Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

India needs to look beyond height in scouting basketball players

Published on
June 6, 2016

Rajesh Patel, coach of the Chhattisgarh women’s team and also secretary of the Chhattisgarh Basketball Association, has gone on record saying: “We were told (by BFI) that we were putting together personnel not just for the state team, but we were asked to scout for tall players who had the potential to play for India.”

Chhattisgarh is one of the hotbeds of basketball talent in India. And a lot of the credit for that goes to Rajesh Patel. I’ve covered the exploits of Patel and his Chhattisgarh charges in some detail here. As a result of India’s efforts to find tall players, we have picked up some real gems who will grow into great talents for our country. Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh Jr, Satnam Singh - the list goes on. But there is a risk here that we may literally overlook smaller dynamos who can also represent us on the international platform.

Height is important. You can teach young players a lot, except how to grow tall. But basketball requires a mixture of guards and big men for a team to be successful.

Indian basketball will be in dire straits if this parameter for scouting is not relaxed. While we have talented players on our team, it would be nice to have a steady influx of talent in the backcourt. The average Indian male is about five foot six inches tall. We ought to have a higher number of backcourt players, but that’s not the case. Our scouting priorities are partly the reason why.

While it makes perfect sense to scout tall players, when we begin to do so at the expense of others, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Granted, you can’t teach height and a player should be six feet tall to get by unless he’s exceptionally talented. But the majority of the game is played on the perimeter. In India, even a 6″6 player is a frontcourt player. Kobe and Jordan are 6″6. Both play shooting guard. At that height, Indians may spend more time moulding themselves into the frame of a post player.

“We are not a particularly tall country. I have to go to outside the state, remote villages, even the Naxal-affected ones, looking for tall players. Of the 20 people you get information about, only one or two will be above six feet. And for an exceptionally tall one — someone who is above 6’ 5” that is more like one in 200.” said coach Rajesh Patel.

Another major issue is early discrimination on the basis of height. We encourage those who show a bit more promise because of their height and write off those who don’t bloom early. Any measure of discrimination can have extreme results when it comes to sports, and using height is a very heavy measure. Here’s one instance illustrating the impact of segregating athletes on arbitrary measures.

The 2007 Czech National Junior soccer team was a 21-player squad comprised of 15 players born in January, February or March, just two after June, and none after September. In the words of Malcom Gladwell – at the tryouts, the Czech coaches “might as well have told everyone born after midsummer that they should pack their bags and go home.”

The age cut off limit stated that those born in a particular calendar year were eligible to try for the team. Those born in the first few months of the year had been getting a leg up over the competition their entire lives. Whichever month is chosen as the age cutoff, the kids born in the next few months have an advantage over their peers by virtue of being a few months older. Among grown ups, the difference of a few months doesn’t matter as much. But when they have grown up together, then one group has been consistently getting the upper hand over the other in terms of opportunities for practice and chances to play at a high level.

Something as arbitrary as an age dividing month can result in one group of kids having a serious upper hand over the other. Imagine the ramifications of blatantly choosing one group of kids simply because they are taller. The short ones miss out on opportunities to get proper exposure simply by virtue of their height limiting them to not being suitable to play a frontcourt position. We don’t even know if they may or may not be late bloomers who end up being taller than expected.

We are depriving our youngsters of a chance to thrive in the guard position. By placing a disproportionate value on height, the other intangible skills are taken for granted. I’m not advocating that we ease up on our scouting of big men, but there ought to be more opportunities for the little men to thrive as well. Some places have basketball leagues for those six feet tall or shorter; having a league which filters out the tall players gives us an opportunity to judge talent which may otherwise be dwarfed in the presence of giants.

While there are no easy answers to having a foolproof test for evaluating talent, we can do ourselves a favour by at least not placing too much importance on the height of players. Some of the greatest players of all time were under 6″4 tall. There’s no reason why India’s breakthrough in the NBA can’t come from someone that short, provided we drop our gaze low enough to see them.

Think Allen Iverson. Think Earl Boykins. Think Spud Webb. As David Stern said when giving Allen Iverson an All-Star award: “Allen, you showed us, that good things can come in very small packages.” 

There may be a huge reservoir of basketball talent in India; maybe we should set our sights lower too while scouting.

Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

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