In the first of our two-part series on 2022 NBA Draft hopeful Kai Sotto, ESPN talked to scouts and experts who cover Australia's National Basketball League about his decision to declare for the draft, as well as his production and upside on offense.
Today, we're focusing on the rest of his game: His defense, his intangibles on and off the floor, and his potential future paths.
Sotto's size and length has made him a viable rim protector in the NBL, where he averaged 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes, seventh among 84 players who played at least 15 minutes a game, per SpatialJam. He also posted the sixth-highest block rate (5.3 percent) among 76 players who played at least 350 minutes, according to the website.
One surprising stat: Sotto was also pretty good against ball-handlers in the pick and roll, where he defended a fourth-most 10.7 percent of the time. Adelaide (109.9 defensive rating, sixth among 10 teams) held them to just 0.72 PPP during those possessions (league average is 0.86 PPP allowed), per InStat -- an indication that the big man pushed back when smaller attackers targeted him in the two-man game.
Theodore Chan, Adelaide's scouting director, insists Adelaide benefited from having Sotto on the defensive end, where the center's aggression and willingness to mask his deficiencies served the 36ers (109.9 defensive rating, sixth among 10 teams) well at various points in the season.
"Given his defensive motor and willingness to run the floor, I think he has the right mindset suited for the NBA," said Chan.
On the other hand, Michael Houben -- a scouting expert for the Australian independent basketball publication "The Pick and Roll" -- was not as optimistic and called his defense "a very clear limitation at this point in time for Sotto."
Data from InStat state that Adelaide hemorrhaged points when Sotto defended the roll man in the pick and roll (16 percent of his defensive possessions, second most) and gave up 1.37 PPP -- way above the league mean. Asked if this means Sotto might be limited mostly to defending in drop coverage as to being able to defend in more aggressive schemes in the NBA, Houben concurred. He said that some of the Sotto's deficiencies on defense, however, are fixable.
"Drop bigs can still find ways to be effective on the defensive end of the floor," he continued. "If Sotto can develop the things in his control, such as his strength, his awareness and his technique, he could grow into a strong rim protecting presence that could anchor an effective defense."
Sotto drew nothing but compliments about his work ethic and demeanor during his year in the NBL, where experts and colleagues took note of his energy and poise throughout the season.
"Kai is a positive influence who brings energy and effort to the team at practices and games everyday. He's easy to get along with, loves joking, and doesn't back away from challenges. He's coachable and receptive to feedback from coaches and teammates," Chan said. "Seeing him at practices and games reinforce the projection he's achieving. His progress is ideal for both a foreign kid and a 7-3 unicorn."
Some of those improvements have reflected in Sotto's frame, one that he has filled out over the past couple of years and enabled him to keep up in a highly-physical NBL.
"His versatility is unlike most giant bigs, and it will continue to show as his body gets more matured. For Kai who played his first pro season in the NBL, with some training with G League Ignite last season, I think he competed pretty well in a physical league," Chan observed.
Sotto, of course, still has to cover more ground in terms of his build in order to stick around in a league where the world's best athletes reside. Caine Purnell, who works for scouting agency ID Prospects, says strength is still a valid concern heading into the draft.
"I remember I really liked his passing for a big man but his body was a big problem. I can recall Sam Froling absolutely dominating him when they played against Australia (in 2019 at the FIBA Under-19 World Cup)," Purnell recalled.
"I think with the way he plays, his height and length helps to make up for that but he was still struggling against some players in the post. I think it's a valid concern in the NBA if he got a chance. I think it would be even worse and he would struggle a fair bit against stronger post players. Over time I think he continues to get stronger, and his muscle growth has been very promising, but he isn't strong enough just yet."
In the eyes of these experts, Sotto lags behind his fellow international draft prospects and might have to wait a bit before being able to get a shot at playing in the NBA. Houben and New Zealand-based scout Tim Smith cited players like projected lottery pick Ousmane Dieng, Hugo Besson of France, Australia's Makur Maker and Luke Travers, Lee Hyun-Jung of Korea, and China's Zeng Fanbo and Guo Haowen as names likely to get called ahead of the Filipino big man.
Even so, a possible callup in the second round remains within the realm of possibility.
"I think mock draft boards are great for the general public's reference but don't entirely represent the full picture. People will realize how special Kai is," Chan said when asked about Sotto's draft stock. "I think he's very unique compared to all overseas and American prospects. His skill sets and physical advantages position him to play versatile lineups down the road. Whoever signs him will get a well-worth piece in their winning puzzle."
If Sotto goes undrafted in June, a couple of alternative routes await.
Sotto can still land a contract and play in the Summer League in July. His play can open up an opportunity for a two-way contract later down the road. If nothing materializes there, an NBL return is always on the table, as he still has two more years (with the second a team option) on the original three-year deal he signed with Adelaide.
"If the NBA is not to be for Sotto, he could certainly make the NBL a home long term, as his Filipino citizenship exempts him from import status in the league. The league loves him, the fans love him, and he will undoubtedly grow into one of the league's best big men if he continues to play in Australia," said Houben.
Smith, meanwhile, says the NBL is a great avenue for Kai to continue growing as a professional at this stage in his young career.
"Having this opportunity to develop in the NBL is a great situation for Kai and I'd imagine he spends the next year or two in Australia as he continues to find his footing in the world of professional basketball," Smith explained.
"In terms of exposure, the NBL is a fast growing league in both namesake and credibility and has given some prospects over the past few years the platform they need to showcase their skills. At the end of the day, the NBL is a highly-regarded league that is able to help ease prospects into the professionalism of next-level basketball."