MANILA, Philippines -- Kai Sotto is welcome to return and suit up for Gilas Pilipinas in its upcoming FIBA tournaments in June, though program director Tab Baldwin does have some conditions for the Filipino teenager.
Sotto memorably returned to the Philippines in February with the intent of playing for Gilas in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers in Doha. However, the competition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has since been rescheduled for June in Clark, Pampanga.
In the wake of the cancellation, Sotto rushed back to the United States but ultimately did not join Team Ignite in the NBA G League bubble in Orlando, Florida. He has since parted ways with the team, though his training continues in the US.
"He has a willingness to come (back)," Baldwin said of Sotto during an appearance on "Power and Play" with former PBA Commissioner Noli Eala on Saturday.
Baldwin had nothing but kind words about Sotto when asked about his time in the Gilas training camp in February, even if the teenager only joined them for a brief time.
"Seeing the kid back around his friends, back in his Filipino skin, immensely enjoying not the training so much, not the coaching so much, but enjoying the fellowship with his boyhood friends, and seeing their development in basketball, and them seeing his development in basketball, I think that's invaluable," Baldwin said.
If Sotto is to play for Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers -- and the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament -- he cannot join the team at the last second, however.
Baldwin made it clear that Sotto will have to train with the young Gilas pool that is currently at the Inspire Sports Academy in order to fully integrate himself with the squad and learn the plays that they are running.
"As a coach, I'm developing a team. And so to be part of that team, you have to be integrated into that team. And to be integrated into that team, you have to train with them," Baldwin explained.
"So I have some conditions that, say that, if Kai comes back and plays for the team and doesn't train with us, I think he's gonna go out on the court and look bad. And I don't think that's fair to him, and I don't think that's fair to his prospects," he added.
Baldwin pointed out that if Sotto plays for the Philippines in the upcoming FIBA tournaments in June, it is all but certain that NBA scouts and coaches will be watching and evaluating him.
In order for Sotto to show what he is capable of against the likes of South Korea and the Dominican Republic, he has to be as well prepared as possible, the coach stressed.
"For Kai to have the best experience here, he needs to be part of the training for I would say no less than three weeks," he said. "This is a condition, and I'm not saying it is three weeks. It might be four. It might be two."
"We have to continue to talk to Kai and his people, see what his schedule looks like and find the best solution. But it really, genuinely needs to be the best solution for Kai as a basketball player, and for the team," Baldwin said emphatically.
"He has to be integrated into the team. Or else, he's gonna detract from their performance if he doesn't know the systems we're running."
Sotto's return to the Philippines and eventual departure from the G League program had become the subject of great debate, as Filipino fans questioned the wisdom behind his decision to leave just before Team Ignite's season.
Baldwin stressed that it was not for him -- or for anyone else -- to judge Sotto given the "mystery" surrounding the circumstances. Neither Sotto's management nor Ignite had given an explanation for his departure from the program.
"I can only look at what I saw, and I saw Kai enjoying himself, I saw Kai proud to pull on - even though it was a practice uniform -- proud to pull on the Filipino uniform," said Baldwin.
"I saw him impress in practice, and I saw how he felt, and I talked to him about it. I asked, 'How do you feel about being one of the best players on the court, and you're only 18?' And he said, 'Coach it's a great feeling to be able to think that I can come back and contribute to the Gilas team. That I'm not just an 18 year old who somewhere in the future might play'," he added.
Given what he saw and heard from Sotto during his brief stay at the Inspire facility, Baldwin believes that his return to the country -- as short as it was -- did more good than harm.
"I believe that what happened for him -- whether there was something better or not, I don't know. I believe that what happened for him was positive, and it was totally positive for us as well," he said.
Gilas is set for two major competitions in June -- the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers in Clark, Pampanga, and the FIBA OQT set for June 29 to July 4 in Belgrade, Serbia.
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