It’s tough for giants to take baby steps, at the best of times. But the coronavirus crisis has forced a rather tall, young Indian – Jagshaanbir Singh – to carefully calibrate his dream of playing in the NBA and take it one small step at a time.
Amidst unprecedented uncertainty, Jagshaan has committed to play on the Pioneers team of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he becomes the first Indian to win a scholarship.
It’s a match made – though not quite in heaven – but nevertheless in the higher echelons of the basketball universe for the 7-footer. The Pioneers were brimming with guards and looking for a big man; Jagshaan was keen to get regular playing time, to break the general Indian narrative of being confined to the bench.
“I chose this university because I knew they wanted me badly and would fit me into the team. Their coaches have mastered the art of playing big, and I needed a team where I got good playing time,” says the happy man, who’s maintaining his agility and strength at his personalised gym at home in Jalandhar, alongwith regular sessions of plyometrics.
While a bunch of universities had approached the 213 cm centre, what tipped the scales in Point Park’s favour was how Joe Lewandowski and Daryn Freedman, head coach and associate head respectively, had helped shape the game of another Indian-origin big, the 7’5” Sim Bhullar.
The university was thrilled to land a guy who, in Lewandowski’s words, has “great size and athleticism as well as tremendous understanding of the game.” The chief coach also noted that Jagshaan had been “coached well” and was an exciting potential.
A mix of great height and evolved skills has been tough to find amongst Indians, but Jagshaan has had the best pathways possible. An inaugural year student at India’s NBA academy in Delhi, Jagshaan proceeded to Golden State Prep (GSP), a top-five finishing school for young bigs at Napa Valley, California.
Committed ❤️🙏 pic.twitter.com/SpAjB7hfJ1
— Jagshaanbir Singh Jhawar (@jagshaan23) April 29, 2020
The 18-year-old recalls sunny California and some rather stormy days on the road during his six months playing for GSP. “It was 50-55 games in six months which honed my rebounding and game sense in general,” he says.
It also made him fearless. The instilling of physicality happened with literally every blow he copped. “I changed my mentality from being a non-aggressive player to an aggressive beast,” Jagshaan recalls.
“I used to be quite slow, and could see I needed to dive for the ball. I was getting smashed every game because the game’s physical and I realised I had to do something after getting hit a ton of times. I started hitting back,” he chuckles invoking Newton. “Every action has an equal reaction.”
Jagshaan is uniquely gifted: a big who can shoot accurately and seamlessly from the rim. Point Park was uniquely placed to polish his skills since they worked on a similar game when putting together the almost seven-and-a-half feet Sim Bhullar package.
Lewandowski has worked with several men’s and women’s 3on3 teams. Assistant coach Freedman, who trained Bhullar (Indian-Origin, Canadian-born) who played for Sacremanto Kings in the NBA.
Marc Pulles, Basketball Operations Team Leader, NBA India, says about Jagshaan, “He is a 7-footer who can shoot, a combination which we don’t see too often in players. I’m sure Point Park coaches will hone his skills and further sharpen his basketball IQ. During his time at the Academy, we witnessed a tremendous improvement in his physical attributes and the Point Park programme will only improve his craft each and every day with competitive game-time in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics).”
Pulles reckons Jagshaan’s decision to bridge over at GSP was a wise one. “Point Park is a well-known basketball programme for student-athletes. After graduating from NBA Academy India, Jagshaanbir’s decision to attend a prep school (Golden State Prep) was the right move to make him ready for the competitiveness of American basketball. Becoming the first NBA Academy India alumni to get a scholarship in a US University is a big responsibility and achievement and Jagshaanbir will keep growing and developing his basketball skills to the next level, I’m positive about that,” he adds.
At Pittsburgh, Jagshaan will study business administration and as a rarer bird, as comfortable on court as he is studying Math and Economics, he is hoping to keep up with the coursework. The importance of academics at a time when sport has an uncertain near future cannot be overstated. “I’ve always maintained good scores,” he says having been massively influenced by Tim Duncan, who finished college as an impressive student athlete.
Life itself has been imperiled by the virus devastation, and Jagshaan is mindful of how all his plans are at the mercy of things limping back to normal. “It’s an unspoken sword hanging,” says his father Tejinder.
Training at his fully-equipped gym is all he can do at the moment, having returned on February 15 – initially for 15 days and then pinned to home after all international travel halted.
“I’m working on my agility and jumps in the gym. It’s a great opportunity I have of entering the American system given I’m going from a country where basketball isn’t big enough. I have to stay prepared in this lockdown so that when things resume, I’m not unfit and can show my skills when I get the chance.”
He’s desperate to get back on court, though he admits he doesn’t know when that might happen.
The university is equally keen to get started.
— GoldenStatePrepBball (@GSP_Bball) September 7, 2019
“We’re really excited about our entire 2020 recruiting class, but this one is a huge pickup,” Freedman said. “We are excited to coach and work with Jagshaan.”
The Indian’s life at California also taught him the American art of building a social bond with others on the team and how to appreciate each other. “Right ,now I’m following my future teammates on social media and we are getting to know each other.”
While he learnt basics of grocery shopping on his first trip to the US and all about eating healthy (“I eat healthy but a big body like mine needs plenty of food. I do miss Indian food sometimes”), his time with GSP also saw him visit several community centres and old-age homes in the Bay Area, San Francisco and Napa Valley understanding the role of an athlete in the realms of social responsibility.
Though india witnessed a quiver of excitement when Satnam Singh was picked by the Dallas Mavericks (and let go much more quietly), the country awaits a bona fide entry into basketball’s biggest league by an Indian. “What’s the point of improving if I don’t get to play?” says Jagshaan, adding that his college stint at Point Park promises just that as the leading 7-foot recruit by Pennsylvania. The giant stride will, of course, be when he can fly into the US to start university and Jagshaan insists he’ll be ready when it’s time, hoping for max playing time on Starting Fives.