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So Much Potential, So Far To Go For Young Basketball Prospect


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — When the 7-foot-4 center Sim Bhullar walks through airports, people flock to him and ask him to pose for pictures. When he recently visited India, where his parents were born, so many approached him at the Sikh shrine known as the Golden Temple that he was ushered into an office. People hung on the bars of the office windows to catch a glance.
At 7 feet 4 inches, 17-year-old Sim Bhullar brings the obvious attributes to the floor, clogging the lane with his thick frame.

Anne McQuary for The New York Times

Despite his potential, some are skeptical Sim Bhullar (15) can be a consistent contributor.

Yet only a few who follow college basketball recruiting actually know who Bhullar is: a 17-year-old from Toronto who orally committed to play for Xavier. Recruiting gurus also know his brother Tanveer, 16, another college prospect at 7-2 and 260 pounds.

But as untrained eyes from airport terminals to religious landmarks have shown, Bhullar’s basketball potential is obvious. No matter what level he rises to, Bhullar is poised to become the first prominent men’s basketball player of Indian descent.

“I think it would be a blessing,” he said, “to be the first from an entire country to go to the N.B.A. and be a role model.”

The Chinese star Yao Ming, a former No. 1 pick, is retiring from the Houston Rockets, so it is easy to infer that Asia is ready for its next great basketball ambassador. Although Bhullar does not yet show the potential to be a top N.B.A. pick, his size, his hands and the need for big bodies make it very likely that he will have a professional career somewhere.

Along with all the eyes drawn to him, Bhullar will also feel pressure from millions of supporters. Coverage of his games appears in Toronto’s Punjabi newspaper, Parvasi, and Sports Illustrated India has contacted Bhullar.

“It’s going to be a hard role to attach to just because of all the different groups, religious groups and just people into athletics looking at you,” said Avneet Bhullar, Sim’s older sister, who is a law student in England. “It will be hard at first, but I know he’ll grasp it and set an example for many people the best he can.”

Bhullar’s emergence would be a boon for increasing the popularity of the game in India, with a population about 1.2 billion, including five million who play basketball. Bhullar said that while visiting Punjab, the northern Indian state where his family’s roots lie, he had never seen anyone playing the game. Although Geethu Anna Jose, the captain of the Indian women’s national team, has attended W.N.B.A. tryouts, basketball is not widely known in the country.

The N.B.A. has made inroads in India, where it plans to open an office this year. It televises five games a week there during the season, sponsors a community league in five cities — the Mahindra N.B.A. Challenge — and made N.B.A. jerseys available in India for the first time last year.

“Having a player from India in the N.B.A. is a question of when, not if,” said Heidi Ueberroth, the president of N.B.A. International. She added, “We have no doubt that the elite players from India will emerge.”

For the game to really pique the country’s interest, an Indian player would help greatly. Bhullar was not born in India, but his presence at a high level of basketball would resonate there.

“Like Yao for China and Dirk for Germany, he’s along those lines,” said Paul Biancardi, an ESPN recruiting analyst, referring to Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks. “He could help populate the game and spark interest in that country. But first, he has to emerge here. And he hasn’t done anything yet.”

Bhullar’s college basketball potential is a topic of debate among coaches, analysts and reporters. The positives he brings to the floor are obvious, as he clogs the lane with his thick frame, passes deftly and does not shy from contact in the paint. He played in the Nike Peach Jam tournament here last week with a broken nose he sustained with the Canadian national under-19 team. His 7-11 wingspan blocked and altered so many shots that opponents felt his presence physically and mentally.

“He hurts you when he fouls you,” Biancardi said.

Bhullar drew recruiting interest from some top college programs — Georgetown, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — but plenty of people are skeptical that he can be a consistent contributor.

Although he dropped to 330 pounds from 367 last year while playing at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, Bhullar said he needed to lose another 30 pounds. He struggles running end to end, appears to tire easily and is limited laterally. But for Xavier, a perennial N.C.A.A. tournament team, it is probably wise to gamble on a prospect who can dunk on the tiptoes of his size 22 sneakers.

Rob Fulford, his coach at Huntington Prep, marveled at how far Bhullar had come since arriving last November, with his improvement directly proportional to his weight loss.

“A lot of what’s holding him back is his body,” Fulford said. “When he drops weight, he’ll continue to get better. He has a long way to go with lateral movement, but he knows how to play and has great hands and footwork.”

Bhullar, who was introduced to basketball in grade school, faces a crossroads in the next month. He qualified academically to enroll at Xavier but could opt to spend another year at prep school. Bhullar said he would decide with his family in August.

His father, Avtar, stands 6-5 and grew up playing kabaddi, a physical sport with elements of wrestling. He owns a Toronto gas station, where the walls are covered with pictures and articles highlighting Sim’s basketball exploits. Bhullar’s mother, Varinder, works at the station.

Another year at Huntington could allow him to lose weight and to polish his post game. Bhullar could model himself after Xavier’s 7-foot center, Kenny Frease, who became a top-flight Atlantic 10 player by tightening his body and developing his post game. Bhullar said Xavier coaches had chatted with Yao’s trainer about techniques and drills, but they cannot comment on Bhullar because he has not signed a letter of intent.

“Within the last year and a half, he’s had one of the biggest improvements or jumps I’ve ever seen in a kid,” said Mike George, the coach of Bhullar’s summer team, CIA Bounce, based in Toronto. “Xavier has proven they can get guys in proper conditioning and proven that they’ll use big guys. He’s a different type of guy for the Atlantic 10.”

After reaching 6-10 by the eighth grade, Bhullar said, he grew accustomed to attracting attention. He acknowledged that it was hard at times to be a normal teenager, but said that he made time for Xbox, Facebook and movies with his friends.

Bhullar is quiet and humble, with a dry sense of humor. When gawkers ask what sport he plays, he flashes a mischievous smile and says, “Hockey.”

If Bhullar slims down and broadens his game, he may need a new joke. From Toronto to Punjab, his name could someday be as recognizable as his frame.



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