Kai reaches for the sky

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It is hard for Filipino fans not to get excited about the news of Kai Sotto finally deciding to leave the Philippines to embark on a journey that could ultimately lead him to the NBA. In a country where basketball is sacrosanct, it has been the dream of every Filipino fan to see a home-grown talent finally making it to the best professional league in the world.

READ — Kai Sotto to leave Philippines, train overseas to chase NBA dream

Yet there still remain naysayers who have cast doubts on Sotto’s chances to make a name for himself internationally. This stems from the thought that there have been others who have in the past attempted to take their talents beyond the shores of the Philippines. They eventually found themselves back in the local scene, undoubtedly toughened by their experiences abroad and armed with the realization that the road to the NBA is not for the faint of hearts. As good as Bobby Ray Parks, Kobe Paras, Japeth Aguilar, and Kiefer Ravena are, the learning from their collective experiences is their height, built, and skill-sets are par for the course outside the country. They would have had to be generational talents in order to make it in the United States. Furthermore, before leaving for the States, none of them have had the chance to gauge themselves against the best talents in the world.

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What makes Sotto special compared to the others who have tried before him? The most obvious answer is his height, but this would be a simplistic way of assessing the 7’1 giant who is still growing. His footwork shows a big man with uncanny dexterity whether with his back to the basket or facing up. He has displayed the ability to shoot with either hand and a range that would make his godfather Ranidel de Ocampo nod his head in approval. His handles indicate a small forward or stretch four trapped in a center’s height, a unicorn in the making. At just 16-years-old (he turns 17 this May), he has provided glimpses of tremendous upside and a skill-set not often seen from someone as tall.

Sotto has had plenty of opportunities to benchmark himself against top competition in the international scene. In the FIBA Asia Under-16 held in Foshan, China in 2018, Sotto led the Batang Glas to a 4th place finish, enough for the Philippines to qualify for the Under-17 World Cup for only the second time. In the semifinals, Batang Gilas faced off against China, the tallest team in the competition. Sotto went toe-to-toe against Boqiao Jiao, China’s own 6’10 teen giant. China eventually prevailed by six points to barge into the finals. But Sotto made mincemeat of Jiao’s defense and everyone else China tasked to shadow the Filipino beanpole. Sotto scored 26 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, and blocked six shots as he completely overshadowed Jiao who could only contribute eight points to the Chinese cause.

By tournament’s end, Sotto had turned in the best individual performance among all players. He was tops in Efficiency Per Game at 21.5%. He was fifth in scoring with 16.8 points per game, number one in rebounds with 13.5 boards a game, first in blocked shots with 2.5 swats per outing, and number one in double-doubles.

After flexing his might in Asia, Sotto sought a bigger stage to introduce himself to the international scene. In the FIBA Under-17 World Cup held in Argentina, Sotto went up against the best young big men the world over. He helped the Batang Gilas finish 13th in the competitions. He was one of only five players to average a double-double, norming 16.1 points and 10.6 rebounds. He scintillated with 23 points and 12 boards in a loss against European power Croatia in the preliminary round. In the classifcation round, he dominated an Egyptian team which had two 6’10 centers. Sotto’s stat-line: 28 points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks en route to a 70-69 win for the Philippines. The battle for 13th place pitted the Philippines against New Zealand, a team that manhandled Batang Gilas in FIBA Asia where Sotto was practically pushed around and bullied by the Kiwi bigs. Sotto showed his high basketball IQ by taking his game to the perimeter and connecting on jumpers to leave the opposing bigs in the shaded lane. Batang Gilas exacted revenge on the Kiwis with a 73-51 shellacking as Sotto led the way with 22 points, 10 boards, and four blocks.

The main criticism against Sotto has always been his lack of physical strength. This was most glaring in the World Cup when Batang Gilas played Mali which featured 6’10 Oumar Ballo, generally-recognized as the best international big man in their age category. Ballo dominated the match-up with 28 points and 19 rebounds as Sotto struggled to contain the Mali center who will be joining Gonzaga in the US NCAA next season. Sotto finished with just six points and five rebounds.

And this is why the plan to spend the next two months in the US to help bulk up and strengthen Sotto is a step in the right direction. This will address his deficiencies and prepare him for his European stint with whichever team he will be joining. In Europe, Sotto will possibly spend a year in his team’s basketball academy or youth program before eventually turning professional. Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks spent three years with the Real Madrid youth team before joining their senior team a few months after turning 16. By the time Doncic turned 19, he had led Real Madrid to a Euroleague title and was named Euroleague MVP. Going the European route at this stage in his development bodes well for Sotto’s long-term plans. Even Ballo trained in Spain with the Canterbury International Basketball Academy in Las Palmas.

Of course, all these do not guarantee that Sotto will make it to the NBA. But it does help increase his chances. He is already in the radar of international scouts, some of whom have tabbed him as the 2nd best international big man next to Ballo who will be eligible for the 2021 NBA draft. They both will be 19-years-old by then. This means Sotto still has two more years to hone his game and make himself NBA-ready. The Philippines will surely be closely monitoring his progress as Sotto nurtures not only his own dreams but that of every Filipino basketball fan.

(Images from FIBA)

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