Is Kai Sotto the next Yao or Haddadi?

Kai Sotto - Welcome to the NBA G League
Kai Zachary Sotto - Photo: Clutchpoints.com

MANILA - Rui Hachimura better make some room as another homegrown Asian talent may soon join him as a regular in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

That kid could be the Philippines' Kai Zachary Sotto, who has hogged headlines left and right with his recent decision to forego the US National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and join the NBA's G League Pro Pathway Program.

In doing so, the 18-year-old Sotto gives himself a prime shot at getting picked in the next NBA Draft and potentially blazes another trail for other Asian would-be NBA players to follow.

If the 7ft 2in/2.18m Filipino big man does make it to the NBA, of course, he won't be the first homegrown Asian to do so, but he would be the first from basketball-mad Philippines. He would also follow in the footsteps of other marquee Asian centers like Iran's Hamed Haddadi, Korea's Ha SeungJin, and China's "Walking Great Wall" of Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi, Bateer Mengke and most recently, Zhou Qi.

In the 2019-2020 regular NBA season, Japan's Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe were the only Asians to see action, but that should change pretty soon if Sotto is able to fulfill his potential.

Sotto first broke into the international scene when he starred for the Philippines in their sweep of the Southeast Asia Basketball Association (SEABA) U16 Championship 2017. He then carried the team in the FIBA U16 Asia Championship 2018, where the Filipinos finished among the top 4 teams and qualified for the FIBA U17 World Cup in the same year. Sotto was also part of the FIBA U18 Asia Championship 2018 in Thailand and last played in the FIBA U19 World Cup last year in Greece.

After finishing his junior high school studies in Manila, Sotto then moved with his family to Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 2019, joining The Skill Factory and gaining a lot of exposure and attention in the States.

Sotto received interest from several US NCAA programs and for a while it seemed like he was headed to big-name schools like Georgia Tech, University of Southern California or even the University of Kentucky.

When Sotto decided to join the G League, however, he flipped the script. Now Sotto joins other blue-chip stars on a team that will be coached by former NBA Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell.

Among Sotto's new teammates will be a pair of former Team USA youth talents - Isaiah Todd and Jalen Green. Todd played for the United States in the FIBA U16 Americas Championship 2017, averaging 5.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in five games, while Green has been a veteran of international youth competitions the past three years, playing alongside Todd in the same tournament before also playing at the FIBA U17 World Cup 2018 and the FIBA U19 World Cup.

Interestingly, at both the U17 and U19 World Cups, Sotto actually connected with Green, since the latter also has Filipino roots through his mother's side.

Not surprisingly, with Sotto moving up to the G League, comparisons with the likes of Yao and Haddadi have once again resurfaced, but are those really fair comparisons?

Sotto certainly has the size, but does he have the skills to be compared to both Yao and Haddadi? Remember that Yao averaged close to 18 points and 5 rebounds per game in myriad appearances on the international stage, while Haddadi has been one of the very best, averaging 16.2 points and 10.3 rebounds since his debut for Iran's men's team in 2007.

As one of his former coaches in high school, I can attest to Sotto's skillset, which is beyond that of most of his same-age peers and certainly well beyond most of the kids his size (and there aren't many). Seeing his tapes from the US has reaffirmed my belief that he made the right choice going there. He has gotten much bigger and looks much more comfortable playing against opponents who can more closely approximate the competition he will face at the next level. In terms of what he brings to any team, Sotto can do at least as much as either Yao or Haddadi, and if Sotto plays his cards right, maybe even more.

Looking ahead, the main element of Sotto's comparisons with Yao and Haddadi should be his impact on the Philippine national men's team. Right now, Sotto has not yet played at the senior level, though he has been named among the shoo-ins for the country's FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 pool.

Remember that Yao won the FIBA Asia Cup three times, has an Asian Games silver medal, played at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2006 and played in three Olympics (2000, 2004, 2008). Haddadi, for his part, has five FIBA Asia Cup medals (three for first place, one for second place and one for third place), three Asian Games medals (two silvers and one bronze), two FIBA Asia Challenge gold medals, one appearance in the Olympics (2008) and three appearances in the FIBA Basketball World Cup (2010, 2014, 2019). In addition, Yao played eight seasons in the NBA, while Haddadi played six.

For sure, Filipinos the world over are hoping Kai can somehow duplicate those feats for their national squad.

Suffice to say that Sotto still has a very long way to go before any clear comparisons in terms of milestones can be discussed, but at least in terms of his skills and potential, Sotto is right up there with his fellow Asian unicorns. - Fiba

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Author: Enzo Flojo

FIBA

FIBA's columnists write on a wide range of topics relating to basketball that are of interest to them. The opinions they express are their own and in no way reflect those of FIBA.

FIBA takes no responsibility and gives no guarantees, warranties or representations, implied or otherwise, for the content or accuracy of the content and opinion expressed in the above article.

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