No basketball players from the Philippines have ever graced an NBA court. Not one. Yet, the seemingly impossible is looking to come true. A Filipino player by the name of Kai Sotto is a highly ranked NBA prospect. As soon as next year, he could be wearing an NBA uniform.
Sotto became yet another elite prospect to forego college basketball and sign with the G League on May 11. He will team up alongside the likes of Jalen Green and Daishen Nix, who also declined the college route.
Sotto’s exposure to US crowds increased significantly with his summer move to the states. He is currently ranked 62 in the 2020 ESPN 100. To enhance his skill stateside, he played for the Skill Factory Preparatory School in Atlanta, Georgia.
18-year-old Sotto is doing something that only one Filipino has done in the past. His move to the US was only the second of its kind since fellow Filipino Kobe Paras. In 2017, Paras moved to the states to play D1 college basketball. After less than stellar performances, he moved back home to play pro-ball, throwing away any chances of an NBA career in the process.
For Sotto, basketball surrounded his life from an early age. His father, Ervin, was a PBA player for 12 years. Although Sotto looks up to his Ervin, he is aspiring for much more than a PBA career. He has hopes of NBA stardom, as shown through his recent G League signing.
The teenage phenom exploded onto the hoop scene back in the Philippines, where he was named his high school league’s MVP. Simultaneously, he impressed in the national team setup from an early age. Sotto rose to international prominence as he was named to the 2018 Asian U-16 Championships All-Tournament Team. Throughout this run, he averaged 16.8 points and 13.5 rebounds.
Along with his impressive stats, his tremendous size drew overseas scouts’ attention. In a country where basketball is by far the most popular sport, the Philippines is notorious for its lack of height in the population. Sotto’s 7’2 frame defies this stereotype and may prove to be one of his greatest assets.
He can shoot, dribble, and pass, all while being 7’2. His left-handed jumper and guard-like craftiness give him the tools he needs. However, his physicality is subject to much improvement if he wants to pursue a fruitful NBA career.
His 225-pound frame may seem significant at face value, but in reality, Sotto is skinny for his height. For comparison, James Harden weighs in at 220 pounds, just five pounds lighter than Sotto. However, Harden is also 6’5, a full nine inches shorter than Sotto. Hope isn’t lost for Sotto, as seen in the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like Sotto, Antetokounmpo’s physicality raised concerns early in his career, but his physical progress led to him becoming one of the NBA’s very best.
Sotto’s build sets him up nicely for a traditional center role. He is a back to the basket, rebounding, and physical presence in the paint. He can certainly play this role with his clever post moves and positioning on defense, but he is far more than that.
A solid mid-range game alongside a unique ability to drive make Sotto a nightmare for opposing defenses. Sotto has a knack for beating defenders one-on-one as he often gets the ball at the top of the arc. Rather than opting to pass, Sotto regularly pump fakes his way past defenders, who are wary of his three-point threat.
Furthermore, his passing ability and court vision make it possible for him to split defenses from positions on the court where big men are a rare find. Hugging the three-point line, Sotto often sees himself operating as a sort of point forward, dictating the flow of the game.
His game, as of now, draws the most comparisons to NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon. The fellow 7’ center revolutionized the game with his crafty post moves and deadly midrange jumper that stunned defenses of the time. In a March 2020 interview with Bleacher Report, Sotto claimed Olajuwon as one of his earliest influences, with his dad introducing him to Olajuwon’s film at a young age. His film studies have shown, as Sotto’s game emulates a young Olajuwon.
With all the offensive potential in the world, it should be noted that Sotto’s biggest weakness is his on-ball defending. Already a competent shot-stopper in the paint, Sotto’s speed and positioning hold him back when guarding players on the dribble. However, with his height and athleticism, the potential is there. If he works on lateral movement and defensive positioning, Sotto could turn into a great low-post defender like Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert.
Basketball is by far the most popular sport in the Philippines and has remained a cultural staple of the nation for years. But despite being home to 100 million people, the country has failed to yield a single NBA player. Sotto has the potential to change this once and for all.
Sotto can become a national icon if he achieves NBA stardom. Currently, Manny Pacquiao is the clear cut symbol of hope for aspiring Filipino athletes. The world champion boxer beat the odds and escaped poverty en route to becoming one of boxing’s all-time greats and one of the Philippines’ few global athletes. Sotto hopes to do the same for basketball in the country that adores the sport so much.
Along with the responsibility of furthering his basketball career, Sotto represents his home nation and is the nation’s most promising athlete since Pacquiao.
With an entire country backing him, Sotto has high expectations. For a country that loves the game so much, they have been starved of a true Filipino NBA player to look up to. Sotto just might cure that hunger.