ATLANTA – Kai Sotto is quiet and unassuming. Friendly to all those around him, the 20-year-old goes about his day like many his age: preparing himself for the next steps towards his chosen career.
But Sotto isn’t like most 20-year-olds. He just so happens to be one of the best basketball players on the planet. Towering at 7’3”, he has the kind of size necessary to turn the paint into a no-fly zone for his opponents and the kind of sweet-shooting stroke rarely found in players his size.
So, while Sotto’s peers in his age group are working towards their college degrees or starting down their career path, he trains on the hardwood. Then trains, and trains some more in three-a-day workout sessions. He has over a dozen NBA teams asking him to come to work out for them prior to the June 23 NBA Draft, and he has to be ready to stand out for reasons that go beyond his height.
To that end, Sotto is spending his time at The Skill Factory in Atlanta, Georgia, honing his craft while surrounding himself with like-minded players who are working to become the best they can be. He pushes through a morning weight lifting session designed to add strength, then heads off to a grueling skills workout that prepares his technical ability for the NBA (Sotto cites Tim Duncan as his NBA role model, and it shows). Finally, he wraps up the day with shooting work, focusing on receiving the ball in pick-and-pop situations, where his 3-point shot is deadly.
Jeremiah Boswell from TSF explained the intensity of Sotto’s workouts. “It’s an interesting process; it’s a very delicate process”, he said.
“You obviously want people to go in fresh to team workouts and healthy, both mentally and physically. So we have to balance it. The good thing for us is we do have some experience doing it; we’ve been doing pre-draft for eight years or so and have seen a lot of guys get drafted and have a lot of success… We do listen to the players and make sure we know where they’re at mentally, where their bodies are at…we have to go and we have to get him ready, that’s what we’re charged with, so we’re going hard.”
Boswell also explained that, with a mix of veteran NBA players like Devontae Cacok, Josh Powell and Shelvin Mack along working alongside young players preparing for the draft, the group’s dynamic is one where players are holding each other accountable and pushing each other to new levels.
During Lakers Nation’s visit to an open run put on by TSF, Powell, who played for several NBA teams including the Lakers, stopped the action to call out the players at midcourt and demand that they play the right way. Powell’s message was received, and individual play dissolved back into a team-first approach. Often, this meant running a high pick-and-roll with Sotto either popping open behind the arc or rumbling down the lane for a dunk.
To a man, each player competed not only to win but to make themselves – and each other – better.
However, while Sotto is putting in the work that all prospects have to, his journey to the NBA also includes something that few players have ever had: the support of an entire country. The Philippines loves basketball and Sotto will be the first fully Filipino NBA player in league history, making him a national icon. Interest in his career is at a fever pitch as Filipinos long to see one of their own on the NBA hardwood.
Sotto, when asked about the support of his country, spoke about how grateful he is to receive it.
“It’s my dream to play in the NBA and be the first Filipino,” Sotto said. “It’s a lot of people’s dreams too. When I go back home, I can feel that millions of Filipinos it’s their dream as well. So I’m putting a lot of dreams on my back and I always put that in my mind to work hard every single day, to achieve that dream and not just do it for me but to do it for my family and for everybody else as well.”
While Sotto is determined to make his and his supporters’ dreams come true, the weight of an entire country can be a lot to shoulder for any athlete, let alone one his age. Boswell admitted that, at one time, the pressure took its toll, saying “I think probably a few years ago it sat heavily on him and you could feel it. You could see it”.
Boswell also added that Sotto has greatly improved in managing that stress as he has gotten older. “I think he’s found a way to not listen to everything, to value the moment that he’s in and the people that he’s around, to care about the family, maybe a little here and there he feels the pressure but I don’t think it gets to him like it did when he was younger.”
Sotto agreed that the stress of having his country’s eyes upon him isn’t a factor anymore.
“Ever since I’ve played basketball a lot of people have been watching me, especially from the Philippines back home. I don’t really feel pressure anymore, it’s more having fun through the journey. I love my job; this is what I love to do, so there’s not much pressure. I enjoy it.”
The support for Sotto is so strong that, during his stint in the Australian NBL, his jersey ranked fourth in the league in sales. For NBA teams, particularly those on the West Coast with large followings in the Philippines like the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors, that kind of following could mean an influx of revenue and international appeal.
But the off-court impact of Sotto’s presence is just the icing on the cake. The primary concern for NBA teams will be his ability to produce on the floor. It may take time. Bigs often need to develop, to understand the timing, the defensive responsibilities, and their role in anchoring the backline both as a protector and a communicator.
Sotto has to get stronger and is still learning how to best use his size on the floor but the foundation is there for the right team to invest in. It may take some patience as he learns and adjusts to the NBA game, but the payoff could be big on both ends of the floor.
In fact, his offensive game could even be bolstered by a degree of ambidextrousness. Sotto may shoot left-handed but he writes and throws with his right hand. Several other notable NBA players shoot the ball with their non-dominant hand, including LeBron James, Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert, Russell Westbrook and Luke Kennard. Even legends Larry Bird and Bill Walton possess this trait.
For Sotto, whose 7’3” frame and soft-touch make the hook shot a natural weapon, the ability to get his shot off with either hand could turn him into a much more versatile post player. But those are skills that will develop with time, while in the present, Sotto relies on his size, shooting range and defensive impact to make his mark.
With the NBA Draft inching closer, Kai Sotto’s dreams, and the dreams of his country, are on the verge of coming true.
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