How NBA academy is unearthing girl talent in India

Sanjana Ramesh, who was voted the Most Valuable Player in 2019, is the second Indian after Kavita Akula to earn a scholarship from a Division 1 college.

Sprouting talent: Sanjana Ramesh, who was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the first year of the NBA Academy’s women’s programme in India, became the second Indian after Kavita Akula to earn a scholarship from a Division 1 college in 2019. .   -  Emmanual Yogini

 

The NBA academy’s women’s programme, launched in 2018, has proved to be a talent pool for several North American college basketball scouts.

Sanjana Ramesh, who was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the first year of the program in India, became the second Indian after Kavita Akula to earn a scholarship from a Division 1 college in 2019.

Following suit, Asmat Kaur Taunque,Vaishnavi Yadav and Khushi Dongre have acquired scholarships from high schools and colleges across North America in the last year.

With wanting to play in the WNBA, the premier women’s basketball league in the world, remaining a burning ambition, these girls are making rapid strides in their game.

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Khushi, 18, has turned out in 13 times, averaging 39 minutes per game, for ASA College, Miami, since September last year. With 18 points per game making her the highest scorer in her team, she says she was struck by the enthusiasm towards women’s basketball in the United States.

“The first thing that hit me here (the U. S.) was the importance to basketball. Back home if a girl makes a move, no one would make a big deal of it. There is hardly anyone to watch it. Over here, if a girl makes a move, everybody in the audience and the bench hypes you up,” she says.

Attention to detail

Asmat and Sanjana pointed out the keen attention to detail in each training session and game. “It’s purely stat-based and strategic,” says Asmat. “Every move and strategy is planned out.”

By moving from their original playing positions, they have also been taken out of their comfort zone. Khushi, who is a forward, now has the experience of playing as a point guard and a shooter.

Setback: It hasn’t all gone according to plan for Pensacola State College’s Vaishnavi. The 17-year-old is currently on the sidelines after a knee surgery in October.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

Sanjana, who has played twice for Northern Arizona University (NAU) since her move, says “There are a lot of ideas discussed.”

Standing at 6’, the Bangalore girl has played mostly as a power forward during her time as a junior India international. At NAU, she says she has ‘played as a full-back, half-back, even trained for three-on-one defending.’

On adapting to the new challenges, she says, “We didn’t do that in India. I feel like I have become an all-round player now having improved my ball-handling, shooting.”

Weight-training is something Vaishnavi had to get used to before using the ball. “There is weight training for 20 minutes before we get to use the ball. There is a lot of hard practice. Girls here do 15-20 kg bench press. When they asked me how many I wanted to press, I said I will do 5 each,” she laughs. “Add to that, the rod is heavy too!”

‘Mental strength’

They have also observed a big difference in competitiveness among their peers. Khushi points out, “It’s about mental strength which is the biggest difference over here. People are going to slap on your face and say ‘Cross me out!’”

“It’s much more aggressive here,” says 16-year-old Asmat, who has featured in all matches for Lawrenceville High School, New Jersey. In her most recent performance, she scored 10 points and had 15 rebounds in her team’s win over the Hun School from Princeton. She adds, “People go out to play with a ‘kill attitude.’ That was a new aspect for me.”

Sanjana says, “The game is a lot about intensity and contact here which has helped me become stronger now.”

The girls are balancing training and academics all through the week ever since the start of their scholarships. “I finish training and have classes till 9-10 p.m.’ says Khushi.

However, it hasn’t all gone according to plan for Pensacola State College’s Vaishnavi. While the other three have found playing time, the 17-year-old is currently on the sidelines after a knee surgery in October. The Varanasi girl says the last couple of months have tested her resolve.

“It’s a benefit but it’s also a problem. The injury situation is better dealt with if I was at home than here. When my operation happened, I couldn’t get out of bed myself,” she says.

She adds, “It was a tough time for me as I am alone here. When I first came here, nobody talked to me outside of practice. I didn’t have any friends. I cried for three months wondering what I had got into. I also had to cook my own food when I didn’t know how to! Then, I learned (cooking) watching YouTube. I was very homesick then.”

She is eager to get back on the court again, and fulfil her and her father’s dream of playing in the WNBA.

“That’s why I am fighting! ...to play in the WNBA. When I scored 71 points (in junior nationals), my dad was very happy. But then he wanted me to go beyond that, and go abroad and play.

“Now, that I have made it here, I will do everything to reach there. I am crazy about getting there,” she says.

Will power’

Asmat, too, is determined to make the big step up to the WNBA someday. “It will be about my will power. I will have to cut out distractions in an age where one can develop the most,” she says.

Focussed: Asmat Kaur is determined to make the big step up to the WNBA someday.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

While the WNBA remains the ultimate goal for them, the importance of having a career beyond sports is as important for Khushi and Sanjana.

“I want to complete college, get my associate degree, and get into a four-year degree college and then do whatever it takes to be a good college basketball player and probably get into WNBA. You have to think about a back-up plan. I really do believe in that,” says Khushi, who is pursuing a sports management associate degree at ASA.

Sanjana, 18, who has dabbled in multiple sports before opting for basketball, stresses that her goal is ‘to play as a professional and have a good degree.’ She says, “I am doing my business management, although I wanted to do sports management. I need a plan once I retire from basketball. I am balancing both college and basketball at the moment.”

The girls have a tight-knit association during their time abroad, often staying in touch with each other. Khushi says, “Sanjana, Vaishnavi and Kavita are good friends of mine; all are my seniors. Anmolpreet, too. They gave me a lot of guidance before I got here.”

On the right track: Meditation is a part of her training. Khushi Dongre, 18, has turned out 13 times, averaging 39 minutes per game, for ASA College, Miami, since September last year.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

The Indian women’s team is currently ranked 45th in the FIBA rankings and Vaishnavi believes the current crop of Indian hoopsters, including herself, can make a mark in the sport.

“Now Sanjana is there (earmarked for big things). Our batch, who will make the senior grade, will play so much better. I think we won’t face as many problems as the seniors have,” she says.

Sanjana is hopeful of drawing on her learning from the States to help make a difference to Indian basketball.

“When we come back, we can teach other people. Our knowledge can make a difference. Basketball in India is about free play, but here it’s like a system. So if I can make that system familiar back home, then I would have made an impact,” she says.