Amjyot Gill gets a step closer to the NBA dream
Amjyot Singh Gill stood near the hoop on the edge of the basketball court, waiting. His team, the Oklahoma City Blue, was trailing Reno Bighorns 96-120 and, with just over 2 minutes to go, running against the clock. Right then, his teammate Javan Felix made a dash through the centre and passed the ball to Gill, who bounced it once, paused for a split second, and coolly sank a precise three-pointer.
Blue, the minor league affiliate team of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) Oklahoma City Thunder, would go on to lose the match 101-123. But Gill, the captain of the Indian national team and arguably the most talented hooper in the country currently, had bagged his first points on his debut on 5 November in the G League—the NBA’s developmental division.
Gill is the second Indian to be drafted into a G-league team and the third to make a splash in the US basketball scene after Satnam Singh’s sojourn with the Dallas Mavericks and Long Island Nets (G League) picking Palpreet Singh Brar during the draft last year. Though the NBA has long been pushing for an Indian presence in the league in order to make inroads into the growing sports market here, Gill’s predecessors weren’t able to make much of a mark.
Singh is back in India and Brar didn’t make it to the final roster after the 10-day trial. But Gill is tipped to be the real deal, and he won some playing time, albeit the last 4 minutes, in only the second game of the season for the Oklahoma team.
“I can’t believe it, that I’ve made it and am playing with OKC Blue. I have to prove a lot of things,” the 25-year-old says on phone from the US. “Since childhood, I wanted to come here and fulfil my parents’ dream, and I feel like I’m one step closer to that (to play in the NBA).”
Injury and boredom had driven Gill away from cricket as a youngster, and taking cue from his father—Mohinder Singh played basketball—he switched over to basketball at the age of 16.
All members of the family—his father, mother and Amjyot himself—were in three different gurudwaras in three different cities when the draft was taking place. “My father started crying when he heard I had been picked,” says Gill. “He has now applied for a passport as well.”
For the past few years, the power forward has laid claim to being the best player in the country. A product of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, and the late coach S. Subramaniam, the 6ft, 8 inches tall Chandigarh lad had given a measure of his talent during the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China, in 2015. He scored 13 points as India shocked the hosts 65-58 in possibly the biggest upset in the country’s history.
“I really saw him take a big step in the (2014) Lusofonia Games in Goa,” says Scott Flemming, who was the coach of the India team then and is currently NBA India’s senior director of basketball operations.
“He played at a high level, and made big plays when the game was on the line. He also showed some toughness, playing with a broken nose in the last couple of games. This gave him the confidence that carried over into the Asia Cup. I believe that was a springboard to his recent professional opportunities.”
His trade took him to the Far East, where Gill, along with fellow Indian Amritpal Singh, played for Tokyo Excellence—a team in Japan’s National Basketball Developmental League. His resilience was tested in the far-flung land as he had to adjust with not only the alien culture but also adapt to a more versatile role in the team.
A player who likes to work from the outside, the India cager had to plough through the middle of the court and create chances for his Japanese teammates. Also, for the two years that he was in Japan, he did not once come back to India.
“I don’t remember the last time I celebrated a birthday at home. Or been with family during any of the festivals,” says Gill. “All those sacrifices are slowly starting to pay off.”
While he was playing in Japan and has recently been exploring opportunities in Australia and Europe, America and the NBA remained his land of dreams. The Indian faced disappointment last year when none of the teams picked him in the NBA G-League draft.
“I don’t look at Amjyot as part of a trend. He made our team because of what he can do as a basketball player,” Mark Daigneault, head coach of Oklahoma City Blue, says on email. “We understand the value that it brings to the country (India), but I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on him.”
At 25, he is one of the more experienced players in the Oklahoma team, whose average age is around 23. According to Daigneault, “he’s a functional and intelligent player,” but the biggest priority for his support staff is now to get Gill ready for the physicality and explosive energy of the G League.
The training schedule already requires him to take 400-500 shots per day. He is still testing the waters, but over the years, the Indian has shown a tendency to adapt quickly and surface when thrown into the deep end.