MANILA, Philippines -- All eyes will be on Kai Sotto when he joins the Philippine national team for the third and final window of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers that will be held in Doha, Qatar later this month.
It will be an opportunity for Filipinos to see how much Sotto has improved since he left for the United States in March 2019 to chase his dream of playing in the NBA.
It also marks the first time that Sotto will play for the Gilas Pilipinas men's team, after a terrific stint in the country's youth program. Sotto played for the Gilas Pilipinas Youth in several international events, most recently in the FIBA Under-18 World Cup 2019 in Greece.
The head of the country's basketball federation is asking for Filipino fans to show patience, however, even as he acknowledged that Sotto will be a big boost to Gilas Pilipinas in the upcoming qualifiers.
"He'll be a great addition," said Al Panlilio, president of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, of Sotto during the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum on Tuesday morning. "He's improved a lot, for sure. I've gotten that word."
Over the past few months, Sotto received topnotch training as part of Team Ignite, the group of prospects who opted to take the G League path to the NBA, rather than attending college. There, Sotto was coached by longtime NBA player and coach Brian Shaw, and got to play with top recruits like Filipino-American guard Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga -- both of whom are projected as lottery picks in the 2021 NBA Rookie Draft.
Shaw has spoken highly of Sotto's improvement, lauding the defensive impact the Filipino teenager has made for Ignite during their scrimmages against G League veterans.
While Panlilio understands that the hype for Sotto is inevitable, he also stressed that the young center is still a developing player.
"He's just 18 years old," said Panlilio. "To remind everybody, he's just 18. So we can't also put too much pressure on him."
"He's the future of Philippine basketball, for sure, but he's also developing as a player, as a person," he added. "Easy lang tayo sa kanya. Let's not put too much pressure on him."
Panlilio believes that Sotto is already putting plenty of pressure on himself. The 18-year-old has made no secret of his desire to be the first homegrown Filipino to be drafted in the NBA, and has millions of Filipinos following his every move as he pursues his dream.
The SBP boss said that rather than pile on the pressure on Sotto, the teenager must instead be supported.
"He's already pressured enough," Panlilio said. "I think he's pressuring himself to do well, he wants to do well, all of us want him to do well. But, let's just support him in his journey."
"This window is not a measurement of where Kai Sotto will be or is," he stressed. "But really, again, I see a big, bright and big future for Kai."
Sotto is set to arrive in Manila on Tuesday, after leaving Team Ignite's bubble in Walnut Creek, California. He will join Gilas Pilipinas in its training camp at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna once he clears quarantine.
From there, Sotto will have about a week to practice with the national team before they fly to Doha, where the third and final window of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers will be held in another bubble. Gilas Pilipinas leads Group A with a 3-0 win-loss record, with two games against South Korea and one against Indonesia on the horizon.