By: Ged Austria, Pio Garcia and Karlo Lovenia
Kai Then Versus Kai Now
Karlo Lovenia: This time last year, Kai Sotto was tearing up the UAAP Juniors Division with the Ateneo Blue Eaglets. The Grade 10 prospect had established himself as the undisputed best player in High School basketball, putting up impressive averages of 25.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, and 2.6 assists per game en route to being named MVP of the UAAP.
How he played in the UAAP that season felt too good to be true. From being limited to scoring exclusively on putbacks, and blocking shots during his first two years in the league, he transformed into a more potent offensive threat during Season 81. He was still a shot blocking terror and an easy source of points off putbacks, but he added more spice to the already delicious package he brought on a daily basis. He looked more athletic as he dunked the basketball with more aggressiveness and force. Most evident were his moments of unicorn-like brilliance. From shooting threes to scoring off Dirk-like fadeaways and even putting the ball on the floor, Kai was truly at the very peak of his powers that year.
Or at least, we thought it was the peak of his powers. In reality, he was far from his final form.
After 10 months of training in Atlanta, Kai’s development has suddenly been supercharged. From being a reed-thin kid who was easily pushed around during the FIBA U19 World Cup, he’s now turned into a bulked up monster living up to the nickname Kaiju.
He’s been dominating with The Skill Factory (TSF) in Atlanta, having recently been named MVP of the King Invitational tournament. He had astounding averages of 27 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.3 blocks, and three assists per game during the three-day tourney. But even more impressive with Kai was how he got those numbers. His face-up game has taken a leap. He’s now capable of attacking from the three-point line and shooting jumpers at an efficient rate. His passing continues to be extraordinary as he uses his height extremely well in finding angles for dishes.
It’s not like Kai’s entire game changed. He didn’t make a huge leap from center to small forward. He simply stuck to his core skills as a big man — I mean he’s 7’3” for crying out loud — and polished what was already a promising set of skills. The scary thing is, it’s only been 10 months. God knows how Kai will look the next time he dons a Gilas jersey.
Physical Aspect – Kai Sotto has a unique set of physical tools with his 7-foot 3-inch height coupled by his long wingspan. His athleticism isn’t exceptional, but it can be considered above average or even better in relation to his position at center. He’s a mobile big-man who can run the floor and move really well, allowing him to cover a lot of ground and aerial space. This also allows him to block shots at the apex of an attempt, which means, with the right timing, he can be a good rim protector. His fluidity is evident and looks natural, showing signs that he would be effective in an up-tempo basketball system. It’s also noticeable that he tries to dunk and finish above the rim when he can, which is great when he can assert aggressiveness.
Versatility – Kai can be an all around offensive threat, and not just someone who can block shots because he’s tall. He can play either the power forward or center position with his shooting ability from outside the perimeter. His shot looks fluid, no sign of awkwardness at all, especially for a 7-footer. He can roll to the rim or pop out for a shot after a pick depending on what the defense gives him, which keeps defenders guessing, especially if he hits his outsides shots consistently. Kai is not a great ball handler but he can push the ball down if there’s no defensive pressure. He’s not the type of big man like Anthony Davis that string together a series of dribble moves in the post to score. He’s more focused on the efficient aspect where he can beat you off the dribble on hard closeouts (because you have to respect his shot). He also has decent footwork when he’s facing the basket and can make post faders consistently. His passing ability is also notable. He’s good at finding shooters and cutters off the post. He also finds bigs sealing down below when on a high-low situation, and is also good at making lob passes.
Coachability and attitude – Kai is still young and has a pretty good upside. He’s just a 17 year old and doesn’t turn 18 until the summer of 2020. He’s like a sponge who’s just willing to work and soak in everything he can to improve, which makes him really coachable. The fact that he is that young and already has those skills with the physical abilities and versatility of a 7-footer. He has the potential to be a valuable part of a team if he lands in the right situation.
Strength – Ironically, his strength is his weakness. Despite being 7’3, he’s only at around 225 pounds, which means he is not NBA ready in terms of physicality. It feels like even small but stocky NBA guards (like Bledsoe, Lowry, Eric Gordon, etc) would easily throw him off balance during dribble penetrations with momentum.
There may also be a concern for interior defense: yes, he’s a good shot blocker but he’s also playing with smaller competition. He will not be able to stop heavier and more physical players who will back him down on the post, especially in the NBA where there’s at least one freakishly athletic player on every team. He would also be a below average rebounder since he has a thin frame and every NBA big can easily nudge him off the box out. Thus, he needs his length and mobility to make up for those weaknesses and bail him out.
Kai’s post up game can also be a major concern since it’s a necessary skill of every NBA center. He may be above average at facing the basket and post faders, but his post up game and back to the basket seems non existent, even on smaller opponents. It may also seem like he’s not good at finishing around the rim if there are bigger bodies. It’s as if he’s shying away from contact (which may also explain why he’s good at making post faders.) Again, the main reason for this is his weight and body frame. He definitely needs to get stronger.
Kai also needs improvement on his instincts and reaction on defense. He can be a main target of opponents in pick and roll situations since he still lacks lateral movement. This may result in him being a step late on defensive rotations and can cause him to miss box outs. He still has to develop his defense in pick and roll and closeouts since one of his evident weakness is being able to move quick and laterally.
These weaknesses show that Kai is still really raw which makes it hard to pin point exactly what role he would fit into in the NBA. He is very talented and has the upside at a young age, but it’s still not clear what position and what role will allow him to thrive. Will he play his best at the power forward position or center? How will he defend bigs in today’s NBA? He needs to land in the right team to be able to address his weaknesses and further develop his talents so he will be utilized properly.
How Kai projects as an NBA prospect
Pio Garcia: Time flies by and Kai’s growth has been accelerated by light years per second. No longer does he look like big fish (quite literally) in a small pond. He’s a Kaiju out there looking for the next tournament to decimate, dominate, devastate. From a fringe prospect bearing question marks, Kai has vaulted himself into be a real and legit draft prospect with his performance in the US high school circuit.
Were we surprised? Hell no. It was just a matter of time before he finally solidified our beliefs that he is indeed THE best chance we have at a home grown Filipino athlete landing in the NBA. If I were a team’s decision-maker, seeing this gangly kid, ranked 68th in the nation, I would take a flyer and monitor his progress. Right now, Kai’s body is still the biggest question mark, but taking into consideration that he’s still a 17-year-old, maturing and getting used to his body, it will develop in due time.
However, the skills he has been displaying can already be considered pro-ready. What he’s doing as a 7’3″ teenager is completely off the hook. His footwork in the post is at the elite level, as displayed by his uncanny ability to shake off his defender despite giving up weight. Kai’s natural feel for the game, his IQ, have put him above his peers despite being only exposed to US high school ball for give or take, six months. It is an underrated part of his game. In a way, you can say that Kai is a playmaking big with his ability to see over the top of his defenders especially when placed at the killbox (the paint). He rarely makes bad decisions with the ball and is adept at hitting the open man or finding a counter to a counter of his counter in isolation. His game is a smooth mixture of modern face-up and old school back-to-the-basket. Think Kristaps Porzingis when it comes to his range and skillset, but with a mix of Hakeem Olajuwon on the side with the eye-popping footwork.
Kai is probably pegged as a late lottery to mid-first at this point. He is, after all, still considered a project considering his physical make up. He won’t suddenly evolve into a LeBron James-type of tank anytime soon but the general peg is the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo in terms of a multi-skilled wingman who stands at seven feet and sprints up and down the floor in five strides. Teams who are taking a look at him to eventually draft him must have a two-year program in set in order to unleash the full potential of the Kaiju.