Unicorn Incoming: Kai Sotto ambitious dreams to play wing

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

During a tune-up game between the Ateneo Blue Eaglets and UP Fighting Maroons’ Team B, a big surprise was in store for those watching the game.

As Rap Escalona brought the ball down towards the right wing, 15 year old Kai Sotto started to make his way to the top of the key. Rap suddenly opted to pass the ball to the wunderkind, which surprised the Blue Eaglets coaching staff. By no means was the top of the key the ideal position to place a seven footer at. Filipinos who possess the kind of size of Kai are encouraged to stick to the low post. So you couldn’t blame the coaching staff of Ateneo for their reaction.

The Fighting Maroons import opted to just sag off Kai once he got the ball. The seven-foot teenager was known to have a silky smooth stroke, but he had not mastered the proper accuracy for his shot just yet. It wasn’t a crime to leave Kai open by any means. Kai was likely to pass the ball, or worse, shoot..

He did neither of those things. Instead, Kai slowly dribbled towards the free-throw line, did a hesitation dribble and pulled up for the jumper. The Fighting Maroons import’s eyes widened as Kai tried out the slightly sloppy hesi pull-up jimbo, and was forced to just foul Kai. It wasn’t necessarily because he was scared Kai would hit the shot. His reaction was a mere picture of how everyone in the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center felt during that moment. Absolutely flabbergasted.

There are two ways to look at that Kai Sotto shot.

Kai, who reportedly stands at 7’2” as of this writing, is seen by many as the Future of Philippine Basketball. Many view him as such simply because of his height. He’s supposed to be the one who will bridge the gap between the Philippines and China. After all, size has been the biggest issue of the Philippines when it has come to competing versus the likes of China. With Kai Sotto, that issue turns into a non-issue in an instant.

Many imagine Kai to play with his back to the basket much like Junemar Fajardo and Greg Slaughter. For those who imagine that, you’re in luck. Kai happens to idolize Kevin Garnett, someone who spent most of his career operating in the low block. His dad, former PBA player Ervin Sotto, likes Tim Duncan. It wouldn’t be crazy to think Coach Ervin is training Kai the fundamentals of efficient post play much like The Big Fundamental.

That’s why there are those who were appalled when Kai attempted such a shot. Instead of going for such a ridiculous guard move, he should have passed the ball back to Escalona, then sealed in order to gain position down low for the easy deuce. For these people, the attempt by Kai was a terrible shot.

While watching the tune-up, I was blessed enough to be sitting beside two great Basketball minds, Sammy Belangel, dad of Ateneo Blue Eaglets team captain SJ Belangel and Coach Leo Austria, champion coach with the San Miguel Beermen. They’re both by no means young coaches, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if they wore their dinosaur hat and called Kai’s shot attempt ridiculous. “He’s supposed to be in the low-post with his back to the basket!” many old heads say regarding Kai. Except, Austria and Belangel weren’t part of that group.

“Idol niya si Kevin Durant eh,” Coach Sammy tells Coach Leo and I while trying to hold his laughter. Coach Leo quickly replies with a smile on his face, “That was a good shot by Kai.”

Kevin Durant is seen by many as a unicorn, a species that is starting to rule the basketball world. Other examples of specimens like Durant are Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They are players who are as long as centers, but they play like forwards or guards.

Kai happens to idolize two of those unicorns, namely Durant and Porzingis. Kai himself has acknowledged this. He’s also open to this with his dad, who was a big man during his time in the PBA. I immediately approached his dad after the game to ask about the shot. It wouldn’t surprise many if he ranted about how his son should be in the low post like how bigs are taught to do. That wasn’t the response I received at all. Coach Ervin gave me a grin as Kai slowly approached him.

That wasn’t the first time I had talked to Ervin Sotto. Time and time again, he has shared to me numerous stories about his son. How Kai is projected to be 7’6” at the very best according to the doctors they consulted with when Kai was a kid. Kai’s love for eating even though his frame doesn’t suggest that right now. All of those tidbits are cool, but the tidbit which struck me the most is this:

Kai Sotto, all 7 feet 2 inches of him, wants to play the wing position.

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Traditional basketball fans will consider the idea of a man of Kai’s size to play the wing position to be ridiculous. If you’re a seven footer, you should at least be playing the forward position. You can take the occasional three, but your primary job is to serve as the anchor of a basketball team. A seven footer blocks shots, gets great seals down low for easy buckets and is the last line of defense of a team. Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain embodied this in the NBA. June Mar and Greg are the ideal big men in the PBA. In the Asian level, Hamed Haddadi and Yao Ming come to mind as dominant back to the basket bigs.

When news broke of Kai’s increase in height, I immediately asked Coach Ervin whether Kai still wanted to play the wing position. Maybe Kai had gone to his senses and embraced being a back to the basket big man. Instead, Coach Ervin answered, “Oo [gusto pa niya maglaro ng wing]. All-around game.”

Some may believe the Sotto family is simply bluffing. Maybe they’re telling us, “Go ahead! Write that my son is a wing so he’ll receive all the hype!” But, it isn’t all hype. In the basketball court, he shows the desire to do things his idols do. Even at home, he does his homework in order to arm himself with the knowledge of how to play the wing position.

Other than the hesi pull-up jimbo he tried out versus UP, Kai’s ambitions to be a wing can truly be seen during practice. In basic team dribbling drills with the Blue Eaglets, Kai shows to have one of the smoothest handles in the team. After practice, Kai does extra work and practices his mid-range jumper.

Then, there are those rare times when he’s finished putting up extra shots. Kai decides to have a little fun. He grabs the ball, dribbles towards the half court line, and from there, he bursts towards the free-throw line for take off.

Yes, Kai spends time after practicing trying out a free-throw line dunk.

Sure, he misses most of his attempts. Some are thrunks instead of actual dunks. But every time he lands on the floor, he has a smile on his face as he grabs the ball and walks back to the half-court line to give it another go. He’s a 15 year old just having fun, trying out new things for the heck of it.

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Being the teenager that he is, Kai grabs his phone and immediately switches the internet on. It’s easy to assume that Kai logs on to one of his social media accounts. Thing is, he isn’t a regular teenager. He doesn’t even have any social media accounts. More than just his ridiculous size, Kai has big dreams. He wants to be a wing. So he does extra work, even outside the gym.

“Actually dun sa bahay, paghawak niya cellphone niya, lagi niya tinitingnan kung ano pa kailangan iimprove niya,” shared Ervin Sotto. Kai watches highlights of NBA players, in order to gain more knowledge. Any regular dad would beam at his son working on his game by watching his idols. Ervin Sotto is no regular dad. He’s been a professional player, so he knows the things needed in order to make it big at such a high level.

“Minsan kasi, puro highlights tinitingnan ni Kai eh,” Ervin expressed with a tinge of annoyance. “Tapos inaanalyze niya, ‘Dad, ganito ginawa niya ‘o, ganyan.’ Sabi ko, ‘Yan, highlights yan eh. ‘Di mo alam kung ano ginawa niya before diyan. ‘Di mo alam, so hanapin mo yun.’”

You wouldn’t have blamed Kai if he didn’t listen to his dad’s advice. But time and time again, Kai has said regarding Ervin, “Siyempre makikinig ako kay daddy. Nag PBA na siya eh.” He may already be 7 inches taller than his dad, but in terms of knowledge, he has a long way to go. That’s why he follows his dad’s advice and now, watches more offseason workouts instead of the usual highlights. They’re boring and not as exciting as the highlight reels. But in the long run, watching clips like those will only benefit him.

He sneaks in watching clips of guys like Duncan and Garnett, but Sotto’s true idols are Durant and Porzingis. Seven-foot unicorns who have handles of a guard and the shooting ability of a wing. He watches the clips, he throws down crazy dunks after practice, but do they actually bear any fruit?

In the Nike All-Philippines Camp where Philippine High School Basketball’s very best came together, Kai saw the fruits of his hard work show. “Noong experience niya sa Nike, natuwa rin siya kasi yung mga drills dun na pang guards, nagagawa niya,” shared Ervin. With Coach Joe Silva and the Blue Eaglets, he showed he can handle the rock. The challenge now was to bring that versus the international coaches and the best of High School hoops, and he definitely brought it.

This wasn’t enough for the former PBA big. You can call the elder Sotto demanding, but Kai has ambitions he wants to reach. “Sabi ko sa kanya, ‘O, kung kaya mo gawin yung mga guards na drills, dapat gagawin mo palagi yan,’” Ervin narrated. Ervin would proceed and tell his kid, “Hangga’t bata ka pa, kahit sa ilalim ka naglalaro, mayroon kang natatago sa bulsa mo. Kapag may kalaban kang malaki puwede mo sabihin, ‘Ops, ito kaya ko ilabas.’”

You would think that a guy who idolizes Tim Duncan and played the center position in the PBA would force his son to stay in the post. But Ervin Sotto isn’t that type of guy. Yes, he idolizes Duncan and he played center in the PBA. But he recognizes his son is a different player compared to how he is. Ervin was a center. Kai wants to play wing. Being the supportive father that he is, Ervin encourages Kai to practice the skills needed of a wing player, whether it be by showing him the right clips to study or by giving him the confidence to use those guard skills in an actual basketball game. For the most part, Kai’s done pretty well repaying the confidence his dad has given him.

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Versus Singapore in the SEABA U16 2017 tournament, Kai found himself trapped in the right wing against a quicker guard. Any other big would have committed a turnover, or worse, throw up a shot because he had no idea what other options he had. Good thing Kai isn’t any other big.

He found his balance, pulled off a pump fake, and then quickly drioes to the right. It’s important to take note that in essence, the right side is his weak side. Kai Sotto normally shoots with his left hand. However, in the play above, he didn’t hesitate and took it hard towards his weak side, cradled the ball and finished with touch for the and-one. Normally, seven-footers aren’t supposed to be doing things like that.

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Against Thailand in the same tournament, Kai nearly broke the internet when he grabbed a rebound and opted to go coast to coast. He could have easily to passed it off to a guard, but instead, he slowly dribbled past the half court line, then burst towards the rim to attempt the lay-up. Granted, he did miss the lay-up after an offensive foul was called on Bismarck Lina. But seeing a kid his size do things like these will simply leave a basketball fan in awe. Being a seven footer is amazing in its own right, but blending that with ball-handling? Downright amazing.

Other than just showing a relatively developed handle, the other thing which has basketball analysts drooling when it comes to Sotto is how polished the shooting form of Sotto is for a kid his age. Mechanics are decent, and his stroke is silky smooth.

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There are things to work on though regarding his shooting.

For one, he has to work on his accuracy. This may be nitpicking considering how accurate he is for a big man, but we’re working under the framework of Kai being a wing. His form is decent along with his stroke, but the problem is Kai has a tendency to put too much strength to his shot. There are various factors to this such as developing body strength and his increased height, but it isn’t a hopeless case. The basic needs of a good shooter which are a good form and stroke are there. It’s simply a matter of Kai getting consistent with his shot as time goes by.

The second thing is the speed of his jumper. If he’s just going to be a roll man then his shot is fine. But ideally, Kai isn’t just someone who attacks the rim or goes for the occasional pop. The dream is for him to be capable of completing a pull-up jumper from the top of the key and more. This may require some tweaking to his form, but from the looks of it, nothing completely drastic is needed to be done.

He’s also shown flashes of great ball-handling ability, but not something done on a regular basis.

A big reason for that is his handle which still needs tightening. He’s comfortable handling the rock, but once you put a strong, quick defender against him, he struggles. His sub-par speed is a factor, but the lack of a tight handle is the bigger reason for this.

Kai also has a tendency to dribble a tad too high when handling the ball. Coaches normally encourage their players to keep their handle low when defenders come close versus them, and Kai isn’t adept at doing this just yet.

The most noticeable weakness of Sotto is obviously his body. He’s rail thin, which limits the things he can do inside the basketball court. As tough as he is (just ask Daniel Celzo and Kenji Roman), he needs to bulk up in order for him to dominate even more versus opposing teams.

To gain weight doesn’t mean he has to turn into Shaquille O’Neal all of a sudden. Human beings are built in particular frames. Guys like LeBron James and Shaq have frames of tanks. Kai has the frame of players like Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Tracy McGrady. They’re lanky players who possess a ton of length compared to the likes of LeBron and Shaq.

If Kai is to follow particular models when it comes to strength, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant look to be the best pegs. Believe it or not, Durant weighs 240 pounds even though many still see him as a stick. Davis, who came into the league looking like Zhou Qi, now weighs 254 pounds.

Both of them are sneaky strong players even though popular belief says they’re weak because of their lanky frames. They were weak before, but Durant and Davis developed their strength in order to turn into the players who they are today.

Kai may not be as athletic as Durant or Davis. That’s true. But these players are supposed to be models, not carbon copies of what Kai is supposed to be. The principle is for Kai to put on the right amount of bulk to his frame like Durant and Davis.

Comparing Sotto to players like KD and AD sounds ridiculous. What may be crazier for most is this dream of Kai’s to be a wing considering how he is now as a player. Since he hasn’t shown the athleticism, speed and necessary polish for a wing, some choose to say Kai will be someone who will forever have to feast in the post because of his weaknesses.

But we fail to forget, Kai is just 15 years old. A young teenager with physical tools any player would be jealous of. He’s still young, with sky high dreams he wants to achieve when he wants to grow up. We often forget the youth factor in the conversation regarding Kai Sotto because we’re so enamored with how tall he is.

Kai has dreams to be a wing, and at such a young age, he needs support. He has a great dad guiding him throughout the entire process, and programs such as the Blue Eaglets, Batang Gilas and Impact have helped in his development as a player.

Kai Sotto is a unicorn who we should watch out for. After all, who are we to stop him for trying to aim for his ambitions? He’s a 15-year-old with big dreams. That shouldn’t be a concept that is foreign to us. There’s nothing wrong with what he wants. As Les Brown famously said,

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Kai Sotto is going to shoot for the moon, even though it sounds crazy. If he misses and doesn’t turn into a wing, maybe he just turns into a stretch four. Maybe for Sotto, just getting to do a hesi pull-up jimbo with ease like his idol Kevin Durant will already be enough to give him a smile on his face for the mean time. It’s a step in the right direction towards achieving a dream that may be too ambitious for most. But like what one of Kai’s idols says, “Anything is possible.”

Photos from the PBA

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