Kai Sotto's basketball journey will now continue in Australia, where he has signed a multi-year deal to play for four-time champions Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League (NBL) beginning the 2021-22 season.
Australia's NBL is one of the most prominent men's basketball leagues in the world and has served as a home to the likes of bonafide NBA standouts like Andrew Bogut, Joe Ingles and Patty Mills at various stages in their careers.
The league also proved to be a gateway to the NBA for 2021 Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets and guard RJ Hampton of the Orlando Magic. Both players saw action in the 2019-20 season of the NBL and were later drafted in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft.
But to say that the NBL is merely just a springboard to the NBA does a lot of disservice to the Aussie pro league, whose brand of game and level of competition presents an incredible opportunity for the 18-year-old Sotto to grow further and reach his potential.
Here's what we know about the Adelaide 36ers. (Big thanks to Olgun Uluc, ESPN Australia's NBA and NBL reporter, for the insight.)
Sotto will play in the 44th season of NBL, who has produced 14 champions and countless international stars since its inception in 1979. Last season, the Perth Wildcats claimed their 10th title, a league-best total.
There are currently nine teams playing in the NBL. Gilas Pilipinas program director Tab Baldwin said the style of play still puts a lot of emphasis on skilled big men -- a departure from the general direction that the NBA and the rest of international leagues are going.
"This litany of big men has created a tradition in that league and the league does play well to the big man's game. It hasn't completely gone the way that a lot of basketball has. The big men in Australia still feature in their play," Baldwin, in a report by ESPN5.com's Paolo del Rosario, said in a press conference Wednesday.
Basketball in the NBL is highly physical, and it's perhaps a regular occurrence to see hard screens and tough battles on the glass and in the post. This should be a welcome environment that stimulates Sotto's development, though some early struggles could be expected.
Adelaide's team last won a championship in the 2001-02 season and nearly came close to ending its title drought in the 2017-18 season, losing to Melbourne United in the best-of-five NBL Finals.
Philippine basketball is no stranger to the 36ers, who figured in a couple of tune-up games against a FIBA World Cup-bound Gilas back in August 2019. Gilas took the first game via a 92-83 win before Adelaide bounced back with an 85-75 victory in the second match.
Only four players remain from that Adelaide team that played Gilas in 2019: big man Daniel Johnson, forward Jack McVeigh, and guards Brendan Teys and Brendan Dillon.
Sotto, who reportedly signed on as a Special Restricted Player on a two-year deal with an option for a third, will become the first Filipino to see action in the NBL once he steps on the floor for Adelaide. The 7-foot-2 big man will most likely serve as a backup center for the 36ers, who banner two star big men in Johnson and Isaac Humphries, though he can also play at the four alongside one of the two bigs.
Johnson is widely regarded as one of the best offensive bigs in the NBL. The 33-year-old is averaging 20.9 points (third league-wide) on 48.8 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 34.6 minutes. He also has a nice touch from the perimeter; for the season, Johnson is shooting 40.9 percent from long range.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Humphries is averaging 15.5 points on 60.4 percent shooting, 7.9 rebounds, a league-best 2.8 blocks, and 1.2 assists in 25.2 minutes of action. The 6-foot-11 big man excels in pick-and-rolls and is a key defensive piece as evidenced by his block totals, but he has missed the last 19 games due to a left ankle injury.
Without Humphries, defense has become a problem for Adelaide, who have the third-worst defense in the NBL today with a defensive rating of 114.8 points per 100 possessions, per RealGM. Teams have also been targeting Johnson in the pick-and-roll since he doesn't move laterally and is overall a poor defender, according to Uluc.
This could also pose a problem early on for Sotto, who according to ESPN draft scouts Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz in 2020 said he "has never been known for his lateral quickness, and he doesn't project as a big who will step out and switch at the highest level."
On the bright side, Sotto can carve out his own niche on offense thanks to a developing shooting stroke and good feel as a passer. Adelaide plays it slow in the half-court and runs a lot of the offense through its big men. The 36ers take and make the least amount of threes, although they are shooting it at a respectable rate (36 percent is second).
Uluc sees Sotto playing around "seven to 14 minutes a game" -- around the same number of minutes that backup big Keanu Pinder plays. Pinder, who has averaged 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in 15 minutes a game, will likely not be re-signed next year, according to Uluc.
Other notable players on the roster for Adelaide Josh Giddey, Sunday Dech and Brandon Paul.
Giddey is an 18-year-old NBA prospect who ranks No. 13 in ESPN's 2021 mock draft. He's averaging 10.8 points on 40.8 percent shooting to go with, 7.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists (second league-wide), and 1.3 steals (tied for fifth league-wide).
Dech is a 3-and-D forward with averages 9.8 points on 36.5 percent shooting from three, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.3 steals (tied for fifth league-wide) in 33.2 minutes per game.
Paul, meanwhile, is averaging 15.0 points on 45.3/41.8/79.2 splits, 3.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.0 steals, 28.2 minutes per game. Uluc says the 36ers are hoping to retain the 29-year-old swingman in the offseason.