Young Filipino basketball prospect Kai Sotto's impending arrival in Australia to join the Adelaide 36ers in the country's National Basketball League is generating a buzz among local fans that's similar to LaMelo Ball's arrival in 2019, according to NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger.
Loeliger revealed that initial reaction to Sotto's signing has been "off the charts".
"I can tell you the statistics of our reach and readership of our announcement regarding his signing with the Adelaide 36ers have been absolutely off the charts, comparable to when we announced that LaMelo Ball would be joining the league," Loeliger told ESPN5.com in an exclusive interview. "And we saw what impact that went on to have during the season. We set new records both in terms of attendances and viewership when LaMelo was here, and we're certainly hopeful of doing the same when Kai comes and joins us next season."
Ball joined the Illawara Hawks in July 2019 as part of the NBL's Next Stars program and put up averages of 17 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 12 games before getting sidelined by a foot injury. But his performance was good enough to be named the league's Rookie of the Year, and he was eventually picked third overall in the 2020 NBA Rookie Draft by the Charlotte Hornets.
Sotto's signing, which was announced with much fanfare last week, is covered by a rule that allows NBL teams to sign one Asian player each as part of the league's thrust to expand its reach in the world's largest continent.
"The principal reason for [the rule] is we're very attuned to the fact that the sustainability of the league here in Australia is all about increasing our reach and our relevance," Loeliger said. "That includes Australia and also throughout the region. So we wanted to make our product more compelling for audiences around Asia and the rest of the world, but also to the very, very significant Asian communities based here in Australia. And there's a huge community of basketball-loving Filipino-Australians who are very excited by the imminent arrival of Kai Sotto."
That huge community is also present in Adelaide, but Loeliger believes that wherever the 36ers go, Filipino fans will show up to cheer for Sotto.
"There's a strong basketball-loving community of Filipinos in Adelaide," he said. "The 36ers will be traveling to all corners of the country as they do every season and so I can tell you it's much like what we experienced with LaMelo and RJ Hampton and others. This is not just going to be a boon for Adelaide. It will sell a huge number of tickets all around the country because we know that our fantastic community of Filipinos here in Australia attend basketball in droves. We've seen that in games between our respective national teams, and I'm sure we'll see it pretty frequently next season.
"We know it's a basketball-crazy market. We know the fans there are quite unlike anywhere else in the world."
Loeliger got a glimpse of this fandom up close during a FIBA World Cup qualifier in February 2018. Australia's Boomers were supposed to be the home team. Instead, Filipinos filled the Margaret Court Arena and turned it into a home game for Gilas Pilipinas.
"The noise in that stadium," Loeliger recalled with a smile. "It was only a 7- or 8,000-seat stadium, but the noise in there was fantastic. You would have sworn you were at a Filipino home game, not an Australian home game. We all loved being there so we're looking forward to more of those noisy crowds this coming couple of seasons."
But while Loeliger doesn't doubt that Sotto will bring in the crowds, he thinks the teenager will inevitably take his lumps in his first few games as he gets introduced to the NBL style of play.
"He's got a really interesting frame," Loeliger said of Sotto. "He's going to be able to compete because he's an athlete and he's long and he's got a good engine. But certainly, he's going to get banged around a lot. People will test him as they do with all the young guys who come out here. Basically, in our first few games our bigs are going to go at him, I don't doubt it, just to see whether or not he's got the wherewithal to play professional basketball. And it doesn't matter if it's Kai Sotto, seven-foot-two out of the Philippines or if it's a local kid from the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia playing their first game. That's just the mentality of Australian sport, is you get in there and try and rile them early."
It's all part of the process that Sotto, who turns 19 on May 11, has to go through in his quest to become the first homegrown Filipino to play in the NBA.
"I think like all the guys who come over at a young age, that's kind of what you want," Loeliger concluded. "You want to get that out of the way so when he goes into the NBA, he's prepared for professional basketball. He's prepared to be tested like that. He's got the temperament to be able to deal with it."