Kai Sotto's hope of realizing a nation's NBA dreams depends on whether the league will favor potential over results.
As the NBA draft draws closer, some teams have shown an increasing interest in Sotto's potential. After not appearing in any major mock drafts for the past few months -- including ESPN's big board, which lists the 7-foot-3 center as the 11th-best prospect at center -- the Filipino talent cracked Sports Illustrated's post-combine top 60 released on May 24 and is reportedly in line for a workout with NBA teams.
These recent developments reinforce the optimism previously expressed by a few voices -- including former Philippines men's national team head coach Rajko Toroman and Sotto's agent Joel Bell -- who believe the 20-year-old's combination of youth, physical tools, and intangibles outweigh some of the weaknesses he showed during his first pro season with the Adelaide 36ers in Australia's National Basketball League.
Their confidence is not unfounded. In the NBL, Sotto provided glimpses of what could come and averaged 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 0.8 blocks in over 15 minutes. In 24 games, he shot 49.6% from the floor, 35.7% from 3-point range and 68.1% from the free throw line -- numbers that have drawn polarizing opinions from those who have followed Sotto's journey with close interest.
ESPN talked to some of these scouts and regional experts working and covering the NBL and asked them to weigh in on the prospect of Sotto becoming the first full-blooded Filipino to make it to the NBA. Today we look at Sotto's decision to declare for the draft and what he brings on offense.
Sotto was eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft because he is a 19-year-old talent one year removed from playing high school basketball. He was part of the initial 33-man list of such prospects, per ESPN's Jonathan Givony:
This "also-eligible" list (33 players) includes: Dominick Barlow, Marjon Beauchamp, Dyson Daniels, Michael Foster, Jaden Hardy, Jean Montero, Kok Yat and Fanbo Zeng. Few others like Makur Maker, Kai Sotto, Zaire Wade, Henri Drell and Samson Ruzhentsev are also there.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) April 27, 2022
His decision to make the NBA jump despite having two more years left on his Adelaide contract (with a team option on the final year) did not come as a surprise to the 36ers.
"With Kai's progression throughout the season, it was within expectation Kai would declare for the 2022 Draft. NBA personnel have been keeping track of him so he will have his fair chance of being considered," said Theodore Chan, Adelaide's scouting director.
The choice raised eyebrows elsewhere.
Michael Houben, a scouting expert for the Australian independent basketball publication "The Pick and Roll," said Sotto's decision to head to the draft felt buoyed mostly by a strong finish in the last five games of the NBL season. Sotto averaged 11.6 points on 52.6 percent shooting along with 4.2 boards and 1.2 swats while breaching double-digit scoring in three of those contests.
"While his late season performances certainly helped, it felt like only a glimpse of his potential, and with those flashes, it felt like another season in the NBL would have seen him play a bigger role that could've highlighted his game even more," Houben said. "More minutes, along with another year of skill development and physical training, could only help his stock in the eyes of NBA evaluators."
It's a sentiment echoed by another expert in Tim Smith, a New Zealand-based scout who keeps tabs on the leagues around the region.
"Kai had a more productive NBL season statistically than I think many were expecting him to, but as it remains, there is still room for improvement," Smith said. "I imagine Sotto goes undrafted, but even if he [isn't] picked up, he still has two years on his contract with the Adelaide 36ers, and the NBL is an excellent environment for giving Kai the resources and opportunity to further develop and work towards bigger opportunities."
Sotto managed to carve out a niche in the NBL, albeit in a limited role, because of his unusual blend of size and mobility. Still, there's a near consensus that he still has a lot of work to do before becoming a no-brainer pick for a spot on an NBA roster.
"There's no reason Sotto would not have the potential to be a productive contributor on the offensive end of the floor," Houben said. "[But] it is generally only justifiable to play a seven-footer on an NBA floor if they're being heavily utilized on the offensive end, and whilst Sotto has shown utility as a finisher and lob threat at the NBL level, a clear cut offensive skill will go a long way into making him a useful NBA player."
In Adelaide, Sotto mostly subsisted on cuts and as a roll man in the pick and roll -- two of four play types where he derived most of his offense. Per tracking data from InStat, the 36ers scored 1.33 points per possession (PPP) with Sotto as a cutter and 1.17 PPP when he was involved as a roller, both marks above the league average (1.09 and 1.02 PPP, respectively).
"The first thing that stands out with Kai is that the size is very real. His fluidity and mobility is an intriguing aspect of his game and really stands out when rolling to the basket, where he had some vicious dunks," Smith said. "Outside of being a drop-off/lob option, he seems most successful in getting his offense in the pick and roll."
"His mobility and awareness are above average at his height," Chan added. "He has the type of movement that allows him to find himself an open lane for big-time dunks and create open shots for himself."
Sotto posted up a lot -- about 19.3 percent of his offense came from the block, per InStat, which was the second-highest figure from his portfolio -- but Adelaide only scored 0.68 PPP during those trips, well below the league average of 0.89.
"There's no doubt that Sotto is a skilled big man -- his touch, particularly on short floaters, stood out as a skill he can use to get points around the rim, and he had some fun moments as a lob threat as well. If he can continue to improve his hands and strength offensively, whilst refining a basic but effective post game to penalize smaller lineups, then Sotto has a legitimate role offensively," Houben said.
His passing and floor vision has garnered some attention over the years, but the potential has yet to fully materialize, as Sotto tallied more turnovers (32) than assists (14) in his first year with Adelaide.
"A negative assist-to-turnover ratio indicates further experience is needed to make him an efficient player with ball in hand," Houben added. "Further growth as a passer as he matures and the games slows down for him will also be extremely helpful, as he has shown a certain level of vision at previous levels of play."
His shooting stroke was apparent at times, but Sotto did not take enough 3s and attempted just 14 shots from beyond the arc through 24 games, including just four from the corners. In general, catch-and-shoot shots (8.5 percent) and pick and pops (4.5 percent) comprised a small percentage of his shots, and Adelaide was below average in possessions that involved Sotto in those plays, per InStat.
But there is belief Sotto can build around those figures in order to raise his ceiling and find a place on offense in the modern NBA.
"Continuing to find ways to maximize the value he gets out of his physical tools while he continues to work on improving the processing and shooting seems to be the current path for Kai," Smith offered. "I feel like the next year or so is going to give us a better idea of the extent of his perceivable upside."