Before competing in an NBA Development League game in Delaware on Friday night, Sim Bhullar spoke on the telephone with Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Andrew Wiggins. The two friends grew up near each other in Toronto and played on the same AAU team; both dreamed of NBA careers. They now typically stay in touch via text messages or when they face off online in "Call of Duty: Black Ops III" on their PS4's.
Wiggins, the top overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, has lived up to the hype and looks like a future All-Star. Bhullar, a 7-foot-5 center who went undrafted that same year after two years at New Mexico State, has had trouble adjusting to professional basketball and staying in shape. He spent most of last season with Sacramento's experimental D-League team, the Reno Bighorns. In April, Bhullar became the first player of Indian descent to appear in a NBA regular-season game when he logged a total of three minutes in three games with the Kings. This year, he's playing limited minutes as a reserve for the Raptors 905, Toronto's D-League team, which is in its first season. Bhullar, who turned 23 in December, says he's committed to developing his game and growing the sport in India. He's also dedicated to getting back into the league.
During his stint in Reno, Bhullar grew close to Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, the NBA's first Indian owner, and Ranadive's two sons. The Reno experiment—the team spent last year running the supercharged run-and-gun Grinnell Offense—effectively played to Bhullar's strengths as a defender, and his 3.9 blocks per game led the D-League by a wide margin. But something was missing.
Bhullar had always wanted to play in Toronto, where he was born and raised. That summer, he spoke with his agent and requested a trade to the Raptors. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Raptors, had acquired a D-League franchise in June, so Bhullar thought it was best if he stayed close to home and worked on his game. His wish was granted in October, when the Raptors 905 acquired him for guard Ricky Ledo.
Early this season, Bhullar remained in Toronto attempting to lose weight and improve his conditioning while the Raptors 905 went on the road. At the franchise's urging, he ran sprints and worked out two or three times per day. He also met with Marc Bubbs, a nutritionist who's involved with the Canadian national team. A chef cooked all of his meals. "Pretty much everything was set up for me to stay on the right path and do all the right things," Bhullar said.
Two months later, Bhullar has made some strides. When he reported to training camp in early November, his body fat was at 17 percent. It's now at 14 percent, the lowest he can remember. His weight is down to around 360 pounds, from close to 400 a few months ago. His diet now consists of more healthy food: kale, omelets, chicken, rice, and fish. "I think he's been pretty good in terms of trying to change his dietary habits," Raptors 905 assistant coach Tim Lewis said. "That's all been really effective for him."
Bhullar began traveling with the Raptors 905 this month, but the team continues to bring him along slowly. For nearly three-quarters of Friday's game against the Delaware 87ers, Bhullar sat at the end of the bench, usually with Gatorade towels draped across his shoulders and legs.
When he was on the floor, Bhullar was active in the paint on defense and disrupted a few shots just by sticking his hand in an opponent's face—his sheer mountainous presence is that effective. Delaware's two 6-foot-11 centers (Jordan Railey and Christian Wood) seemed small standing near Bhullar, who outweighed both by at least 100 pounds.
Bhullar was more limited on offense, although he had a nice sequence late in the first quarter: he beat everyone down the court, caught a long pass from a teammate, took one dribble, and laid the ball in as a defender attempted to block his shot. His only other basket had come a few minutes earlier, when he barely jumped for an uncontested two-handed dunk. As the game wore on, Bhullar seemed to tire, and didn't see the floor at all in the fourth quarter. He finished with four points and two rebounds in 12 minutes, a shade under his season averages of 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game.
The Raptors 905 view Bhullar as a work in progress. During pregame warm-ups on Friday, Bhullar sat next to Lewis and watched video clips on a laptop. Lewis and the other coaches are working with Bhullar on numerous aspects of his game, including improving his defensive positioning and breaking his habit of bouncing the ball when he catches it inside.
"He's starting to make an effort to change some of the things that we've talked about," Lewis said. "He's got good hands. He's got a good basketball IQ. You've just got to find the right environment, the right system for him to fit into. If he continues to head in the right direction, all sorts of things are possible for him."
People in basketball circles have had high expectations for Bhullar for years. He played on the same AAU team as Wiggins, Raptors forward Anthony Bennett, and Milwaukee Bucks point guard Tyler Ennis, and then spent his final two years of high school in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. He fielded numerous college scholarship offers and committed to Xavier in 2011, but ended up at New Mexico State after he didn't meet the NCAA's academic eligibility standards. In two seasons at New Mexico State, Bhullar averaged more than 10 points and seven rebounds and nearly three blocks per game and led the Aggies to two NCAA Tournament appearances.
Although Bhullar didn't get selected in the 2014 Draft, he says he doesn't regret leaving school early. He joined the Kings' summer league team that year and had a productive season with Reno, averaging 10.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and those 3.9 blocks in 25.8 minutes per game.
With his height and his Indian heritage, Bhullar attracted a fair amount of international attention, particularly for someone stuck in the D-League—few members of the Reno Bighorns will ever appear on CBS's The Late Late Show, as Bhullar did in February. And yet Bhullar didn't realize the extent of his fame until he visited India in May as part of an NBA-sponsored trip. He visited four cities in six days and helped train players and promoted basketball. It was only the fourth time he had visited India, where his parents grew up.
"So many people knew who I was," Bhullar said. "Someone told me they showed my story in the morning on the sports channel every day, updates on my career and how I'm playing. It's huge for them to have the first Indian player in the NBA. It's amazing. Hopefully I make those guys proud."
Bhullar's struggles began after he got home. Bhullar joined the Kings' summer league squad, and played limited minutes for Team Canada in the Pan American Games. He then sat out the FIBA Americas tournament because he had missed too many practices while mourning the death of his cousin. He resumed his bad eating habits and battled with his weight issues for the next couple months until the Raptors placed him on a strict regimen.
Bhullar called playing three games with the Kings last year "a dream come true," but he understands that there's much more work to be done before he can return to the NBA and become a mainstay in the league.
"Everywhere I go, it's the same thing," Bhullar said. "It's just working on my body. I think if I could get myself in shape, I don't think there's a guy in the NBA that could really stop me."