RENO – Three months into his minor-league career with the Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ affiliate in the NBA Development League, Sim Bhullar is not the man he was. And this is a good thing. At 7-foot-5 and 355 pounds, the center who is regarded as a project, albeit a very large one, is beginning to resemble a professional basketball player.
Admittedly, he has miles to go and many more pounds to lose; the scale is his most formidable opponent.
But since laboring through training camp and being waived by the Kings, Bhullar’s physical transformation has been impressive. If he sheds another 40 or 50 pounds and performs well in the Las Vegas Summer League, he could morph from project to prospect and, after that, who knows? Global icon? A phenomenon within the Indian community? An effective partner of Vivek Ranadive, the Kings majority owner who grew up playing cricket but envisions basketball generating a significant buzz in his homeland?
“This is my focus,” said Bhullar, who grew up in Toronto to Indian-born parents. “I dropped everything else. I’ve really been busting my butt these last few months, working hard, trying to watch what I eat. But to be honest, it’s hard to change. I ate a lot of McDonald’s, a lot of bad stuff like a lot of other college students. Now I have nutritionists, trainers, and I’m trying to improve my conditioning. I realize that if you have this kind of weight, you can’t play.”
Bhullar, 22, recalls being 6-3 in eighth grade and growing 7 inches over the next two years. Though he also loved hockey and volleyball, he knew the drill: Tall kids play basketball. Tall Canadian basketball players also attend prep school in the United States before pursuing college scholarships or professional careers.
For Bhullar, who played on an elite AAU team in Toronto with Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, that meant leaving home at 16 and enrolling at Huntington Prep in West Virginia. The adjustment, he admits, was difficult.
“That first day I cried,” he said. “It was hard being away from home. You have to grow up really fast.”
When he failed to qualify at Xavier, Bhullar walked on at New Mexico State and earned a partial scholarship for the second semester of his sophomore year. After redshirting a season and recovering from a foot fracture, he set a school record for blocks and was twice named MVP of the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
With his weight around 400 pounds, he wasn’t drafted last summer and signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Kings, who were intrigued by a combination of size and heritage. Ranadive is intent on growing the sport in his homeland and regards Bhullar’s future presence – if earned – as a major boost. But there will be no free pass. The owner is almost obsessive about conditioning and closely monitors his players’ weight and health.
“Sim has a love for the game,” Ranadive said, “but that has to translate into discipline and hard work. He needs to get in much better shape. That will help him get up and down the floor, and he’s been working on that.”
At the Kings urging, Bhullar spent most of December working with a personal trainer in Southern California. More than once, he considered returning to Toronto, perhaps to work alongside his father at the family-owned gas station. Instead, he joined the Bighorns for the second half of the season and has flourished in coach Dave Arsenault’s fast-paced system.
With point guard David Stockton tossing him lobs and soft passes for dunks and layups, Bhullar is shooting 71 percent and averaging 9.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in 25.1 minutes, and he had a triple double (26 points, 17 rebounds, 11 blocks) last month. His wide upper body enables him to clog the lane and alter shots. Offensively, he has good hands and decent footwork and surprises with an occasional deft pass.
But too often he trails plays and at times barely makes it across midcourt. He runs hard in short bursts, but his stride is more of a jog than a sprint.
“You constantly hear other coaches telling their players to outrun him down the floor,” Arsenault said after the Bighorns’ loss to Sioux Falls on Wednesday. “I’m trying to get that two-step quickness. I want Sim’s first two steps to be explosive, like he’s coming out of the starting blocks, as opposed to him turning and looking. And I use him in short spurts and tell him to play as hard as he can for as long as he can. But even with all the call-ups and roster changes, and not having (Stockton) the last few games, his progress has been tremendous.”
After hearing the praise from his coach, Bhullar smiled. While seated at a dining area inside the Reno Events Center, he talked about his tight-knit family, which includes two siblings (brother Tanveer plays at New Mexico State). He laughed about his father’s passion for Kabbadi, a sport that combines elements of rugby and wrestling, claiming it is “way too physical for me,” and half-jokingly blamed his weight on his mother’s cooking. “When she visits, she cooks for me,” he said, “and I love Indian food … too much.”
His mother, in the midst of a trip to India, has him perplexed.
“My mom has been bugging me to find a girlfriend,” Bhullar said. “She’s really modernized, so she wouldn’t mind me finding my own girlfriend, but I’m kind of busy right now. Besides basketball, I’m still taking classes toward my degree (sociology). So I don’t know. A lot of Indians have arranged marriages.”
He hesitated, then smiled. “We’ll see. She might come back and try to surprise me.”
Bhullar wants nothing more than to participate in Ranadive’s basketball blueprint for India, a country of 1.2 billion that reveres cricket and the NBA regards as its next frontier.
“Basketball will never surpass cricket,” Ranadive said, “but there is an ancient sport – Kabbadi – that started a league just a year ago. Hundreds of millions of people are watching it on TV. That would be the model in the future, with the possibility of converting those facilities into arenas. Indians are sports crazy, and getting Sim to the Kings … if he can play … people will watch.”
If he can play.
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.