BRADENTON -- In 2010, IMG tried an experiment, searching an untapped market in the second-most populated country in the world.
The Ascenders ventured into India, plucking 29 boys and girls, and head skills trainer Dan Barto was part of the expeditions. When he saw Satnam Singh Bhamara, who was 7 feet tall and weighed 240 pounds at the time, it was obvious why some considered him the country's answer to Yao Ming.
Five years later, most of the other 28 athletes who came to Bradenton are gone.
Thursday night, however, made the experiment a success. After five years at IMG, Singh was selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft with the 52nd overall pick. Singh is the first Indian player to be drafted into the NBA and the first to come directly out of high school since the league instituted an age limit in 2006.
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"There's a billion new Mavs fans out there right now," Dallas owner Mark Cuban said after his team selected Singh.
Aside from his measurements of 7 feet, 2 inches and 290 pounds, Singh's numbers aren't eye-popping. He averaged 9.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks for IMG's postgrad team last season while playing fewer than 20 minutes per game.
Barto insists this was by design. "We looked at it like it was just a blank canvas," Barto said. "What did everybody else do wrong with guys they've had that size?"
After six months, Barto realized the NBA was in Singh's future. He worked harder than most of Barto's other players and already had a relatively soft touch to go with his gargantuan frame.
"Their body's only going to develop, their mind's only going to develop so fast," Barto said. "I think we knew all along if we timed things right we could start peaking him at the right times.
"He's going to be less of a project than people think."
Using the extensive athletic training facilities at IMG Academy, Barto and his staff got Singh in shape. On the court, coaches focused on giving him a firm base of skills rather than having him bully smaller post players on the block.
But first there was that pesky language barrier and extreme cultural shock of Singh's move from Punjab to Bradenton.
Not only did Singh not speak any English when he arrived in Florida, he barely spoke any Hindi. He was one of the only new Ascenders from Punjab and spoke Punjabi almost exclusively. For even the simplest requests, he'd have to deliver his message in Punjabi to one of his classmates who spoke both Punjabi and Hindi. None of those classmates spoke English, though, so they would
then have to convey Singh's thoughts in Hindi to another classmate who spoke Hindi and English. Finally, after passing through two interpreters, Singh could ask what was for dinner.
Now he speaks perfect English.
"They wanted to do well," Barto said of the 29 athletes whose scholarships were financed by Mukesh Ambani, the wealthiest man in India. "The amount of work and the amount hours they would stay up and the amount of extra homework they would do was probably 30 or 40 percent more than the average student.
"It's like getting your doctorate in two years."
Only 1.1 percent of Bradenton's population identifies as Asian, according to the 2013 census, and there was no Hindu temple in Manatee County. The group would occasionally take trips up to the Hindu Temple of Florida in Tampa and frequent Bradenton's India Bazaar to get a taste of familiarity. Once a year, Singh would trek back home during the summer for a month away from basketball.
Those trips became obstacles. He would add 10 to 15 pounds without the same type of training he could get at school. Throw in a rash of injuries which has plagued his career - he has broken his elbow and nose, needed knee surgery and battled foot injuries -- and there have been major challenges.
The baseline skills, however, are what make him more than a big body. The Ascenders' director of basketball, Kenny Natt, has coached Singh with the Indian national team since 2011 and was immediately impressed by his soft hands, smooth mid-range jumper and skill with both hands.
"When I had him playing against NBA players in India, he held himself very well," Natt said. In some ways, Natt said he thinks Singh will fare better in the NBA Developmental League than he did in high school because of the more physical play allowed inside and the space added by the defensive three seconds rule. At IMG, he picked up cheap fouls and was tormented by double teams, issues which should vanish with the Texas Legends.
His other enemies in the statbook were his coaches. They limited his touches and shots to develop his passing and offensive rebounding abilities. They held him out of AAU and certain showcases because they liked the mentality he had when he arrived in the United States. They took things slow and prevented him from developing bad habits.
"There's no one in high school close to him," Natt said. "He has to watch the way he moves, how he moves, picking up easy fouls, whereas at the pro level that's not going to be as much of a concern. He'll be much more effective there at the professional level."
His endurance, Barto says, is not a concern despite Singh playing fewer than 20 minutes a game. The bigger issue is agility. Barto hasn't communicated a plan with the Mavericks yet, but he wants Singh back at IMG after NBA Summer League for what essentially will be track training.
In the next year, Barto hopes those issues will be smoothed out. The Ascenders didn't run much pro-style, pick-and-roll offense, so simply improving his mobility will make that adjustment easier. And, like Natt, he expects Singh to contribute in the D-League right away.
"He's gonna get posterized and he's gonna look silly on some ball screens," Barto said, "but as far as statistics and the eye test of watching the whole game, I think people are going to be very, very surprised."