Sim Bhullar is a big dude, and he could wind up being an even bigger deal.
But only if he proves to be more than an opportunistic late-season ploy by the Sacramento Kings.
The Kings inked the 7'5", 360-pound center to a 10-day contract on Thursday, making him the first player of Indian descent to join an NBA roster during the regular season. As proof of the event's significance, there was a graphic and everything:
The @SacramentoKings sign @SimBhullar2 to 10-day contract, first NBA player of Indian descent! http://t.co/NLttH755ED http://t.co/D7uUYYI3XY4/2/2015, 4:06:58 PM
But despite his size, Bhullar isn't a huge name.
He left New Mexico State after two seasons and two WAC Tournament MVP awards, but he then went undrafted in 2014. He signed with the Kings last August but logged precious little playing time during NBA Summer League play. After Sacramento waived him in October, he caught on with the team's NBA D-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns.
There, he posted averages of 10.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game while leading the league in field-goal percentage.
If all that you knew about Bhullar were his size and stats, you could draw the conclusion that he's more than worth a 10-day contract at the end of a lost year for the Kings—especially after another hulking project, Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, made the same D-League-to-NBA leap with massive success earlier this season.
But it's a mistake to stop the scrutiny there. Bhullar piled up his numbers as part of the Bighorns' gimmicky, fast-paced attack. Reno averages over 116 possessions per 48 minutes. The NBA-leading Golden State Warriors log just over 100, per NBA.com.
The pace-based inflation of Bhullar's stats has to be considered. We shouldn't ignore statistical feats such as his Feb. 22 triple-double—26 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks are impressive numbers—but we should keep in mind the extra possessions that made compiling those numbers easier.
At the same time, it's not difficult to envision a guy with Bhullar's size at least making things difficult for opponents at the rim—even in the NBA. He's absolutely a project and will have to lose significant weight to function as a capable team defender, but Roy Hibbert needed a ton of work when he came into the league as well, and Bhullar is significantly bigger than the Indiana Pacers' shot-stuffing centerpiece.
It's fair to wonder what a hulking big man with limited mobility can really do for a team in today's NBA, especially one such as the Kings that doesn't have another frontcourt player who can stretch the floor. And with head coach George Karl and owner Vivek Ranadive talking about speed and uptempo style so frequently, it's hard to think of another team for whom Bhullar's game would be a worse fit.
Maybe his ability to play well in Reno means Bhullar is ready to run. Maybe that wacky four-on-five idea that Ranadive threw out before the season is real, and maybe it features Bhullar in some bizarre, as-yet-undetermined capacity.
"He adds a very interesting dimension to the game," Karl said of Bhullar, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com. "And our game is becoming an international game, and India is becoming one of the greatest, largest, biggest democracies in the world. I think it's a good story, and hopefully we'll find some minutes for him."
Or maybe the Kings will quickly find out that playing fast against NBA competition will sap all of the big man's defensive value.
At best, Bhullar is an experiment with some reasonable upside.
But let's all acknowledge that on-court productivity may not be the reason the Kings are interested in him. On some level, signing Bhullar is a stunt—one designed to keep the attention of fans who have little reason to care about the rest of the Kings' season.
In addition to keeping the interest of fans locally, Bhullar represents a way for the Kings to make inroads in an enormous foreign market: India.
Ranadive was born in India, and he's talked plenty about making a push into his native country. His comments in the Kings' official release when they signed Bhullar the first time, back in August, underscored that desire:
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.
It's important to note that Bhullar was born in Canada, but it may not matter to a fanbase that already saw over 20 televised Kings games last year and has made basketball the fastest-growing sport in the country, according to Fran Blinebury of NBA.com.
Even if Bhullar doesn't pan out, perhaps he has the potential to forge connections between the Kings and over a billion viewers ready for a reason to dive in.
With the increasing presence of players from across the globe in the NBA and better television coverage of the league in India, hoops fans were waiting for someone from amongst our own to cheer for. As the NBA invested in the game in India, building at the grassroots level, educating coaches, holding clinics for children and the youth, we knew it was only a matter of time before the 'chosen one' came along. …
In the meantime, we wore LeBron James-inspired headbands, imitated Kobe Bryant's swagger, cheered for the Chicago Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, but ultimately yearned and awaited for the coming of that one prodigal son into the league, whom we could raucously applaud for being our own.
Bhullar could be that prodigal son.
The novelty of signing Bhullar is naturally exciting. And it's hard to blame the Kings for trying to pick fans from a ripe market.
Yao Ming's entry into the NBA and the resultant boom in the league's popularity in Asia feels like a reasonable parallel to draw.
But we should be careful. Yao was a phenomenal player—a No. 1 overall pick with tons of NBA-ready skill. If not for injury, he may well have become a Hall of Famer. Suffice it to say, he entered the league with a much different profile than the undrafted, once-waived Bhullar.
It sells international markets a bit short when we assume they'll become League Pass-buying, jersey-sporting devotees just because someone with similar heritage manages to crack a roster.
It takes a little more than that to establish something lasting.
Maybe Bhullar will stick, though. And maybe India's readiness to embrace the NBA will lead to something like what we've seen in China over the past decade or so.
We need to view Bhullar's signing for what it is: a combination of worthwhile basketball gamble and calculated marketing ploy. Either way, it's a significant step for the Kings' franchise and a league that continues to emphasize global expansion.
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