Local basketball fans have been titillated no end by the idea of Kai Sotto being recruited to play in Spain.
Sotto, after all, is a once-in-a-generation talent. It is not everyday that a high school kid stands 7’1 and moves with the fluidity of a forward. Even international scouts have taken notice, tabbing Sotto and fellow 16-year-old Oumar Ballo, a 6’10 center from Mali, as the two best international bigs in their age category and potential NBA draft prospects in 2021 when they both turn 19.
There has been a clamour among Filipino hoop fans for Sotto to train abroad where he can be exposed to bigger and better competition. Going to Europe would be a step in the right direction for Sotto, the same road taken by Slovenian rookie sensation Luka Doncic and 7’3 Latvian Kristaps Porzingis, both of the Dallas Mavericks, who were honed in Spanish basketball academies.
But there are two other Filipino beanpoles who merit consideration and who also need high-level competition which they can only get outside the country. These are 6’8 Carl Tamayo of the NU Bullpups and 6’7 Raven Cortez of the De La Salle Zobel Junior Archers. With their height, both Tamayo and Cortez are often tasked to man the slot for their respective teams in the UAAP Juniors. But with their agility and offensive talent, both Tamayo and Cortez can actually play stretch 4 or even slide down to the 3 spot.
Tamayo is one of the reasons why Sotto and the Ateneo Blue Eaglets might not be able to retain their UAAP title. Tamayo is the only high school player aside from Sotto who was included in former Gilas Coach Chot Reyes’s 23 for 23 pool for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. The former UAAP Juniors Rookie of the Year played for the Gilas Cadets in last summer’s Filoil Flying V Premier Cup where he more than held his own against the bigs of some of the country’s top collegiate squads. Tamayo’s range extends beyond the three-point line, making him a difficult match-up for anyone as he also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket.
Although he has not had a stand-out season thus far in the UAAP because of injuries, Tamayo has shown up extra-motivated when pitted against Sotto. In their first encounter, Tamayo scored 13 points and hauled down 10 boards to match Sotto’s 23 points and 12 rebounds. In the second round, Tamayo had seven markers and nine rebounds. In both games, the Bullpups prevailed over the Blue Eaglets. It was another gigantic battle between Tamayo and Sotto in Game 1 of the finals last Monday. Tamayo had a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds against Sotto’s 16 points and 15 rebounds. Once again, NU continued its mastery over the Ateneo. Tamayo turned 18 just this February and has played for Batang Gilas in the FIBA World Cup Under-17 in Argentina last year where he contributed solid numbers of 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds to help the Philippines finish 13th over-all in the competition.
Cortez was also part of the Batang Gilas in the World Cup where he formed an imposing frontline with Sotto, Tamayo, and 6’8 Geo Chiu. Cortez was then only 15 (he turned 16 just last October 23) but he was called upon to relieve both Sotto and Tamayo. The youngster did not disappoint as he normed 7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and one block per game. In last year’s FIBA Asia Under-18 held in Thailand, Cortez showed he was not afraid to mix it up against older competition as he averaged 6.5 rebounds, third in the team behind AJ Edu and Sotto. In the UAAP Juniors, Cortez missed games this season due to an MCL bruise he suffered in the FIBA Asia competition. But when healthy, Cortez is a force on defense with his quick feet which allow him to disrupt passing lanes and long arms which make him a menacing rim-protector. Last season, Cortez averaged 11.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks for the Junior Archers.
If there are no opportunities for Tamayo and Cortez to train in Europe, then they should explore the possibility of playing college ball in the US. These two young big men have skill-sets that can be further harnessed for them to become unicorns. If they remain in the country, they might just end up like the typical Filipino bigs who are forced to play down low and are not given the chance to improve the other facets of their game. Going the US NCAA route will be similar to the path taken by China’s 6’10 Michael Wang of Penn and 6’8 Japanese unicorn Rui Hachimura of Gonzaga. Batang Gilas stalwart Edu plays for the University of Toledo where he is the team’s top shot blocker and occasionally can be seen firing away from the three point area. Even Ballo is said to be considering going to Gonzaga next season. Japanese big man Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies also played college basketball for the George Washington Colonels in the US NCAA.
With the right guidance and backing, Tamayo and Cortez can crack the roster of US NCAA Division I teams. They are that good. That is where they need to go to further develop their game given the kind of training and level of competition they will get used to. If Sotto, Edu, Tamayo, and Cortez will be exposed to better training, nutrition, and competition abroad, then we can perhaps be assured of international-caliber big men for Gilas Pilipinas for the next 10 to 15 years.