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  • Alder Almo

A Trailblazing Story: The Rise of Kai Sotto

Noted NBA news breaker Shams Charania of the Athletic recently dropped a bomb that was hardly felt by the #NBATwitter but rocked the Philippines’ basketball landscape.

Charania reported that the country’s most prominent NBA prospect, - 7’2” Kai Sotto - will join the G-League Select Team as the first international player to join the new Professional Path program.

While few American eyebrows may have been raised, the news definitely caused the entire Philippine nation to celebrate in jubilant fashion online, even in the midst of the ongoing COVID outbreak.

Sotto, who moved to the US last year to chase his NBA dream, has been on the rise for years. Back in 2016, he was spotted by scouts as a 13-year old skinny kid with unbelievable height of 6’9” in the Jr. NBA Philippines camp. He went on to star in one of the top high school programs in the Philippines, the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, then led the Philippine youth teams to the FIBA World Cup U17 and U19.

As a 16-year old, he made his debut in the world stage with averages of 16.4 points, 10.6 rebounds. 1.1 assist and 2.3 blocks per game in the 2018 FIBA World Cup U17 in Argentina. Against the best 18 and 19-year old players, the then 17-year old Sotto caused a buzz among international scouts with a solid tournament (11.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2 assists and 3.1 blocks) in the 2019 FIBA World Cup U19 in Greece.

For the past year, he trained with Atlanta-based prep program, The Skill Factory National.

Highlighting his TSF stint was his MVP performance in the King Invitational Tournament in Atlanta where he led the National to the title with monster averages of 27 points, 10.6 rebounds, three assists and 4.3 blocks.

In one of his most anticipated matchups last season, he had 11 points and four blocks in TSF’s dominant 69-37 win over Hillcrest Prep and its five-star recruit, 6-11 Makur Maker, cousin of Detroit Pistons’ Thon Maker.

Sotto, a four-star recruit was earlier linked to Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Auburn and DePaul, before he made the bold decision to skip college and move to the G-League instead.

Sotto, who just turned 18 on the same day Charania broke the news, is blazing a trail and is on the cusp of history.

There has never been a full-blooded, homegrown Filipino player in the NBA.

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson is half Filipino, but was born and raised in the US. Ditto Jalen Green, Sotto’s teammate in G-League Select and ESPN’s top-ranked high school prospect for 2020 Class. Add Arizona State University’s spitfire guard Remy Martin, who is applying for this year’s Draft, to this group as well.

RELATED: Clarksonaissance: How Jordan Clarkson Rose Up From The Ashes Of The 2018 NBA Playoffs

The Philippines is one of the international community’s most fervent basketball hotbeds; the long cherished dream of having a representation in the biggest league in the world lies on Kai’s lean shoulders. Could Sotto be the “The One”?

Let’s dive deeper.

Sotto has vaulted from a virtual unknown into the 62nd ranked high school prospect in ESPN’s Class of 2020. Clearly, his move to the US instead of going the Europe route has made him more visible in the NBA radar.

At a recent work out at the Skill Factory, Sotto showed how advanced he is for his age offensively.

Sotto left a lasting impression in The Skill Factory with his offensive prowess.

“He has a lot of strengths,” TSF coach Rob Johnson told me. “His shooting, his passing, his ability to finish with both hands, and his IQ are what stand out. I thought he was an NBA player the first time he practiced with us. It was just a matter of when.”

Growing up studying highlights of Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan laid the foundation for Sotto’s impressive footwork and post moves around the rim. His personal training development with former NBA Rookie of the Year Chuck “The Rifleman” Person has extended his range to be in tune with the modern NBA.

But what makes him more dangerous in the offensive end is his court vision that has been rare for his size. He can pass like a guard.

Like any unpolished gem, Sotto has rough edges in his game that he needs to address before making the big jump to the NBA. ESPN Draft Analyst Jonathan Givony’s mixed review of his Basketball Without Border performance last February was a good wake-up call.

"Likely the most-hyped prospect to ever come out of the Philippines, Sotto doesn't turn 18 until May but has been on the radar since the FIBA World Cup at the U17 and U19 levels in each of the past two summers. Sotto has generated some buzz in the U.S. after joining a prep school in Atlanta last year.

"Sotto didn't look ready for the level of physicality and intensity he encountered in the camp scrimmages, as he was scored on at will by stronger players, looked lethargic getting back on defense and settled for too many low-percentage shots. Sotto did show nice timing rotating for blocks thanks in part to his massive 9-foot-3 standing reach."

These red flags could be a problem. The good thing, though, is time is on Sotto’s side, as he has just started scratching his potential. His physical gifts have yet to fully develop.

“I think as his body becomes stronger and more flexible, his lateral quickness will become better and his defense will continue to improve,” Coach Johnson said.

Sotto is clearly fully committed and determined to chase his NBA dream. Jumping straight to the G-League puts added pressure on Sotto, but he’s not backing down from the challenge.

Since his arrival in the US, he’s already bulked up from 210 lbs to 229 lbs. And by the time the G-League season tips off in November, he wants to be at 240 lbs. For comparison, Dallas Mavericks 7-foot-3 unicorn Kristaps Porzingis is also at 240 lbs.

Sotto’s unique offensive skill set has already made him an intriguing prospect. But if he improves dramatically on his speed, stamina and defense, then his new agent Aaron Goodwin’s pronouncements upon signing him could prove to be prophetic: The Sky's the limit!

You can follow me on Twitter: @alderalmo

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