Until recently, bigger was better in the sport of basketball.
These days, "small ball" has become the predominant playing style in the NBA. Most teams are opting for speedy, agile lineups that can spread the floor and utilize copious pick-and-rolls and perimeter shooting. The preferred big man is fleet-footed and has the dexterity to play away from the basket.
So what does this mean for Sim Bhullar, a 7'5", 360-pound prospect hoping for a call-up from the NBA D-League's Reno Bighorns?
The Canadian-born center of Indian descent dominated the Western Athletic Conference for two years at New Mexico State, then made an early jump to the pros. He went undrafted in 2014 and was signed by the Sacramento Kings later that summer, only to be waived prior to the start of the regular season.
Now he's a giant among boys in the D-League, serving as a unique target on a team otherwise filled with run-and-gun personnel. Under former Grinnell College associate head coach David Arseneault Jr., the Bighorns have become notoriously fast-paced this season.
With Bhullar in the fold, the results have been mixed. There are times when the speed and playing style of the D-League don't work in his favor. But he has certainly owned the paint, providing an uncontainable combination of size and skill.
Reno has done a nice job of incorporating the bigger, slower Bhullar into their system, but he's also met them halfway. He's more mobile and better-conditioned than he ever was in college, and the Bighorns are able to rely on him intermittently for substantial minutes.
"For him to be able to play in our system, with as fast-paced as it is, and to play the minutes that he did tonight (is impressive). He’s a game-changer," Arseneault told Josh Weir of TimesReporter.com.
His increased ability to run the floor has sparked the notion that he could survive in the NBA for small stretches. And when it comes to half-court basketball, he's one of the most intriguing prospects in the D-League.
|2014-15 Per-Game Stats with Reno Bighorns|
Nearly every D-League opponent struggles to keep him off the block. When he gets a clean post-entry pass, all it takes is one or two power dribbles for him to easily convert a baby hook or dunk. It's not surprising that he leads the league in field-goal percentage (73 percent).
Bhullar is also a matchup nightmare on the defensive side, as he wins the positional battles and also swats shots as a weak-side helper. He's averaging 3.6 blocks per game and 5.4 per 36 minutes.
There's more to his game than dunking or blocking shots, though.
He moves well without the ball, exhibiting good timing on pick-and-rolls and sliding into spots where his teammates can find him. Bhullar is also a deft passer for someone his size. He can flip quick interior passes to cutters and accurately connect with open shooters if he's double-teamed.
While dunking is his most effective method of scoring, it's not his only tool. From close range, he has a soft touch on his jump shot, and he can also use the glass when he posts up.
Watch him demonstrate superb awareness and collaborate seamlessly with teammates during Reno's recent win against the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He does a great job of anticipating plays developing and executing smoothly:
It won't be a piece of cake for Bhullar to break into the next level. NBA players are stronger, quicker, and more athletic than his D-League competition. They will also be more skilled and proficient at counteracting his size.
Fortunately, as previously mentioned, he brings more to the table than sheer physical attributes. NBADLeague.com scout Ryan Blake talked about some of the key characteristics that will help him transition to the next level:
It's not just his massive size that gets results. ... His balance is great, his touch from 17 feet and in is remarkable for his size. His footwork and versatile post moves continue to impress and blossom. ... He has quick hands (on defense) and judges lane entry attempts extremely well. ... Showing his willingness to play in a guard-oriented system is a plus.
The Kings indicated that if Bhullar keeps working on his body, he'll have a great chance to take the big step into the NBA.
"[The Kings] pretty much just said, ‘Get your body right, get in shape and you’ll be good for the future,'” Bhullar told NBADLeague.com's Brian Kotloff in February. “They told me I’ve got a bright future—good hands, good footwork. Hopefully I can get my body right and be in the NBA soon."
Although the NBA has gone small, there is plenty of room for mobile big men. And because the league has turned to shorter lineups, big men who can move actually stand out in many cases. Bhullar could be the type of center who has the bulk and girth of Jusuf Nurkic with the length of someone like Hassan Whiteside or Rudy Gobert.
Bhullar will likely get called up to the NBA in the near future, whether it's this season or early next autumn. His fascinating potential and interior domination at the D-League level are too good to ignore.
Once he gets his shot, he'll probably have a small role at the back end of the rotation. Don't expect more than 15 minutes per game at first, especially as he adjusts to the speed of the game.
Even in short doses, he should put up some impressive numbers. His per-36 minute stats should be in the ranges of 12 to 14 points, 12 to 14 rebounds and three to five blocks. Bhullar's field-goal percentage won't be what it is in the D-League, but he'll likely convert more than 60 percent of his attempts.
In the long term, he's got a chance to be an impactful rotational player, playing 20 to 25 minutes and even notching the occasional double-double. It all depends on how his coaches utilize him.
The days of the NBA being a center-oriented league are long gone. But there are still exceptions to the modern norms, and Bhullar could be a monster-sized anomaly.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA and NBA draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR.