In what should be perceived as a step towards reaching his high ceiling, Kai Sotto will begin playing professional basketball with the Adelaide 36ers in the Australian National Basketball League (NBL) for the 2021-22 season.
Most of what makes the former Ignite commit an intriguing and tantalizing prospect is seen on the surface, as Sotto, who is set to turn 19 in less than three weeks, possesses a rare physical profile that immediately puts him on the radar of major international leagues.
But along with that frame comes a skill set that can make 7-foot-3 Sotto capable of being the quintessential center who can offer a little more versatility on both ends of the floor than big men of the past.
Here are some tangibles that Sotto could definitely bring in his foray into NBL hoops.
To be a capable center in a game that demands more skill, finesse and polish from big men in today's pace-and-space game, young prospects cannot be limited to just playing within the restricted area on the offensive side. That has been one of the biggest positives for Sotto, who has consistently earned props from scouts and professional coaches for having the potential to extend his offense to the perimeter.
In a scouting report on Ignite's scrimmages written by ESPN draft guru Mike Schmitz last December 2020, Sotto displayed a deft touch from the midrange and "the shooting stroke to eventually stretch it to 3". The optimistic assessment stems largely from what is seen in his shot, which Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams recently described as "a free-flowing shot" from someone who "seems to be a good rhythm shooter."
"It's all one motion. There's no hiccup in the shot at all. Decent knee bend in the shot," Williams said on Wednesday's episode of Republika Playback by NBA Philippines. "And one of the things that Kai looks like he has is really good hand-eye coordination. There's good rhythm in his shots, and then he gets right back to the same position."
But Sotto has kept his skills underneath the basket, where he still remains most of the time on offense. ESPN's Jonathan Givony in February 2020 said the left-handed Sotto can "score with either hand", while Williams noted his touch around the hoop and his penchant for hitting flip shots and floaters.
"Kai has the ability to make these kinds of shots, whether it be a floater off the post or a floater off of a crossover," he said. "That's not the kind of shot that you see from a lot of bigger players, so the touch that it takes to make that kind of shot is something that you can't teach."
Sotto combines this touch with good footwork and feel for the primary defender in the low block, though he also has the awareness to detect help defenders while he backs down to get to his spot under the basket.
"Sometimes as an offensive player, you can use that to your advantage, 'cause a lot of defenders like to lean on you. But he also can see the double team coming, and that's something that a lot of players don't have," he said.
But Sotto is also proficient when facing-up and frequently utilizes ball fakes to freeze the defense, leveraging his talent of finding cutters from the weak side.
"That's a lot of savvy for a young player," said Williams. "A lot of times when you can freeze the defense, they can either foul you or they go by you."
Defenders sometimes bite on those fakes because Sotto has the passing acumen. Schmitz said Sotto has the "vision to add value as a passer in short roll situations," though coach Sandy Arespacochaga -- Sotto's mentor during his time with Gilas Pilipinas Youth in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in 2019 -- said the big man is more than capable of making the right reads in other situations.
"I think his passing ability is not just on the short roll situations, but also in low and high post situations as well. In a motion offense situation, too, he is a good decision maker and passer," Arespacochaga, who also briefly worked with Sotto in the Gilas Pilipinas training bubble in Laguna last February, told ESPN5.com on Thursday.
On-ball, Sotto can handle the ball and has even shown from time to time that he can create space on drives with a crossover, although Schmitz said Sotto will "have to learn how to impact game on offense without touches through offensive rebounds, catch-and-shoot jumpers, and rolls" on the professional level.
Sotto has the footwork to efficiently navigate slips in pick-and-roll situations, but Schmitz said he struggles in finishing through contact consistently. Arespacochaga, however, said this improvement will come as he continues to get physically stronger moving forward.
"He does need to get stronger. But the key here is continued development for Kai. For an 18-year-old kid, his strengths and improvement say a lot about his ability presently and his potential for the future," he said.
Sotto's strengths are more pronounced and straightforward on this side of the floor. What stands out immediately is his 9-foot-3 reach, which, when combined with his good anticipation, allows him to take away shots and lobs at the rim.
"I think his rim protection is very good and he goes and gets blocks high up," said Arespacochaga.
But bigs today can't always camp in the paint waiting to deter some shots. Sotto will certainly have to work on his lateral movement to be able to defend switches or in drop coverages since offenses will certainly target him and force him to contain perimeter players.
"Watching him step out and guard further brought to light just how much room he has to grow there," Schmitz said of Sotto during Ignite's scrimmages. "While Sotto is agile running the floor, 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."
Schmitz also made note of Sotto's need to get tougher on the glass, although Arespacochaga said that aspect of his game, along with his defense in the pick-and-roll, has already improved by leaps and bounds compared to the last time he coached him in the Under-19 World Cup.
"He has improved his mobility in pick-and-roll defense situations, and his motor in rebounding has improved," he said.
Polishing his perimeter defense will help keep the spotlight on Sotto's strengths on that side of the floor, where he remains valuable simply due to his sheer length and size.
"The hope is that he can use his positional length and instincts to add value playing the cat-and-mouse game, being able to impact the ball yet take away lobs at the rim," Schmitz wrote last December.
"Sotto does show some potential in rim-protection situations thanks to his anticipation and timing. Although not a great run-and-jump athlete, given his near 9-foot-3 standing reach and good instincts, he is a factor when he doesn't have to cover ground quickly to put a lid on the rim," he added.
With the work ethic that Sotto has displayed over the past couple of years, a lot of these perceived weaknesses will probably be taken care of in the NBL, where the 18-year-old could possibly play "around seven to 14 minutes" behind or alongside offensive star Daniel Johnson and defensive lynchpin Isaac Humphries in Adelaide, according to ESPN Australia's Olgun Uluc.
"Kai would learn a lot playing against these pros each day. And Kai has played well with another big man with him, like AJ Edu and Carl Tamayo in the Gilas Youth team. So I believe that Kai would complement them and this would benefit Kai also. This should be a big plus for him," said Arespacochaga.
"From the last time I coached him in the FIBA World Cup to the last Gilas bubble he joined in February, he has improved a lot physically. Even his running form has improved," the coach added. "One thing that hasn't changed is Kai's humility and the way he conducts himself. He is still eager to learn and improve. Very coachable. Kai is a good kid."