* The 18-year-old giant joins hand-picked G-League and explains having to ‘earn respect’ as an Asian
* Sotto describes ‘blessing and challenge’ in representing his beloved homeland and his desire to follow in Manny Pacquiao’s footsteps
Filipino basketball sensation Kai Sotto is used to pressure. The towering 18-year-old is forever accompanied by his proud, basketball-obsessed homeland, taking note of his every move as he edges closer to becoming the first full-blooded Filipino to play in the NBA.
Sotto is days away from one of several historic moves as he travels to California to meet his new NBA G-League Select Team teammates. The hotly tipped centre, who stands at 2.18m (7’2”), rather unconventionally opted for the G-League over division one college basketball in May, joining a hand-picked developmental team for “elite” NBA prospects.
G-League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim quickly labelled him “the best from Asia”, while team head coach Brian Shaw has made early comparisons to silky Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic. The latest hype transcends the sport itself, with Sotto’s trajectory slowly morphing into him being the country’s next Manny Pacquiao.
“It’s kind of unfair to compare me to Manny Pacquiao because Manny Pacquiao is the GOAT [greatest of all time],” Sotto told the Post via group video call. “I’ve seen how he affected the Philippines, not just in sport but in life. Every time there’s a Manny Pacquiao match, everybody stops to watch. I just hope one day that I can have that effect on Filipinos – that’s a dream of mine.
“I considered the option of college because I really wanted to experience college and play for a college, but for my goal to the NBA I think the G-League is a great choice because you’re around NBA-calibre coaches and players and you learn how to live like a professional NBA player every day.”
As he completes some final drills and conditioning, the four-star recruit is ready to represent not just his beloved Philippines, but Asia as a whole. After all, there have not been many NBA success stories coming from the continent, let alone the Southeast.
“There are a lot more players from Asia that are probably as good as me, but I’m happy he called me the best one and I’m going to work hard to prove it to him,” the humble Sotto said of former All-Star Abdur-Raheem’s praise.
“My challenges here in the States being an international player from Asia [is that] they don’t really give you the respect right away – you have to earn it. You really have great players here so every time I play I just have to earn everybody’s respect by playing my hardest,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, young Sotto is a household name back home. He made a name for himself at Manila-based high school team Ateneo Blue Eaglets before jetting to the US to joining preparatory programme The Skill Factory – of which the NBA’s 2018 MVP and eight-time All-Star James Harden is an alumnus.
Not only will Sotto be featuring in the developmental league, but he joins a unique six-player roster based around ESPN number one-ranked prospect Jalen Green. The team will compete outside the league’s traditional structure.
“I think I have to take the pressure as a blessing and a challenge,” Sotto said. “It’s a blessing that people are supporting me, and that’s also a challenge to do my best and make them proud – to make the most of my opportunity. The pressure is always there so I just have to enjoy what I’m doing now to eliminate the pressure.
“It’s a no-brainer, this is my top dream. Ever since I started playing basketball, my first answer [for everything] is to be an NBA player. Every day I wake up seeing people messaging me with good luck and support. I think of it as a dream for a lot of people.”
Fortunately, Sotto’s immediate family has joined their golden boy as he makes the transition. After an arduous week of training – which includes up to four workouts a day – the Sottos relax with weekend morning yoga before his mother, Pamela, cooks up his favourite Filipino dishes.
Sotto’s father, Ervin, is a former Philippine Basketball Association star and won gold at the 2003 Southeast Asian Games. He was instrumental in ensuring Sotto worked on ball control and shooting techniques, regardless of height.
“My dad always knew that I’d be this tall so he didn’t train me as a guard. Growing up in the Philippines, I was always the tall one and every coach had to teach me how to be the big guy. My dad was one of the few trainers to teach me ball handling,” he said. “He would also teach me to shoot from everywhere and how to find spots for easy, effortless shots. He was a good shooter – before, not now!
“I’m just a very lucky son, brother and person. I look at my younger sister and brother, mum and dad, and that’s enough fuel to keep me going every single day to work hard to achieve my dream. That’s why I want to make it to the NBA, to represent the Philippines – it’s because of them.”
Another talisman in his fledgling career is former Philippine national team head coach Vincent “Chot” Reyes, who was also Sotto’s coach at Ateneo de Manila high school. The veteran has become somewhat of a life coach for Sotto, explaining the need to keep “grounded” amid the inevitable hype, while ensuring the stability of the men’s national team – better known as Gilas.
“This whole thing started when Kai was 15. We got together with his dad and figured out the best way to keep Kai in the country and make sure his direction was well-paved. We did a lot of things in the background until all these offers came in” said Reyes, who led the Philippines to a historic silver at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships.
“For me, the [primary] interest and concern was to make sure that wherever Kai goes he will be able to play for Gilas, whether it’s the youth or senior team. Three years later, we are marvelling at how time flies. The most important message is to stay present and figure out what is most important – not to get too far ahead of ourselves.
“I’ve been known to use puso [Tagalog for “heart”] as the battle cry. I always remind Kai about that, his effort, attitude, resilience and teamsmanship ... My role is that little voice in the background, to keep Kai grounded and make sure he focuses on the things that matter. My only desire is to see the Philippines national programme do well in the future, years and years on end.”
Reyes also recommended that Sotto – who helped the Philippines youth team to the U-17s and U-19s FIBA World Cups in 2018 and 2019 – padded out his rather wiry frame for optimal conversion to G-League level. To which Sotto immediately spent the ongoing pandemic bulking up. “I really got stronger and heavier, and because of that I’ve got more confidence in myself to play against bigger and tougher players,” he said.
As seen in the NBA for time immemorial, being an effective seven-footer is substantially enhanced by technical ability. Sotto often watches footage of mountainous-yet-mobile players such as Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and the legendary Hakeem Olajuwon.
As for mentality, Sotto without hesitation cited former San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan – widely regarded as one of the greatest ever in his position, known as “The Big Fundamental” for his reliability.
“I really look up to Tim Duncan. I always see him as this player that doesn’t need to trash talk his opponents, doesn’t complain – that’s just me. Seeing him always locked in, and he’s a winner. That’s what I want to be,” Sotto said.
Similar to many of the aforementioned players, Sotto has big dreams of his own. Where does the boy from Manila envision himself in the future?
“I imagine myself being part of a great organisation and team. I envision myself to be an All-Star and will do everything I can to prove that I'm a great player and represent Asia. Five years from now I want to be the best in Asia. Being a Filipino, that’s the dream I have,” he said.
And as if coach Reyes was right over his shoulder, Sotto added: “I really push myself every day – that’s when I know my limits. I’ve had days that I really pushed myself and got exhausted so I know I have to do more and expand my limits to improve and be better. I believe that I still have a lot of room to improve.”