Yesterday, March 21, 2019, Kai Sotto and Jalen Green met on the court for the first time since the 2018 NBTC All Star Game. Sotto’s fifth seed Ateneo Blue Eaglets were matched up against Green’s 12th seed FilAm Sports USA, in a do or die match in the NBTC National Finals. It was a clash between the best Philippine High School player in Sotto and the top High School player in the United States in Green.
They didn’t just meet on the court for a photo-op with Chooks to Go President Ronald Mascarinas. Not only did they meet on the post, with Jalen acting as a weakside defender whenever Kai would receive the ball in the low post.
It was deja vu all over again, just like how it was in the 2018 NBTC All-Star Game. They met at the rim once more, with Sotto acting as the background to another highlight of the hyped up Green.
Welcome to Jalen’s poster.
— ESPN5 (@Sports5PH) March 20, 2019
More than the highlight, FilAm Sports USA destroyed UAAP Season 81 runner-ups Ateneo Blue Eaglets in quite convincing fashion, 90-67. Jalen Green top-scored for both teams with 31 points, six rebounds, and nine assists, while Kai put up a respectable 24 points along with eight rebounds. It may have seemed like a tight battle between the two stars, but Green and Sotto’s performances served as perfect microcosms of how the Americans chopped up the Blue Eaglets and so much more.
Coming into the game, it was already accepted that Jalen was the best player between Ateneo and FilAm Sports USA. There was no question about that. What made things different, however, was how it felt like the Philippines had someone to match whatever Jalen would do. Enter Kai Sotto.
It had been quite the past year for the Kaiju, going on a stretch no other High School player has had in quite some time. In over 12 months, he’s won a UAAP championship, a Finals MVP, booked two tickets to the FIBA World Cup (U17 and U19), made it to the Philippine National Team Men’s Pool, won an MVP, and had himself quite a Finals series averaging 21 points and 20 rebounds over two games. It was dominance personified, and then some.
Kai has been on a completely other level compared to his competition in the country. It isn’t surprising then that hype about taking his talents abroad have gotten louder and louder since then. It finally looked like the Philippines had its best shot at an NBA player since Bobby Ray Parks held his own in Memphis as a High School player last 2010.
Most pundits, from Gabe Norwood, Kobe Paras, and even Parks himself, have advocated for Sotto to take his talents out of the country. It only made sense, considering how Kai has dominated the Philippines this quickly, at this age. He looked ready to match it up with the big boys, whether it be from the United States or the Euroleague. Enter Jalen Green.
Jalen Green wasn’t just the best player between Ateneo and FilAm Sports USA. Most recruiting services in the United States rank him as THE BEST player in his High School batch, and for good reason. Last July, he was honored as FIBA U17 World Cup MVP as the United States romped over its competition in Argentina. Green was the star of the show, as he showcased a blend of skill and athleticism that was simply too much to handle for opposing squads. He wasn’t just good. He was also THE BEST.
Fast forward to the Mall of Asia Arena, and here stood Kai and Jalen. It was built up as a battle between two entities whose power levels were close to each other. Jalen had a higher number, but Kai was up there as well. The top player of one country mano a mano against the best of another. There they were, meeting at the second quarter, 7:28 on the clock, with only one of two possible results in play:
A. Jalen dunks on Kai. Deja vu, just like how it was during the 2018 NBTC All Star Game.
B. Jalen doesn’t dunk on Kai. It doesn’t even have to be a block. Just stopping the dunk attempt would have been an achievement already.
We got A.
The internet exploded at the sight of Jalen posterizing Kai. Expletives were tweeted in an instant, with many in attendance in the Mall of Asia Arena in shock at what they had just witnessed.
We’ve seen a number of posters here in the country — with Kai doing the dunking rather than the defending in a lot of them — but this dunk by Jalen was different. His burst from the left wing towards the baseline was quick yet deceiving. Most importantly, his explosion from floor to rim was equal parts graceful and powerful. This was special. Dunking on a seven-footer also added spice to the highlight.
It was certainly an entertaining sight, the type of play that’s going to be talked about for years to come. But more than simply astonishing the fan, it also sobered the Filipino up with one harsh reality; Philippine Basketball has ways to go before it reaches the level of the world’s best.
This was the best of what the country had to offer turned into mincemeat at the best of what the world had to offer. While Jalen only scored seven more points than Kai, numbers don’t tell the whole story. The very presence of Jalen was already overwhelming for the entire Blue Eaglets, while Kai looked normal versus FilAm Sports USA. This was a sight Filipinos hadn’t been used to, especially with how Kai had dominated competition over the course of the year. Of course, in Filipino fashion, overreactions were aplenty.
We’ve seen too many comments these past 24 hours stating how Kai doesn’t have it just yet, and why this dunk is proof he shouldn’t go abroad yet to pursue further training. But, we also tend to forget: that’s the entire point of pursuing further training so that one can get at a higher level in the future as compared to one’s current state.
Kai still scored 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds. Considering that he was facing triple teams and defenders with similar skill and size as him, that isn’t too bad. But at the same time, he did not stand out. As they say, big fish in a small pond. The Philippines is a small pond. Kai is a big fish. But when matched up against other players from abroad, he’s just a fish. Or as Overtime stated it, “A 7’2” guy”.
— Overtime (@overtime) March 20, 2019
Welcome to the reality Kai and the Philippines face as of this moment. While the future of Philippine Basketball showcases plenty of promise, there’s still plenty of work to be done to reach the level of the world’s elite. Being ranked 31st won’t cut it. Grabbing a slot in the World Cup only scratches the surface of the country’s potential. There is so much more to work on to be truly relevant in this large sea we call the World Basketball stage.
Jalen’s dunk on Kai served as a microcosm of that. We can attempt to match up with the best of the best. We’ll put in the effort, PUSO, in a term. But at the end of the day, right now, we aren’t on that level yet. Elite programs will continue to dunk on the Philippines, not unless the country’s national program has something to say about that.
At the very least, we are a fish in this large sea we are situated in now. Back then, we could barely be recognized as anything. That’s a step in the right direction. For now, we get posterized. Sooner or later, we’ll be able to block the best of what the world has to offer. Just a clean block built on hard work and training. No dirty tactics required.