Kobe Paras is leading the way for Kai Sotto’s growth as a player

It was a rainy February afternoon when I found myself walking around the Ateneo High School campus with Kobe Paras. It was our Freshman’s event then, and as a hardcore basketball fan, I was thrilled to be the one assigned to take care of Kobe’s group for the event. We found ourselves in the Ateneo High School Covered Courts and I immediately asked Kobe, “Uy, dunk ka naman!” He told me, “Gotchu,” and all 6’2” of him went up and slammed it home with authority. One of the ushers with me quickly said, “He has to work on his skills but the raw athleticism.. shit.” I was excited to see him play for the Eaglets.

It turns out, that very dunk would be the last time I’d get to see Kobe Paras play in an Ateneo setting. A few months after, he transferred to La Salle Green Hills. Come 2013, he was playing in the United States for Middlebrooks Academy in Los Angeles. As the saying goes, time flies.

Kobe Paras

I wasn’t surprised at all when Kobe managed to make it to the States. There are those who argue that the only reasons he made it there are because of his name and the backing he had from La Salle, but the reasons for his success go beyond that. He’s an incredible athlete, possessing physical tools and raw athletic ability that very few in the Philippines have.

Around the same time I used Kobe in Ateneo High School, there was a stat sheet that circulated with Kobe putting up 49 points, 23 rebounds (There’s a big chance the rebound count is wrong. But I can assure you, he had A LOT.) and a bunch of other ridiculous statistics to try and lead his class against a strong opponent.

There was no other way to put it: Kobe Paras was special.

Kobe Paras

He was meant to be in that elite group of players (Kiefer Ravena, Bobby Ray Parks etc.) who were projected to play in the States. Everyone pinned their hopes on the three to be the first full-blooded Pinoys to make it to the NBA. Except, between the three names, Kobe actually did make it to the States, even getting a scholarship from the UCLA Bruins. The chances of him making it to the NBA are still slim, but he’s proving to today’s generation of young ballers that they can go beyond what this country has in store for us. From Kiefer and Ray to Kobe. The country has come a long way into making strides in US ball.

Here we are in 2017 and it looks like someone is about to join that special group.

Kai Sotto, that 15 year old wunderkind who stands at 7’1” (we can argue all we want about his real height but the point it HE IS A TALL HUMAN BEING), is being pushed to go to the States. After all, he does have ambitious dreams of playing the wing position, so getting training from the best coaches abroad will only do him good. He can develop his all-around skills there and learn from coaches with a totally different perspective.

Kobe himself had some words to say to Kai regarding the entire matter:

It was a statement by Kobe that brought mixed reactions from fans. Let’s try to break it down point per point and understand what Kobe was trying to say to Kai.

“Hopefully one day Kai may make a mature decision to continue his basketball career here in the states…”

The key terms in this statement are “mature decision” and “continue his basketball career here in the States”. First, let’s discuss what a “mature decision” is. As a basketball player, a mature decision means making choices that will maximize one’s ability as an athlete.

Let’s look at Kai Sotto’s as an athlete so far:

  • Just 15 years old
  • Already stands at 7’1”
  • Has a long, lanky frame which is proven to be not a detriment but an advantage if used and dveloped properly (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant are examples)
  • Moves relatively well for someone his size
  • Great touch and solid shooting form
  • High IQ player who knows how to use his physical tools
  • Gritty, even though his lack of bulk suggests otherwise
  • Needs to bulk up, improve his strength

This is a solid foundation for an athlete. In fact, some have already been calling Kai as a potential Unicorn. Right now, he plays more like a Yao Ming type of player. He uses his height to be effective in the spots set up for him.

But the dream for him is to play like a Kristaps Porzngis. Someone who boggles the mind, whose skills can match things very few have imagined he can do. It’s a lofty dream, but why not right? And one way to maximize one’s development as an athlete is by getting to train abroad with people who have a particular level of expertise in this.  

Here’s where things get interesting. Kobe mentioned continuing Kai’s basketball career in the States. This is a good option! It’s the dream for many to be able to study in the States and to play basketball in the process. But, that doesn’t mean playing in the States is the only option Kai can explore. There are dozens. For the case of this piece, we’ll talk about arguably the second best thing that Kai can take on if ever he does pursue a career abroad.  

kai-sotto-dunk

Kai can take a look at Europe.  

The style of play in Europe is starting to make its way not just to the United States but to the rest of the world as well. The principles of such a style of play are simple: Endless, meaningful movement for the sake of an open shot. No (or very limited) isolations. The outside shot is an incredibly important weapon, and everyone is encouraged to take it.  

In that case, imagine Kai exposed to the European system. Players there aren’t as physically imposing, and coaches put a premium on learning within the system over individual skills. This could be seen as a bad thing considering Kai’s lack of strength, but this can also be a good thing. Imagine Kai learning how to properly attack hard close outs or cut through an elevator screen. Remember, he’s just 15 years old. Considering everything he’s showed thus far, this isn’t so far-fetched.  

That’s not to say that going to the States is bad. He gets exposed to the highest level of competition in the world, while also gaining more strength because of the type of training he would receive from coaches there.   The point is: Kai has his options. And that’s the beauty with what Kobe has brought because of his experiences: the basic idea that there is more to this world than what the Philippines offers.  

This then brings us to the second part of his tweet.  

“….so that he won’t get rotten and brained washed in Manila.”  

Let’s get this out of the way: using the words “rotten” and “brain washed” when it comes to talking about Manila isn’t the most ideal way to strengthen one’s point. Considering how sensitive some people are, Kobe could have actually used a softer term for this. So I can’t blame some people getting worked up over this statement of Kobe.  

But, if your main takeaway from Kobe’s tweet just because of that small part is “Kobe Paras is an arrogant, ungrateful brat!” then something is wrong.  The right thing to do amidst all of this is asking ourselves, “Why did Kobe use such words to describe Manila?”  

This brings up the question, “How is the state of Philippine Basketball in our country?” If you think it’s good, think again because you could be fooling yourself. A quick look at our professional league, and we see a program (and culture) that is full of flaws. These issues are so big that there’s a possibility of a lockout happening within the PBA. All of these issues with those on top has led to a lack of development of the game itself.  

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There are programs out there that are trying to nurture grassroots such as the SM NBTC among others, and we have to give them credit for that. But their efforts haven’t been enough to fix the entirety of Philippine Basketball. In terms of sheer principles and concepts of basketball, Pinoys still fall back to individual moves and a style that credits the stars.

These qualities are good, in the right context. But the concept of recognizing high basketball IQ and having an open mind when it comes to the development of a player are often put in the background. It’s clear that there is a long way to go for Philippine Basketball to reach the heights of its Western counterparts.

Because of ideals like being the “best” basketball fans in Asia combined with a lot of players gaining recognition because of their individual style of play, it’s easy to think that everything is fine in Philippine Basketball. The top honchos fail to realize how far we as a basketball country still have to go. Just because things are entertaining, doesn’t mean that the problem is already fixed. It’s about consistently moving forward, and opening your mind to new possibilities.

That’s what Kobe wants to tell Kai. To be open to being trained by coaches abroad to learn new things. Taking away Kobe’s harsh words about local basketball, he’s really just looking out for Kai who can develop into something special with the right training, here or internationally.

Finally, Kobe’s last point:

“Endless opportunities available here for that young bull…”

SEABA 2017 Gilas-Pilipinas vs Indonesia pic 23 by Roy Afable

No doubt about it. Not just in the States. Even in a place like Europe, the possibilities for Kai are endless. At the end of the day, if we allow Kai to be trained abroad, we as a country win.

Imagine having someone who can turn Chinese and Iranian big men to mincemeat. Imagine having a player that can be regarded as one of the best young big men, not just in Asia but in the world. Kai could very well be that guy if he is given the opportunities to learn and improve.

That is what Kobe Paras’ risk to go to the US has shown young athletes.

He has shown future national team stars that there are opportunities everywhere. We always preach utang na loob, but that shouldn’t stop people from settling and sticking to what we have now. Philippine sports, not just basketball, has its issues. Kobe is showing that you don’t have to feel stuck by staying here. Go, learn from the best beyond our borders, so you can eventually give back to the country.

(READ: Kiefer, Kobe and Kai take the basketball road less traveled)

Kobe Paras photo from FIBA.com, Kai Sotto-Kamaka Hepa photo from Pong Ducanes

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