Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Kai Sotto dilemma


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Perhaps Kai Sotto isn’t as good as advertised.

Basketball-crazy Filipinos got their hopes up when he was signed by the G League Ignite team. Rightfully so since he was only a handful of blue-chip high school players handpicked to pioneer the straight-to-NBA program. There’s no arguing that the 7’3” phenom has all the tools to excel in basketball, but at just 18 years old, Kai’s game still needs a lot of growing. I may be crucified for this, but me thinks Kai is just not yet ready for the G League much less the NBA.

I’ve already watched a couple of Ignite games since the G League bubble started in Orlando, and one thing I can say is coach Brian Shaw’s team seems to put a lot of premium on showcasing individual talent rather than team play. It’s a fast-paced, one-on-one, take-my-defender-off-the-bounce, shoot-the-first-chance-I-get brand of basketball that may not really be conducive in bringing out Kai’s best attributes.

I can’t blame coach Shaw since the end-all of the Ignite team is to give its top-rated recruits the best chance to get drafted in the NBA. The higher in the rookie totem pole the better, and the target is the NBA lottery. It’s simple math, you’re not investing millions of dollars to simply hear your players’ names called in the second round of the NBA Draft. More than his height, what drew basketball scouts and hardcore hoop minds to Kai is his high IQ on the court. He’s a thinking player and that can’t really be accentuated in the run-and-gun style the Ignite is implementing down in Florida.

In sheer athleticism and raw basketball talent alone, our boy still can’t hold a candle against Filipino American Jalen Green and Congolese Jonathan Kuminga. So, you really can’t blame coach Shaw for not utilizing Kai much during practices, which more likely than not would’ve carried over in the G League bubble. It’s probably one of the reasons why Kai’s handlers — East West Private — opted to pull him out of the Ignite training camp and ultimately the G-League bubble to play for flag and country in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers.

Sadly, the third and final window of the regional qualifiers have been canceled not once but twice in two venues already — Clark City, Pampanga and Doha, Qatar — and there went Kai’s chances of showing how much he’s improved in the world stage out the window. As of this writing, Kai has yet to rejoin his Ignite teammates in Orlando. Sad to admit, but because of these series of unfortunate events Kai’s draft stock is sliding fast and if the 2021 NBA Draft will be held tomorrow, the best bet is the former Ateneo center will be on the outside looking in. With no G League or Asian qualifiers stint to gauge his readiness, it’s hard for NBA teams to take a chance on him in the coming NBA Draft.


Centers are also a dying breed in the NBA. I bet you can’t even name five All-NBA slotmen playing in the Association today. Let’s be real, Kai is no Rudy Gobert who can block shots like it’s going out of fashion. He’s also no brute like Joel Embid, who punishes everyone on the low blocks. Kai can’t also be mistaken for Karl Anthony-Towns who is as smooth as butter when it comes to offense (too bad his defense is more like spoiled milk). MVP contender Nikola Jokic could be a good comparison for Kai because of the Denver Nugget center’s elite passing and outside shooting, but our kababayan has a long way to go before approximating the talent and success of the Serbian triple-double threat. Right now, Kai is closer to Wang Zhizhi than the Goberts, Embids, Anthony-Towns and Jokics of the NBA. The 7’1” center, the first Chinese to ever play in the NBA, shares the same build as Kai but undoubtedly was a better 3-point shooter than him.

Wang averaged 4 points and 1.7 rebounds with 38-percent accuracy from rainbow territory in 136 regular season games with the Dallas Mavericks, the LA Clippers and the Miami Heat. Even if he ultimately becomes an NBA journeyman like Wang, Kai would still be the first full-blooded Pinoy to make it in the NBA. And that’s good enough for me. Perhaps we can now leave the poor boy alone.



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