Philippine Basketball Twitter erupted on May 11, 2020 after Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that Kai Sotto was going to sign a deal with the NBA G-League Professional Pathway Program.
Kai Sotto — a 7-foot-2 center from the Philippines — has decided to skip college and will be the first international draft prospect to sign a deal in the NBA G League pro program, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 11, 2020
As of this writing, Kai hasn’t announced anything yet on any of his social media pages. Sources tell HumbleBola Kai is leaning towards joining the program and will make a final announcement soon. Yet despite the silence from the Sotto camp, Filipinos have been unable to contain their excitement, and for good reason.
This move has a lot of implications on Kai’s blossoming career in the United States. But one aspect that is often glossed over is how going to the G-League instead of taking the conventional path through the US-NCAA, puts pressure on not just Kai, because of his dreams to make it to the NBA, but also on the NBA itself because of what they hope to achieve with the Professional Pathway Program. To make sense of this, we have to go back to why this initiative was established in the first place.
On October 18, 2018, the NBA G League introduced Select Contracts which it offered to incoming college freshmen. According to a press release published on its website:
“Select Contracts are an answer to the basketball community’s call for additional development options for elite players before they are eligible for the NBA,” said NBA G League President Malcolm Turner. “The supporting infrastructure surrounding these newly-created Select Contracts is designed to provide a rich offering of basketball and life skills developmental tools for top young players to grow along their professional paths from high school to the pros.”
Aside from getting to play in a league that’s directly connected to the NBA, players were also offered an academic scholarship along with various programs meant for their development not just as basketball players, but as professionals. Sounds like an enticing deal, right?
In theory, it should have been good enough to lure elite prospects in to make the jump to the G-League. The problem was, competition overseas was stiff. This was magnified when upcoming 2020 NBA draftees LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton opted to make the jump to the National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia instead of going to the G-League program. What was the G-League missing?
The first thing was money. Happy Walters, CEO of Catalyst Sports & Media and agent of Hampton told Sports Illustrated that the $125K max salary the G-League offered in its Select Contracts wasn’t competitive enough relative to overseas leagues such as the NBL. But aside from the money, it was the structure of the program which made the G-League less attractive than it should have been.
The initial setup was for these elite prospects to play under G-League teams who were also under the control of teams in the NBA (e.g. Raptors 905, South Bay Lakers, Santa Cruz Warriors). This was troubling because the intentions and motivations of these teams were at odds with those of their players. These G-League teams were out to develop talent so that their parent teams could call them up. The elite prospects had another goal— to develop themselves so they could get drafted at a good spot in the NBA.
Getting drafted versus getting a call-up. It was a battle between luxury and need and it was deemed too risky by young prospects. The first year of the Professional Pathway Program wasn’t as successful as expected. But G-League executives continued to believe in the spirit of its initiative. They were right to do so because the intention of its program was quite promising.
“The NBA is the best development system in the world, and those players shouldn’t have to go somewhere else to develop for a year,” said NBA G-League president Shareef Abdul-Raheem to ESPN. “They should be in our development system.” The why of their program was clear. It was now a matter of fixing the how so they could reel prospects in.
It started by increasing the maximum salary players could receive out of their contracts. Jalen Green, the number one prospect of the 2020 High School Batch and the first player to commit to the Professional Pathway Program, is slated to receive $500,000 plus other benefits.
But aside from increasing monetary benefits, the developmental league established a 29th team based out of Southern California that didn’t have NBA team affiliation. The team was designed to be filled with both players who had Select Contracts, as well as veteran professional players whose primary responsibility was to guide these young prospects.
That meant this team was established for the sole purpose of developing these elite prospects. There was no longer that dilemma of getting drafted versus getting a call-up. The primary purpose of these squads was to help its young players blossom into fine NBA players in the future.
With all these changes set in place, it’s easier to see why Green would commit to the program. Eventually, 14th-ranked player Isaiah Todd followed suit as well as 20th-ranked Daishen Nix. And now, we have Kai Sotto reportedly joining in the party.
By aligning its intentions with its execution, the G-League was able to draw in multiple elite prospects into its young developmental program. But the execution isn’t done just yet. The success of this program will not depend on how top prospects like Green or even Todd or Nix will fare come the 2021 draft. It will largely depend on Sotto for two reasons: Kai’s upside and his current standing among scouts in the United States. Let’s start with the latter.
As of this writing, Kai is ranked 62nd in the ESPN Top 100. Here are the last players to be ranked in that same spot over the last five years:
2019: Anton Watson
2018: Marcus Bingham
2017: Isaiah Stokes
2016: Anthony Cowan
2015: Corey Sanders
Don’t know those players? Neither do I. Looking at that alone, it’s not looking good for the Filipino phenom. But scout rankings aren’t the be-all end-all of a player’s career. Multiple factors come into play in making these lists and in Sotto’s case, these two are particularly important; amount of time spent in scouting said prospect and how these evaluators balance a player’s upside with his current production.
Kai emerged in the US High School basketball scene on November 9, 2019 when he committed to The Skill Factory in Atlanta, Georgia. Despite the late entry into the scene, he was able to make a name for himself thanks to highlights from multiple media outlets, as well as actual production on the basketball court. His stock skyrocketed and in a matter of months, he had made it to the ESPN Top 100. Most importantly, interest from NBA scouts increased and buzz about getting drafted followed suit.
Eventually, questions started to emerge.
Maybe these highlights are lying. They are HIGHlights after all. What about his weaknesses?
He looks really skinny for someone playing center. He’s going to get killed in the NBA!
His motor looks questionable. Is that something he can work on?
This was especially the case during the 2020 NBA Basketball Without Borders Global Camp during this year’s All-Star Weekend. His performance left much to be desired. Scouts noticed his lack of strength. Questionable pick and roll coverage was also an issue no thanks to his slow feet. Yet despite these comments, the buzz was still aplenty surrounding Kai. Upside and current production needed to be balanced, but just how difficult was it in Kai’s case?
Quite challenging. The Kai Sotto we have right now is lacking, but potential of what he could be leaves NBA scouts salivating. For all his issues with strength, his skill on the court was something else. His footwork showed plenty of promise and he paired a solid post game with elite passing, vision, and overall IQ, it was enough to make up for his relative lack of strength. For all of the Kristaps Porizingis comparisons, Nikola Jokic was looking more apt. Kai was a wizard with the basketball.
Then suddenly, the strength issues would pop-up again. It was becoming a headache to assess Kai because of how much promise he was showing along with the glaring problems he had in the basketball court. There was a gap and he needed a bridge between reality and potential.
That’s what the G-League is supposed to be all about. “There’s a second-tier of kids that really need another year to develop,” said Walters. Players like Green and even Todd and Nix look like surefire NBA draftees. They’re in the first tier. Kai, on the other hand, is on that second tier who needs development right now. And the hope is, he gets that much-needed development with this promising initiative the NBA has laid out.
There’s pressure on Kai; it’s the pressure carrying the hopes and dreams of a basketball-crazy nation comes with. But as much work as he needs to put in to fulfill his dream of making it to the NBA, the G-League has to be there to support him every step of the way. This isn’t a one-way thing. This is a relationship between a player’s goals and the options a program offers. How this partnership works out could spell the difference not only of an individual’s dreams, but of a vision laid out by a league that’s hoping to change the game for its youth.