FIBA Asia Cup

Questions arise as Kai Sotto joins Gilas Pilipinas

Ariel Ian Clarito

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Questions arise as Kai Sotto joins Gilas Pilipinas

ALWAYS ON CALL. Kai Sotto has never turned his back on the national team.

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There are concerns how Kai Sotto's decision to play for Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers will affect his stint in the NBA G League

Kai Sotto has formally announced that he would be joining Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers which the country will be hosting in February in a bubble in Clark, Pampanga. 

This comes as a huge surprise since, after signifying late last year that he wanted to join the national team in the Clark bubble, Sotto was reined in by his Ignite squad and reminded that the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers run in conflict with the NBA G League’s own bubble schedule. 

Sotto has never turned his back on the national team, and even as he immersed himself in the United States to improve his game, he has repeatedly affirmed his commitment to the Gilas program.

However, the sudden turnaround this past week has made people ask if playing in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers is intended not only to help the national team’s cause but also to showcase to the international scene and scouts a stronger and better Sotto, a showcase he may not be afforded by the Ignite team in the G League.

The Ignite team that Sotto is part of is supposed to provide a select group of 6 high school prospects a straight path to the NBA. The idea is to expose these young players to NBA-level coaching under the tutelage of former Los Angeles Laker Brian Shaw.

Playing in the G League would provide them a crash course on the kind of pace and competition they will encounter in the big league when they face teams filled with players trying to crack NBA lineups. 

It might too early to tell, but basing it on the scrimmages of Ignite in preparation for the bubble, it does seem like there is not going to be an equitable opportunity for the 6 prospects to display their abilities.

The team’s system appears designed more to highlight Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, both projected to be top 5 lottery picks in the 2021 NBA draft. The ball goes through the two most of the time and Green and Kuminga apparently have been given the license by Shaw to shoot without conscience or remorse. 

Although Sotto has started at center for the team, he does not figure prominently in the team’s offensive patterns. In fact, in the team’s first two scrimmages, he attempted a total of 8 times from the field as he hardly got touches in the team’s offensive plays.

Sotto has been relegated to a still integral but supporting role that hardly allows him to utilize his total repertoire. It is therefore no surprise that in recent mock drafts by some reputable media entities, Sotto is not even listed as a potential pick in the 2021 NBA draft.

The next question is whether Sotto will indeed be able to unleash his full arsenal in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. No doubt, a vastly improved Sotto will be arriving to help a Gilas Pilipinas team that badly needs a slotman.

At 240 pounds and still filling in with muscles, Sotto is no longer the reed-thin skyscraper he was when he played for Batang Gilas and the Ateneo Blue Eaglets. At 7-foot-3 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, Sotto will be a matchup nightmare in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers.

South Korea, which the Philippines will be facing twice, will possibly be bannered by 6-foot-9 Kim Jyong-ku and 6-foot-8 Kang Sang-jae. Naturalized Korean Ricardo Ratliffe, who stands 6-foot-6, could also bolster the Korean frontline. Indonesia will be featuring its own naturalized player in 6-foot-10 Lester Prosper, who averaged 19 points and 13 boards in the November window of the qualifiers. 

It might be too much to expect Sotto to dominate against the likes of Jyong-ku, a veteran internationalist, and Prosper, who is an immovable force in the low block. But there is no doubt that Sotto will be able to put up solid numbers against any of the opposing big men he will be facing.

It will be interesting to see how coach Jong Uichico will involve Sotto in the offensive flow of the team and optimize his size advantage. Gilas Pilipinas in the past two windows of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers has been a guard-wing oriented team.

With PBA stars Kiefer Ravena, RR Pogoy, and CJ Perez reinforcing the national squad, you have 3 high impact players who could dominate the ball but just as easily could set up Sotto through pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll plays. Uichico will have to guide Sotto to his sweet spots and ensure the ball goes to his hands every so often. 

But even if Sotto registers impressive numbers in the qualifiers, will these improve his stock as a potential pick in the 2021 NBA Draft? The initial assessment by scouts on Sotto is that he is a high IQ big man who has range that could extend even beyond the three-point line, has remarkable court vision and passing ability, and is agile for his size.

The main concern about his game is whether he can defend the high ball screen and get back to his man or slide back down to protect the rim. The NBA is a league that plays a lot of ball screens by insanely athletic players who could blow past big men like Sotto who are unable to quickly react. A big man in the NBA who does not have the laterals to keep and change pace becomes a defensive liability. 

Sotto will not be facing the same kind of athleticism from the Koreans and the Indonesians. He will not be forced to defend the types of ball screens he would have had to deal with in the G League. This automatically casts doubts on whether his Gilas stint will further advance him in the draft prospects totem pole. He may be able to unveil most or even all his offensive weapons, but his defensive flaws will be masked given the level of competition and pace he will be up against.

The last question that needs to be answered is where Sotto goes after the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. His management team has gone on record to say that Sotto’s national team participation has the blessings of Ignite and the G League. Even so, this still means Sotto will be missing majority of Ignite’s games this season. He will have very little time and games left to play when he rejoins the team in March. 

Will it then make sense for Sotto to still rejoin the team, or will he be doing it purely out of contractual obligations? Is Sotto’s management team cooking up other plans to put him in playing situations where he will be utilized more? Are there plans to defer joining the NBA this year and instead focus more on getting Sotto more prepared for next year’s draft?

From a straight line to the NBA through Ignite and the G League, Sotto seems to be taking a detour by playing in the FIBA Asia Cup. We can only hope that his trajectory, which has seemingly gone off-tangent, will still lead him to the doorsteps of the NBA. –

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