Hopes are high as Kai Sotto is just one call away from becoming the first full-blooded Filipino to be drafted when the National Basketball Association (NBA) holds its Annual Rookie Draft on Friday at the Barclays Center in New York.
The draft starts at 8 a.m. (Manila time) with at least 150 aspirants from all over the world vying for only 58 spots in the two-round selection process.
The Orlando Magic, who finished the previous season with a 22-60 card, hold the top overall pick for the first time since tapping Dwight Howard with the No. 1 choice in 2004.
Rounding up the lottery teams are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings, Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Thunder (via the Los Angeles Clippers), Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
With is basketball-crazy country rooting for him, the 7-foot-2 Sotto will try to step closer to his dream of becoming an NBA player following the footsteps of Filipino-American stars Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz and Jalen Green of the Houston Rockets.
Sotto had come a long way before throwing his name in the NBA Draft.
After powering Ateneo de Manila University in the University Athletic Association of the Philippines and Gilas Pilipinas in various international tournaments, Sotto packed his bags for the United States to train at Atlanta-based The Skill Factory, where he got a lot of offers from Division I programs.
But instead of attending college, Sotto opted to join the G League, a fledgling pathway program that aims to prepare young players for the NBA.
Sotto’s stint in the G League, however, didn’t last long as he failed to join Team Ignite in its bubble tourney in Orlando, prompting him to go home and play with Gilas the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers.
Then, Green and another G League standout in Jonathan Kuminga joined the NBA Drafty, but Sotto decided to go to Australia to play for Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League.
In Australia, Sotto gained significant experience as he played against full-grown men. He saw action in 23 games, averaging 7.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game.
Now, he’s back in the United States, chasing a dream no pure-blooded Filipino had ever accomplished.
“I’m a skilled seven-footer who can shoot from the outside,” Sotto said of his strengths, adding that he patterns his game to a young Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic.
“I’m a pretty good passer at my height and I have a high basketball IQ. (I am also) a pretty good shot-blocker.”
Scouts and talent evaluators projected him to be selected either in the late first round or early second round. He had fruitful workouts with teams like New York Knicks, Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings in a bid to boost his draft stocks.
His last workout was with the Indiana Pacers, a team that holds the sixth, 31st and 58th picks and is looking to boost its frontline following the departure of Lithuanian slotman Domantas Sabonis.
“It’s been fun,” said Sotto, who wasn’t invited to the “green room” so he flew to his home base in Atlanta to watch the draft proceedings with his family and friends.
“It really helped me a lot. Just the experience, hanging around with the guys, and learning from everybody, starting from my staff, to my teammates, to my coaches, and my opponents.”
“The whole year was a really fun experience. Really learned a lot and really helped me develop and improve as a player.”
Sotto’s agent Joel Bell believes that Sotto will make history by getting drafted.
“I am strongly convinced. I believe that when he visits NBA teams in person, they’re going to be dazzled,” Bell said in a previous statement.
“We have so many teams who want to bring him in for individual workouts and we actually have a commitment from at least one general manager who said that if he stays in the draft, they will definitely draft him.”
If and when Sotto gets snubbed, he still has a chance to prove himself by playing in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
But there’s no assurance that he will crack the roster on opening night.
Sotto said he wants to make it to the NBA not just for himself.
“It means so much to me and the Filipinos. Yes, the biggest goal for me is to make it to the NBA, but the bigger picture here is that I want to make it to the NBA to serve as an example and an inspiration to younger players, younger athletes back home in the Philippines,” he said.
“I want them to say that if Kai can do it, so do I.”