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Satnam Singh: an NBA History-Maker, and a New Type of Super-Big

Updated: 27 June 2015 14:33 IST

Satnam Singh, who was picked up by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round, is 7ft tall and nearly 300lbs - and he might change the way truly big guys are developed.

Satnam Singh: an NBA History-Maker, and a New Type of Super-Big
On Thursday, Satnam Singh became the first Indian player selected in the NBA Draft when the Dallas Mavericks took him in the second round. © NDTV

Two springs ago, I spent a day in Bradenton, Florida with two of the biggest 17-year-olds anyone will ever see. Both were over 7ft tall, with enormous hands and sheepish smiles. Neither spoke much English - they came from the other side of the world.

The taller of the two, Meng Xiang Yu, from China, was 7ft 2in and slender. The other, Satnam Singh, from India, was shorter but weighed almost 300lb. Even in adolescence, Singh looked like a NBA player. (Satnam hopes his NBA entry inspires Indian youth)

On Thursday, Singh became the first Indian player selected in the NBA Draft when the Dallas Mavericks took him in the second round. (Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan hail Satnam Singh)

I had first met Meng and Singh a few weeks before at the IMG Academy while working on a story about a prospect in the NFL draft. I was standing in IMG's weight room, watching football players working out, when Meng and Singh walked in, towering over the men who would soon play in the NFL. It was an odd juxtaposition: these two boys in giants' bodies looming over grown men who were giants themselves.

When I went back to IMG a few weeks later to write about Meng and Singh, I met with IMG's coaches, who explained they were conducting a sort of experiment with the two players.

Because both came from remote places - Meng a small city and Singh a tiny farming village - they were a blank slate, uncorrupted by America's AAU system or the European pro leagues. No coach had drooled over their height and overworked them in the name of winning games.

So often, super-bigs, as players like Meng and Sing are called, get overworked. Their feet, still growing, can't handle the stress of carrying such large bodies up and down a court. They break down.

IMG's coaches wanted to change that. Meng and Singh's lack of a basketball profile made them the perfect test cases. What if instead of playing a young super-big all the time as an AAU or professional coach would do, you instead nurtured their development slowly, sitting them for weeks at a time to give their bodies a chance to mature?

"Think about a triathlon runner or a marathon runner," Dan Barto, IMG's head basketball skills trainer, told me. "You don't go out and run 26 miles: you run 10 one day and 18 another. It's the same thing here. We are taking our time."

Meng and Singh were raw prospects. They were big long before they were polished. The temptation for any coach would have been to play them constantly, to give them experience, but IMG's coaches did the opposite.

They made mandated rest, slowing Meng and Sing's basketball growth but possibly saving their futures.

"We are wondering if patience and vision will change the culture of basketball everywhere," Barto said that day. "That's the goal. If we do it in the two biggest countries of the world, why can't we do it in Europe? Why not do it in the United States? What if [then-NBA commissioner] David Stern allows guys to go straight to the NBA again? You have to have a plan for a kid.

You can't send him to the local high school and score 30 a game. He won't be psychologically ready."

Despite both being over 7ft, Meng and Singh had completely different styles. The lanky Meng was a perimeter player, more shooter than rebounder.

Singh was more rugged, the kind of player who could stand close to the basket and push his way to rebounds as well as block shots. Of the two he seemed the more likely to someday play in the NBA.

Now that he has been drafted, it appears IMG's experiment may have worked. He has stayed healthy when most teenagers his size would have come down with foot ailments.

Last season, playing against high-level high school teams in Florida and at national tournaments, he averaged 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while playing only about 20 minutes a game.

It's hard to imagine Singh in the NBA any time soon. He had good hands and a decent shooting touch for someone so big, but there was so much still to learn. He knew few of the nuances that come naturally to most NBA prospects. He is 19 now and by most accounts he seems healthy and fresh.

When he eventually gets his NBA shot he will carry the challenge of perhaps being the first from his country to play in an NBA game. But more importantly, he might be the successful result of an experiment - one tried over several years in a Florida gymnasium.

He might just change the way super-bigs are developed forever.

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