"Do I feel pressure? Nah, not really."
Princepal Singh doesn't do flustered. It's been five years since Satnam Singh became the first Indian to get drafted into an NBA team, but Princepal - Indian men's basketball's brightest prospect - doesn't feel the comparisons with the path-breaking Satnam are weighing him down. Currently into the second year of his two-year stint at the NBA Academy in Canberra, Australia, he is the only Indian among the 12 elite players in his batch.
Speaking to ESPN after a tournament held in Las Vegas which saw the Academy face off against elite teams from across the United States, he sounds just about as unfazed by the whole shindig as he had been when he last spoke to us.
A man of few words, his dry drawl occasionally rises to a slightly more excitable pitch when the questions veer off the beaten path of 'how-did-you-start-playing-basketball?' to more specific details on his game and his training.
You can hear it when he speaks about how he loves the one hour of shooting he starts every day with. About how hard, yet satisfying, the four hours of gym plus team training is. About how playing day-in, day-out against other elite trainees has him constantly pushing his own boundaries. About how he studies and tries to model his game on that of his idol, LA Lakers superstar Anthony Davis.
A year into his training at the Academy, he believes he has come a long way and learnt quite a bit. He talks about how he is constantly improving his game.
Chris Ebersole, NBA Senior Director, Elite Basketball Operations, agrees with Princepal's self-assessment. "Every time I see Prince play in-person, I notice he has improved some part of his game. I think it has been invaluable for him to play and train alongside top prospects from all over the world. You can tell he is not only developing fundamental parts of his game including his touch, shot and inside game, but he's also picking up intangibles such as toughness, hustle and basketball IQ," Ebersole tells ESPN.
At 6'10", Princepal is one big 18-year-old, but he is aware that size alone isn't enough to cut it at the very top.
Over the past few years, the NBA has seen its big men evolve from mere mountains of muscle dominating the post and the restricted area. Youngsters such as Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are redefining the role of the traditional big man. With this in mind, Princepal is paying greater attention to the drills that aim at improving his all-round game. "I have full confidence in my ball handling and dribbling skills, the training here is on NBA standards," he says.
Ebersole says the Academy is cognizant of this shift in dynamic and is adapting their training methods to meet this new challenge. "Big men in today's NBA are doing things that centres never previously could do or trained to do. Our basketball development curriculum is certainly designed to improve all areas of each player's game, so Prince and the rest of our big men are improving their passing, ball handling and shooting every day," he says.
He then details just why he believes Princepal is well suited to stay ahead of the curve.
"While Prince's strengths are certainly in the post and near the basket, I do think he has the potential to stretch the floor and play-make as he continues to develop. His combination of size, athleticism and touch makes him a really intriguing prospect," he says. "As Prince has previously talked about, prior to playing basketball he was a serious volleyball player, so his athleticism transitioned to basketball very naturally. He also has a great feel for the ball and a soft touch around the rim, which is rare to come by for a player his size."
Princepal's natural confidence certainly helps matters. Having only picked up the game when he was 14, to reach the levels he has within four years is quite remarkable. "I had no problems in learning the game, even though I had to start from the ABC of basketball. My coach [Jaipal Singh of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy] encouraged me and constantly told me that I was learning very fast."
No one in his village had even played basketball before he picked one up. No one, according to him, had pursued professional sport in his village before him. He went from learning the sport to representing his nation in just four years. It would have been understandable if it all got to his head.
"I haven't achieved anything in my career yet," he says. "I take it one step at a time. Winning the tournaments I enter, getting to Australia when this chance opened up, my goals are clear."
The Academy considers goal-setting, and achieving, an essential part of their curriculum. They strive to detail customized roadmaps for the future for its trainees. "Everyone's path and journey is different. Some of our student-athletes will go on to play in the NCAA - in fact, 20 NBA Academy graduates have received NCAA D1 scholarships - while others may play professionally either in the U.S. or around the world. It's all about what is best for the individual and how we can help him or her be put in a situation to succeed," says Ebersole.
Princepal has his path mapped out clearly in his head. There isn't a hint of hesitation in his voice when he talks about where he'll end up. There isn't any arrogance either; he mentions it with all the casual ease of a man stating an obvious fact. "I will play in the NBA".