Princepal Singh Is Ready for the Big Stage

India is a budding basketball nation with many talented players but has never had an Indian-born player play in the NBA. Singh is next in line trying to make the dream a reality.
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Half a world away from where Princepal Singh, a center on G League Ignite, was born and two doors away from where he currently resides, lives Dr. Gaganjot Virk, an optometrist who works in the Bay Area.

Last summer Virk was in the pool area of her Walnut Creek, Calif., apartment complex when she saw Ignite head coach Brian Shaw walking by. As a lifelong Lakers fan, she recognized Shaw, despite him wearing a face mask, and started chatting with him. “You’re the coach of the team that has the Punjabi player?” Virk asked. Shaw said yes.

Both of Virk’s parents were born in Punjab, India, the same northern state where Singh is from. On that summer afternoon, she said as much to Ignite’s head coach. “He’s from the same state, area, culture, religion, everything. The coincidences were all over,” Virk says. “And within our culture, everybody knew there was someone Punjabi coming to play basketball and hoping to go to the NBA.”

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In 2017 Singh was part of the inaugural class of prospects at NBA Academy India. This past July he became the first NBA Academy India graduate to sign a professional contract, doing so with the recently created G League Ignite, which won its season opener over the Santa Cruz Warriors on Wednesday. The team seeks to be an alternative pathway for draft-eligible prospects and features two projected 2021 NBA draft lottery picks, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, among other players.

“I still sometimes pinch myself that I’ve made it this far,” the 20-year-old says in Punjabi through an interpreter. “But I still have a long way to go.”

Others from India have come close to reaching the NBA: In 2015 Satnam Singh became the first Indian-born player drafted to the NBA, but he never reached the league and played just 27 G League games. In 2016 the Long Island Nets selected Palpreet Singh in the G League draft, but he never appeared in a game. Amjyot Singh later played in 43 G League contests between 2017 and 2019. Princepal, however, thinks about playing against Lakers star Anthony Davis, his favorite NBA player, and becoming the first Indian-born player to play in the world’s best league.

“Most of the players who have made it this far from our country have only made it to the G League,” he says. “I want to go beyond that and show everyone in India that we are not just meant for the G League but also meant for the NBA.”

“He’s put out the dream,” says Akshay Kotenkar, the director of basketball operations at NBA Academy India. “He is literally clearing the pathway for a lot of players. … And there’s so much more for him to achieve in this adventure.”

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Singh was always taller than his peers. At 15, standing at 6' 6", he traveled from his home in the Dera Baba Nanak village in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, a town which India’s 2011 census says had a population of just over 6,300 people, to Punjab, the state’s largest city of nearly 28 million, to try out for a sports academy’s volleyball team. While he initially sought to improve his volleyball skills, it was there that a coach at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy asked him if he had ever tried basketball. Despite knowing nothing of the sport—Singh was more familiar with cricket, volleyball and kabaddi, a contact-team sport popular in the region—he enrolled at the LBA, where coaches woke him up at 5:30 a.m. to begin the day and where he took part in two daily workouts.

In May 2017 at just 16 years old, Singh became part of the inaugural class of 24 top male and female prospects in NBA Academy India. Located in the Delhi’s National Capital Region, the Academy works closely with the Indian Basketball Federation and other local basketball officials in recruiting potential prospects. Troy Justice, the NBA’s vice president, head of international basketball, says it seeks to both help grow the game of basketball in India and increase the country’s impact on professional basketball globally.

More broadly the league sees India as a budding basketball nation, one that needs development from grassroots to the professional level, but that could also be a billion-dollar market. More than 300 live NBA games are now available each season with more than 91 million viewers tuning into NBA programming over the course of the 2018–19 season. In 2019 the league also became the first North American professional sports league to stage a preseason game in the country, when the Kings, owned by Mumbai-native Vivek Ranadivé, took on the Indiana Pacers. Still, while there were 107 international players from 41 countries on opening-night rosters this December, India, a country of more than 1.3 billion people has not developed a bona fide NBA player.

“He’s become a role model for a lot, a lot of people,” Kotenkar says of Singh.

The youngest of three children, Singh’s mother, Hardeep Kaur, was a homemaker while his father, Gurmej Singh, worked as an electrician for the state’s government. When Princepal first considered attending NBA Academy India, he assumed the highest level of basketball he’d ever reach was a spot on the senior men’s national team and, like his father, he would get a quality government job. “It would have been a nice life,” Princepal says.

He says he initially struggled adjusting to life at the academy. “I just didn’t feel it,” he says, adding that he “didn’t think he should be [there].” It was his first time away from his home state.

Still, as he settled into life at the Academy, his game started blossoming. “I’ve seen him really open up his world and really kind of reevaluate and come up with bigger goals,” says Scott Flemming, the NBA Academy India technical director.

In recent years Singh has competed at a number of Basketball Without Borders camps as well as in competition with various levels of the Indian national team. Following his stint at NBA Academy India, he was invited to NBA Global Academy, the league’s training facility for top international male and female prospects, based in Canberra, Australia, which only furthered his development.

To Justice, who was the NBA’s first employee in India in 2010, Singh’s continued growth also speaks to the success of the system more broadly.

“He’s the first one to go through this path,” Justice says. “And this new path represents new opportunity.”

This winter, Singh is eager to show what he can do on his biggest stage yet.

In recent months Singh has gotten more comfortable—and confident—in the United States. Virk, the Bay Area neighbor, met the Punjabi native last October when he first arrived and dropped off homemade saag and roti at his door. “A home-cooked meal just hits differently,” she says. She’s dropped off food multiple times since and the two regularly see each other in passing.

Increased time on the practice court has also made a difference in his comfort level. Shaw says that Singh has “made the most improvement” of any one player on Ignite. But, the coach says, “he’s also had the furthest to go.” Amir Johnson, a 14-year NBA veteran and current teammate of Singh’s, said earlier this week that Singh was a “workhorse,” adding that the two are constantly in the weight room together.

In the lead-up to the abridged G League season, Ignite frequently ran their players through various two-on-two and three-on-three drills, and installed NBA-style offense and defensive schemes. Throughout workouts, Ignite's coach also let his players take turns playing music over the gym's speakers with Singh often playing Punjabi hip-hop much to the delight, and curiosity, of his teammates. 

Shaw says he wants every player to understand the skills needed to thrive at any position. “We’re just trying to increase his skill set to be as versatile as possible,” he says. Singh, who communicates with his teammates in English but comprehends the language better than he speaks, welcomes the opportunity to learn.

“Basketball is the only thing he talks,” Kotenkar says. “And he just goes around putting smiles on people’s faces.”

Shaw has noticed Singh’s shooting range increase and seen improvement in his screen-setting, rebounding and defensive prowess around the rim. The 6' 10" center admits that while he used to think some of his international competitions were physical, he’s experienced a whole new level of physicality with Ignite, practicing not just against fellow prospects but NBA veterans like Johnson, Donta Hall and Jarrett Jack. “He’s not going to back down from anybody,” Shaw says.

Singh is very much a developmental prospect. He missed Ignite’s two December scrimmages after being in quarantine protocols following FIBA action and he did not play in Ignite’s win on Wednesday. Others on Ignite are poised to make a more immediate impact in the G League and are also more highly regarded draft prospects. “But everywhere he’s been on his journey, he steps into environments where everyone is better than him,” Justice says. “And when that happens he continues to go and meet that level.”

Now, in Disney at the site of this year’s unusual G League season, Singh is excited for the opportunity to showcase his development. And while he’s focused on succeeding in the present, he remains conscious of the significance of his journey.

“I really want the youth [in India] to think that they can make it to the NBA,” Singh says. “And that is what I am aiming for.”