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Returning Kai Sotto the ace up Adelaide 36ers' sleeve

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36ers coach Bruton on Kai Sotto's growth, future role & social media noise (2:31)

Adelaide head coach C.J. Bruton discusses where he wants to see Kai Sotto's game rise to, amid the hype that surrounds the 36ers' young big. (2:31)

After missing the postseason in NBL22, C.J. Bruton and the Adelaide 36ers went to work in free agency, overhauling their roster to enter the season among a group of clubs hoping to contend for the championship.

Robert Franks and Antonius Cleveland headlined the big-name additions, but it's the returning Kai Sotto who brings significant intrigue.

The rising Filipino big man carries megastar status in his homeland, with Bruton telling ESPN his return to the NBL for a second season was always part of the plan, albeit not a lock after a rookie campaign that was at times interrupted with health and battles for opportunity.

"There were a lot of conversations between our CEO (Nic Barbato), me and his team," Bruton said. "That took a while to get across the line, but everything was in the best interest of Kai Sotto. I'm not here to sugar coat it, we love the kid, we want him to be here and let's work to make this better."

Sotto wasn't selected in the 2022 NBA Draft, after averaging 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds across 23 appearances for the 36ers.

"I sent him a message when he didn't get drafted that night and I know everyone feels sad for him (but) it's not the only way to the NBA. Jack White is in the NBA right now; he didn't get drafted either. I know people want to see you go through certain channels and kick in these doors but there's many ways to get there," Bruton said.

With a social media following more passionate than any player in the league, Sotto works under a significant spotlight. Many fans would often lament his spot in the rotation, with the 20-year-old averaging 15.3 minutes per night after an injury interrupted start to the season.

Bruton heard the noise, but is unphased, expecting the same high standards from each player on the roster.

"I'm not across social media like that, but I did get many plugs, not all for the right reasons," he said. "I'm not saying I opened them all, but I've seen a few. Ultimately, I know who I am, I know where they want Kai to be, and I also want him there. Why would I tarnish him?

"I'm also very wary of our club and our success and how he's coming along. I'm not gifting a kid because his social media account says he's very high on the totem pole. I have a job to do, and our league is very powerful as everyone knows. We have a great league and there's a respect there.

"As I've told him, there's a work rate that's needed to be successful, not only in our competition but around the world. While he's here, let's embrace that and play the right way and if you tick all these boxes we can grow and get better.

"The injuries happened in preseason but by the end of the year he was over 15 minutes. Seeing (Ariel) Hukporti and other guys play, there was times where we had different conversations, but every player is in that boat, they want to win and play more.

"Kai is still young and right now he's with the Philippines national team, they are excited to have him, I'm excited to watch him and I'll be sending him a message afterwards telling him we want him to play well and want to see him hit the floor for the national team."

The battle for minutes is set to resume this season, with Franks joining Daniel Johnson, Deng Acouth and Kyrin Galloway alongside Sotto in the frontcourt.

"When I was putting it together, I planned on having him back and growing his role a little more. Until you see everyone on the floor playing... I added Kyrin Galloway and Deng Acouth so you add them two to the mix, there will be some tight battles," he said.

"I can't tell you (exactly what Sotto's role will be), I'm not gifting anyone, ultimately everyone is in here to compete and play well. For us to be successful we need everyone at an elite level."

Sotto rattled off several eye-catching performances in the back end of the season, including an efficient 21-point outing against the Brisbane Bullets on just eight shots in 17 minutes of court time.

The momentum from the final weeks of NBL22 could hold Sotto in good stead, with Bruton admitting the period was telling for a roster that had failed on their quest to reach the playoffs.

"This is where you find out who your players are, when the season is over for the playoffs. It's not over, people have invested in you from how you got here to this club to the sponsors," he said.

"It's making sure every day you deliver and live that and enjoy the moment. It's hard to do when you're taking hits that way, but for me it's bringing an upbeat positive attitude and showing and teaching them like it's day one.

"I enjoyed it. The grind is good. When you've played as long as I have you've seen every situation from angry imports to a player who is angry about opportunities or lack of. This is sport in general, from the great ones to the ones who are up and coming."

On paper, the 36ers look set for a rise up the standings. The upside of Sotto in his second season in the NBL could provide a further boost as he continues down a path he hopes will end in the NBA.