Representational image.(File)
Representational image.(File)

Basketball starlets Deodhar, Zachariah sign up for American schools

Harsimran best bet to make it to WNBA, say coaches, who picked strength and physicality as the areas on which Indians need to focus.
Hindustan Times, Mumbai | By B Shrikant
UPDATED ON AUG 13, 2020 07:47 PM IST

Two more Indian women basketball players will be chasing their dreams in the United States next season. Siya Deodhar of Nagpur, Maharashtra and Ann Mary Zachariah from Kochi, Kerala have been signed by Life Prep Academy, a high school basketball programme based in Wichita, Kansas, as their overseas players.

Deodhar is a 5-7 point guard while Zachariah is a 6-2 forward and both are products of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Academy India and have participated in all three NBA Academy Women’s programmes organised in 2018-19 period in India and the basketball Without Borders Asia Camp 2018 in Delhi.

Deodhar and Zachariah’s signing by Life Prep Academy takes to nine the number of Indian women basketball players in the United States, a huge achievement for Indian basketball as till a few years back there were not many were successful in getting an opportunity of playing abroad. Besides Deodhar and Zachariah, Sanjana Ramesh, Vaishnavi Yadav, Asmat Kaur, Khushi Dongre, Harsimran Kaur, Sunishka Karthik and Grishma Niranjan are the Indian basketball players who have committed to various American colleges and schools. Of these Sanjana, Vaishnavi, Asmat, Khushi and Grishma have already completed one season while the others will be joining whenever the season, currently stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic, restarts and travel restrictions are eased.

All of them are part of the NBA programmes in India and have been recommended by their coaches to various schools in the United States.

The presence of nine players does rises a question -- How soon can we see an India-born player making it to the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) league?

The closest any Indian basketball player came to making it to the WNBA was in April 2011 when Geethu Anna Jose was invited by tryouts by Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks, and San Antonio Silver Stars invited her for tryouts.

So, do any of these nine players have the potential to become WNBA stars a few years down the line?

They do have the potential but it all depends on how they utilise the opportunities that they get, say experienced American coaches Jennifer Azzi and Blair Hardiek, both of whom have conducted a few coaching camps in India and have seen all these players at one time other. They have even introduced these players to school and college coaches in the USA and also helped them with their SAT scores to admission in courses there.

Having mentored almost all of them for last couple of years, Azzi feels Harsimran Kaur, also known by her nickname Honey and who committed to the NCAA Div 1 University of San Diego for the 2020-21 season, looks the most promising of them all. The 17-year-old Harsimran is only the second Indian after Sanjana Ramesh to be signed up by a Div 1 programme.

“Though all the players are talented and have great potential, Harsimran’s height and strength set her apart. She is really tough and she wants to compete. If a kid has the toughness and he or she really wants to battle then that’s what makes a good sportsperson,” said Jennifer Azzi, who had a successful stint as coach with University of San Francisco after a stellar career as a player with WNBA teams San Jose Lasers, Detroit Shock, Utah Starz and San Antonio Silver Stars between 1993 and 2003.

“Honey will need to focus on strength and conditioning in San Diego. She will need to embrace the physical side of the game and that’s going to be the biggest challenge for her and the biggest opportunity for her growth. The Indian coaches at the grassroots level should focus on strength and conditioning as well,” said Azzi, who has conducted three camps for NBA Academy Women’s Programme in India.

Both Azzi and Hardiek picked strength and conditioning as the one major area in which the Indian players are found wanting. The Indian players have the skills but have to develop physically stronger so as to impose their game on the court. They have to development the strength to cope with the physicality of the sport in the American style of play.

With NBA bringing coaches and former players to the country, the players and coaches have realised this shortcoming and have already started to mitigate the problem.

“The players in India are focusing on strength and conditioning nowadays. The players are getting stronger and it’s great to see that. The players at the junior level are still very young. They have a lot of time and the sky is the limit. Harsimran can certainly perform well at the Division 1 level given the strength and height she has,” said Hardiek, who noticed a marked difference in the approach of local coaches after attending camps conducted by American coaches.

“They have understood things are foccussing on them. The good point is that they are taking these things to the grassroots level,” said Hardiek, the Global Director for the NBA Academy who was had a successful stint as recruitment director with University of San Francisco from 2010-2016.

Hardiek says the most important think is the support the players are getting from the NBA Academy and their parents, who are putting in a lot of efforts in helping the girls try and fulfil their potential.

“The keyword is development. Through the NBA Academies Women’s Program, we are focusing on developing the players further. I think the work ethic is what makes a player great. The support that the players have from their parents and the NBA Academies make a huge difference for the players,” she said and singled out the players for the respect they show to their coaches and mentors. She said the players nowadays are more aware of what they want to do and are not afraid to try their best to achieve it. She said once they get there, they are not averse to helping others to make it -- just like Sanjana Ramesh and Harsimran are ready to do.”Sanjana and Harsimran are smart and they know how to reach out to their resources. They are very good at communications and value their relationships,” said Hardiek.

All the players are currently in India because the basketball programme in the United States is currently suspended due to the Novel Coronavirus pandemic. The players are waiting for the programme to start again and the travel restrictions to be lifted.

Both Azzi and Harkiek are doing their best to assure them so that the players wait for the programme to restart.

“We are just reassuring all players that this will end one day. We continue to motivate everyone by speaking to the players through video calls and so on. It’s been a pleasure to work with the players in India. The success that the players have seen in the States is only going to grow further,” said Azzi.

Just like the players are excited, the schools are also eagerly waiting for the Indians to join and make their mark. This will justify their selection because all of them have picked the players based on the short films on their skills and game made by Azzi and Harkiek and will be just like the players, hoping for success of this Indian invasion of the American school basketball circuit.

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