Earlier this year, Princepal Singh told ESPN that he would soon play in the NBA. There wasn't any hint of bravado, or PR-manufactured optimism in his voice, it felt like he was merely stating the obvious. Now, thanks to his selection in the NBA's G-League Select programme, he's almost there.
The concept behind the programme is simple. The NBA plans to identify, woo, and incorporate select individuals into a team that would groom the superstars of tomorrow. Instead of going to a top college, the best high school students (those not eligible for the main NBA draft) will play in a specially designed programme within the NBA's minor league setup designed to hone their skills, their personalities and prepare them for the big step up. A programme, that, unlike what the NCAA offers, will pay. And pay well.
The league sees this as the best way to invest in their most important resource - young talent. And they mean business. They have signed up six players already, all of whom are, as the parlance goes, ballers.
How special is this group? The first name on this sheet is Jalen Green, the No.1 high school prospect in the 2020 ESPN 100. The four others are also straight off the top 100 list, all of whom had the best NCAA D1 colleges after them -- Jonathan Kuminga (no. 4), Isiah Todd (no. 15), Daishen Nix (no. 21), and Kai Sotto (no. 65).
The sixth is an electrician's son from Dera Baba Nanak, a small town in Punjab. For a guy who, some five years ago, when asked if he was interested in basketball, had replied, "Oo ki honda?" (what is that?), Princepal Singh is now in elite company.
Princepal still talks in that same even, almost detached, tone. His sentences are short, the message to-the-point. He accepts congratulations with humility, brushes off compliments and keeps repeating that he has much to learn. He talks about how his experience playing abroad will help him adjust fast. He knows what he has to improve on - "game sense, strength, speed", and his conversational English. He talks about how much he values the opportunity.
Troy Justice, NBA VP and head of International Basketball Development, says the opportunity is simply a function of the hard work Princepal has put in, especially in the three years he has been with the NBA Academy.
"Every year we have seen incredible growth, he has improved year-on-year in the fundamentals, skills, athleticism and strength -- just his ability as a basketball player to get better is a great sign," he says. "When he first came in [to the Academy], he was pretty singular in his approach, he could do one or two things well. But now, the coaches have helped him to open up his game. He can play with his back to the basket, facing up, short corner, and from the free-throw line."
The Academy, he says, has helped the 6'10" Princepal become the kind of complete player that modern, position-less basketball demands. His selection is no accident.
The Select programme was one that the NBA had tried to introduce last year, for the current season, but there had been no takers. High value prospects who opted not to go to college skipped the Select programme to go abroad (like LaMelo Ball, who went to Australia), where the pay was simply much better. So the NBA upped the remuneration from the base $125,000 to contracts that could cross $500,000 (which is how much reports indicate Green's contract will be worth).
They hired Brian Shaw, three-time champion with the LA Lakers, as their head coach. They defined in clearer terms what joining up would entail -- academic scholarships, hands-on mentorship, and all the evident advantages of being in a program that has the unadulterated power of the NBA itself behind it.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim, president of the G-league and driving force behind the programme, says the idea behind it was to ensure that the 30 NBA teams could monitor and scout the truly 'elite' prospects at close quarters.
"This team will get a significant amount of interest, more than any other team - simply because these are young players that will be heading towards the NBA Draft. There will be unbelievable scouting opportunities, not only in the games but even the practices," he says.
Abdur-Rahim explains further: "With this team we have the ability to build a program for each player; we will also ensure that these players get the attention they need on and off the court. Crafting the team is really an extension of what we do with our Academy."
The team itself will not play within the traditional G-league format, but instead play choice games against the league's teams and against top international teams. The idea being that the youngsters get exposure without having to undergo the full G-league schedule -- one that is full of long bus rides and red-eye economy flights, an often-brutal experience. It will, of course, be hard to replicate the true competitive fervor of NCAA Division 1 ball, but Abdur-Rahim is confident they can make up for it.
Princepal is the only player, as of now, selected from outside the elite US high school programmes, the only NBA Academy graduate (not just the India Academy, but globally). He is not only a walking testament to the efficacy of the NBA's initiatives in developing the game globally, but he will also get the best possible springboard to get into the NBA proper. He will have, arguably, the best possible support system behind him. His success will scream the same for everything the NBA is doing right now. That can be a huge advantage, and a cause for heavy pressure.
Princepal, though, is taking it all in his stride. "Nah, I'm not under any pressure. I am not nervous. I am just excited to play [with the best American high school basketball has to offer]. I will play with a free mind. And as ever, I will give my 100%."
And when Princepal Singh gives his 100%, dreams start coming true. Come 2021, the NBA Draft might just have a distinctly Punjabi flavour to it.