- his father, Balbir, is 7 feet tall -- and left home at age 9 to pursue basketball at a sports academy in Ludhiana. By age 14, Satnam stood 7 feet himself and received a basketball scholarship to IMG Academy, a renowned sports training facility in Florida. After five years at IMG, he became the first India-born player ever picked in the NBA draft.

He's now in his second season with the Legends, the Mavericks' D-League affiliate in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, working to become the first India-born player in NBA history.

It all adds up to Singh being the dominant homegrown basketball figure in the world's second-most populous nation.

India boasts a number of basketball talents, including Palpreet Singh, who was picked in the 2016 D-League draft, and national team members Amritpal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Amjyot Singh. But those players don't possess the height, upside and international profile of Satnam.

After being drafted by the Mavericks, Satnam Singh was relieved to clear a major hurdle on the path toward the world's top basketball league. He's well aware of the popularity surge the sport enjoyed in China after the emergence of Yao Ming and would love to make a similar impact in India. Singh isn't making any brash predictions of eclipsing Yao, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year, but he wants to play a prominent role in growing the game from niche to mainstream status on the Asian subcontinent.

"My goal is to make basketball more popular," Singh said. "I think I've opened the gate for Indian kids. The gate is open, but they need to work hard. I know it's a lot of pressure. I just think about what I need to do. I need to focus on my game for my career, for my life, for my family, for my fans, for my country."

If there is one thing Singh has learned from all the media coverage he has received over the years, it's that there is widespread interest as he pursues a basketball dream. He has an opportunity to inspire millions upon millions of youths if he graduates to the NBA.

"He's got a lot of pressure on him," MacKinnon said. "There are a lot of people counting on him. We don't take that lightly. It's not the normal pressure that a 21-year-old has, and there is good and bad with that. He's handling it well. Right now, his focus is on his individual career, but he is the face of basketball in India. That is undisputed."

SINGH LIVES a relatively quiet life in suburban Dallas and spends a lot of time at home. There is little to distract him from basketball.

He attends a Sikh temple most Sundays. He will go to the movies and out to dinner. There are a couple of nearby Indian restaurants he likes, and he will accept invitations to eat at the homes of friends. But he prefers to serve as his own chef for the most part. He eats a lot of chicken, fish, vegetables and Indian beans while closely watching his calorie and carbohydrate intake. That means no rice or naan.

"I love to cook for myself," Singh said. "I cook every day. That's why my body is so lean, because I'm eating healthy foods at my house that I make myself."

All this makes Singh seem fairly normal off the court, but his life isn't without its celebrity moments. In January, he made headlines by participating in a professional wrestling workout at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida. Singh said he was flattered to be invited by the WWE and did it as a favor for a business connection, but he wants to make clear he isn't wavering from his career path.

"I'm here because of basketball," Singh said. "I don't want to lose my basketball. [WWE] is a huge opportunity, but I need to focus on basketball."

In 2014, Singh rubbed elbows with actor Akshay Kumar in Florida when the Bollywood star was visiting his niece, who plays basketball at IMG Academy. When Singh was drafted by the Mavericks, Kumar shared the news with millions of Twitter followers.

"He's really humble," Singh said of meeting Kumar. "I love him. He's a great actor. It was a good surprise for me."

SINGH HAS APPEARED in just eight of the Legends' 42 games this season. Based on statistics alone, it might appear as if Singh is buried on the bench. He's averaging just 1.6 points and 1.3 rebounds per game, but to hear his coaches tell it, those numbers greatly belie his progress. They insist that India's most famous basketball player isn't lost in the shuffle.

MacKinnon knows Singh wants to play but stresses that development comes in small increments and points out that Singh has moved up on the team's depth chart. Less than two years removed from a postgraduate season at IMG, he's competing alongside and against former NBA players and many others on the cusp of moving up to the NBA. It's too early to be concerned about statistics.

"Our league is hard," MacKinnon said matter-of-factly. "Our league is the second-best league in the world."

Instead, Singh's opportunities come in practice. He's being asked to focus on rebounding, getting up and down the court and being more active on defense. MacKinnon and assistant coach Zendon Hamilton, both in their first season with the Legends, said they have seen significant progress from Singh.

"Mostly this year, I have worked on my speed work and footwork," Singh said. "I know I can shoot anytime, but mostly I need to [work on] my post movement and get faster on my feet around the rim. More rebounding and finishing the shot."

In order to reach those goals, the team wants Singh to become lighter, which will increase his speed and reduce injury risk. It used to be that centers pushing 300 pounds and more, such as former pros Eddy Curry, Oliver Miller and Stanley Roberts, could enjoy productive careers.

"That's the old NBA," said Hamilton, who played six seasons in the league. "Those days are over."

NBA players are more athletic than ever now, and big men are expected to keep up with smaller players and react quickly to the ball. If big men are slow of foot, they are a major liability in transition.

Longtime NBA forward Eduardo Najera, who owns a stake in the Legends and works as a scout for the Mavericks, has insight on this evolution of the game. He played for the athletic Mavericks and Denver Nuggets teams that ran the court with abandon in the 2000s and helped usher in a faster style of play.

"Now the center position has become more of an athletic, long shot-blocker that can run with everybody else," Najera said. "It's been kind of frustrating for some of the centers in the league, like Satnam. So it's just bad timing for him, because he does have a lot of talent. ... If he would have come in a decade before, he probably would be an NBA player."

Singh is seemingly left with a paradox. While he works to shed unnecessary weight, coaches don't want him to lose the strength he built with years of grueling work in the IMG weight room. Singh has taken boxing classes in addition to his regular work with the team, and MacKinnon and Hamilton said the results are apparent.

"He's lost 40 pounds and become quicker," MacKinnon said. "He can run the court much better now. He reacts to plays better. He's in more plays in practices, and when he gets in games, he gets in more plays now because he can move better."

SINGH HAD ALWAYS intended to play college basketball, believing that was the natural path to the NBA. But speaking only Punjabi when he arrived at IMG in 2010, he faced a steep academic climb. It was years before he was fluent in English, which slowed his scholastic progress.

Dozens of Division I universities were interested in Singh, notably Central Florida, Miami, Pittsburgh and South Florida, but he was unable to gain NCAA eligibility. He instead made himself available for the draft despite being considered a relatively raw prospect. Fortunately for him, the Mavericks took a flier in the second round and are providing Singh with a structure for improvement. But the jump required him to grow up quickly in a basketball sense.

"It was a huge step for me, because I don't have college experience," Singh said.

It's fair to wonder if, given the option, Singh would have been in a better position to develop at the collegiate level. Have his NBA chances been hurt because he didn't get that opportunity?

"Absolutely not," said IMG basketball development specialist Dan Barto, who has worked extensively with Singh. "The Legends have said they're focused on his development. I think probably long term, it gives him a better chance of potentially being in the NBA from age 26 to age 35."

Barto believes the college basketball system can actually hurt some players who have legitimate NBA potential. In addition to the academic demands required of college athletes, NCAA rules restrict the amount of practice time. By contrast, Singh is completely immersed in basketball with the Legends.

"He will have all the chances and opportunities he wants as long as he continues to work," Hamilton said.

That bodes well for Singh, whose dedication draws ardent praise from his coaches. Just as his height was inherited, Singh credits his father for instilling his work ethic.

"He's in a minority of how hard he works compared to anyone else," said John Mahoney, who coached Singh at both the varsity and postgrad levels at IMG. "We've had pros come in here, but I haven't seen anyone work like he does. Just tremendous work ethic."

LOOKING AHEAD, Singh wants to play for the Mavericks in the NBA Summer League, which provides an offseason opportunity for young players and free agents to gain experience and showcase their potential, for the third consecutive year. After that, he hopes to join India's national team for the first time since 2013. The FIBA Asia Cup will be held this August in Beirut, and Singh said there is an "85 percent" chance he will be there.

So while Singh ultimately didn't see any action in that game against Austin, which the Legends lost 115-109, it shouldn't be perceived as a reflection of his progress or potential. Rather, it indicates he still has a lot of work ahead of him. But thanks to the habits instilled by his father, there is perhaps no one better equipped for it.

"He's determined to make it," Mahoney said. "He's going to make it."