SAN ANTONIO -- In March, Daryn Freedman, the basketball coach at The Kiski School in Saltsburg, Pa., took a few of his players -- including two little-known Canadian brothers whose parents emigrated from India two decades ago -- on a visit to West Virginia. The group watched the Mountaineers beat Georgetown in a nationally televised Monday night game, and then dropped by the WVU locker room, where, Freedman says, the brothers seemed to be in awe of the scene.
They had never before been around a major college team. But ... the Mountaineers had never been around anyone quite like them, either. Deniz Kilicli, WVU's Turkish freshman power forward, asked if they'd pose with him for a picture. Kilicli is listed on West Virginia's roster at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, and was often described as a "beast" in recruiting profiles. He wanted the photo because the visitors made him look small.
The elder brother, 17-year-old Sim Bhullar, is a 7-4, 285-pound junior at Kiski. The younger brother, 15-year-old Tanveer Bhullar, is a 7-2, 260-pound sophomore. As the Bhullars head into their second season of prep school ball in the U.S. after leaving their home near Toronto, they're attracting attention on multiple levels: as project-prospects for D-I teams; as the first prominent hoops recruits of Indian descent; and as general spectacles wherever they travel.
On Monday at the FIBA Americas U18 tournament, held at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, there were three people who caused commotions in the gym. Spurs legend David Robinson was stampeded by autograph-seekers when he walked into the U.S.-Argentina game. No. 1 NBA Draft pick John Wall had a long line of fans waiting for his signature, too. And then there was Team Canada curiosity Sim Bhullar, who's here without his younger brother, but still can't walk anywhere without eliciting spectators who want to stand next to someone much taller than them, and have it documented in a photograph.
"I've been in maybe a thousand [pictures]," Bhullar said, and he didn't mean in his lifetime -- he meant in the weeks since his Team Canada crew had begun training and come to the U.S. for the FIBA event. He doesn't exactly relish the photo ops; they're more something he endures, to the amusement of his teammates. As he stood in the arena's lobby with an elderly, 5-foot-tall woman who was beaming, Bhullar's teammates goaded him to be more animated. He did not comply. Canadian point guard Myck Kabongo, who is bound for Texas in 2011 and is the team's most famous recruit, has Bhullar's standard pose down pat: "He leans back away from the camera, like he doesn't want to be there," Kabongo says. "And he never smiles."
Bhullar tends to be more lively when he receives the ball on the block. He has surprisingly good hands for someone who's 7-4, and can drop in baby hooks or kick the ball back out of a double-team with ease. He's also capable of sealing off defenders with a drop-step and dunking from point-blank range. In a 122-89 loss to the U.S. on Tuesday, he logged 17 productive minutes off the bench, scoring 14 points, grabbing four rebounds and blocking three shots.
Canadian coach Greg Francis put Bhullar on the U18 team because of the progress he's made since last offseason -- he weighed well over 300 pounds and had trouble making it up and down the court -- but was still hesitant to play the big man extensively in the FIBA tournament due to conditioning limitations. Bhullar earned just seven minutes (scoring five points) in Canada's overtime win over Argentina in the bronze medal game. "If he keeps making improvements," Francis says, "he'll be a heck of a player."
In the mind of Freedman, a former Division I assistant at Duquesne who also worked for the Sixers and Nets, Bhullar is already a player; he nearly averaged a triple-double (16 points, 14 rebounds, eight blocks) for Kiski this past season. Freedman was watching the FIBA games online and lamenting just how few post touches (and minutes) Bhullar was receiving. "I know I sound like a parent who thinks too highly of his kid," Freedman says, "but I've seen Sim dominate. If you give him the ball, and the opportunity to dominate, he'll dominate. He knows what to do with it in the post."
Freedman genuinely believes the best comparison for Bhullar is Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis, one of the most skilled passing-and-shooting 7-footers of all-time. The Kiski coach says Bhullar has Sabonis-like range well beyond the college three-point line, although he didn't have the green light to display it in the high-pressure FIBA environment, where he was strictly a behemoth shuffling around the paint in size-22 Nikes. One imagines the college teams who've shown interest in Sim -- he says the list is West Virginia, Cincinnati, Washington, Washington State, Duke, Texas, USC and Indiana -- are more interested in his size than his potential as a gunner. His preference would be to play for the Mountaineers, and he says his parents, who aren't well-versed in the U.S. college system, will support whatever choice he makes. "They would love it, though," he says, "if my brother and I could play together."
Sim and Tanveer's father, Avtar, is 6-4, and their mother, Varinder, is 5-10; they grew up in the northern Indian state of Punjab before moving to Canada, and had no exposure to basketball prior to enrolling their children in local youth hoops programs. The boys' 19-year-old sister, Azneet, is a law student in England who acts as the family's de facto spokesperson for interview requests. She explained by phone that Avtar, who now operates a gas station on property he owns in Toronto, grew up only playing the traditional Punjab contact sport of Kabaddi. "But as my brothers and I were growing up," Azneet says, "we started watching Raptors games with the whole family, cheering and screaming at the TV, and basketball became a family sport."
That's why the Bhullars transferred their boys to Kiski on the recommendation of a Toronto-area youth coach who knew that Freedman had just taken the job: They wanted Sim and Tanveer to have a better opportunity to develop their basketball skills, which could lead to college scholarships and -- who knows? -- the first-ever Indo-Canadians in the NBA. And so they trudge through early-morning cardio sessions, and afternoon practices, and evening shootarounds in rural Pennsylvania, in pursuit of that dream.
When they first ducked through the doorframe of Kiski's admissions office on their visit in 2009, Freedman was waiting for them, with a smirk on his face. "You couldn't help but smirk," he says. "I saw big guys when I worked in the NBA, but I hadn't understood they were going to be that big."
He'd invited them to the prep school sight unseen, and had assumed, after receiving a scouting report that they were big men who "needed a lot of work," that they'd be beanpoles who weren't actually even 7-feet. Centers' attributes are often exaggerated in the recruiting world, but it turned out the Bhullars' size had been severely undersold. They were actually giants.
"The secretary from admissions didn't know what to say, either," Freedman recalls. "We'd never seen people that big before. And we were finally like, 'Well, let's just see what we can do with them.'"