The Sacramento Kings and I are both excited about Sim Bhullar, an undrafted free agent who signed a training camp contract with the team on Friday, but for dramatically different reasons.
I have a longstanding obsession with watching Bhullar play that dates back to his two seasons with New Mexico State University. Bhullar is 7'5" but possesses the kind of broad-based skills one doesn't usually associate with players of his stature, and seeing him on the court is a kind of optical illusion—he makes the 6'10" guys who normally play center in college look like guards, and guards look like jockeys.
But here's a statement from Kings owner Vivek Ranadive on the signing of Bhullar, via the Kings' press release:
I've long believed that India is the next great frontier for the NBA, and adding a talented player like Sim only underscores the exponential growth basketball has experienced in that nation… While Sim is the first player of Indian descent to sign with an NBA franchise, he represents one of many that will emerge from that region as the game continues to garner more attention and generate ever-increasing passion among a new generation of Indian fans.
If you're keeping score at home, that's a 76-word quote that barely mentions Bhullar's actual basketball abilities—mostly, it highlights the progress of the game in India, as opposed to, say, talking about how this makes the Kings better.
This is not a criticism, by the way. Ranadive, a native of Bombay, is absolutely right. Signing Bhullar will help the game grow significantly in India in a significant way while making the Kings the de facto NBA team for the country's fans.
But Bhullar simply isn't ready to help an NBA team. Not yet. I frankly believed he shouldn't have come out for the NBA draft after his sophomore season, and that belief appeared to be reinforced by every team passing on Bhullar back in June. (I'm also sad we won't see Bullar play in a twin towers set with his 7'3" brother Tanveer, who redshirted at New Mexico State last season.)
That teams didn't draft Bhullar is understandable. Bhullar is 7'5", but he's also somewhere north of 350 pounds, which makes running up and down the court for extended periods of time difficult for him—though it's worth noting that he bumped his minutes-per-game up significantly over the final eight games of the Aggies' season and continued to develop his dominant shot-blocking and efficient offensive game. He scored 14 points in 29 minutes in an NCAA tournament loss to San Diego State while better competition than he faced for much of the regular season. After a performance like that, he'd be a center to watch for New Mexico State this fall had he stayed in school. Instead, he'll have to take several giant steps forward and refine his raw abilities to the point where he could play serious minutes on an NBA court.
All of this is likely understood by the Kings; it's incredibly unlikely Bhullar will be on their 15-man roster when the NBA season begins in November. The good news is, that doesn't consign Bhullar to the fits and starts that was the life of an undrafted NBA hopeful until recently. The Kings have a single-affiliation deal with the Reno Bighorns, one of 17 D-League teams that now serve as farm systems for NBA franchises. Some affiliate teams have even begun trying out specific strategies or mirroring the playing style of their parent NBA team. The Kings hired Shareef Abdur-Rahim as general manager last season to help develop Reno as a feeder team. Exactly what the Kings' system is or how they are implementing it is another question, of course, but consistency across the board appears to be the goal.
The fascinating thing about Bhullar is how different he is from most of the 7'4" or taller prospects we've seen over the past few decades. Guys like Manute Bol and Shawn Bradley needed to put on weight when they entered the league, not take it off. And while the super tall centers of the past could all could block shots, they generally couldn't do anything else.
But Bhullar, if he's in great shape, offers astonishing upside at the position. He's excellent in the post. He understands the game. He offers the Kings—at the low, low price of a D-League salary—entree into India not merely because of his heritage, but because he possesses excellent, NBA-quality skills that simply need to be unlocked from what isn't yet an NBA body. (If you want to track Bhullar's progress in the D-League, by the way, there's now an app for that.)
It won't happen overnight, and it might not happen at all—losing weight and keeping it off is so often written about, in sports, as some easy, fixed thing, instead of an ongoing struggle that's often just as psychological as it is physical. He'll also face heightened expectations because of his size and his status as the NBA's gateway to India, and he may even face skeptics pointing out that he'll get more of an opportunity due to his Indian heritage, just as Jeremy Lin has had to face similarly ugly race-based attacks.
I adore watching Lin for reasons that have nothing to do with his race, and I feel the same way about Bhullar. That players who bring something unique to the NBA get more of a chance to succeed because they are also marketable in emerging markets doesn't strike me as anything but a complete win for everybody.
Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, working on a book about the St. Louis Cardinals, and can be found on Twitter.