Unboxing Kai Sotto
Kai Sotto gets to show what the fuss all about him was all about.
Even a rising hotshot from a rival country will find out.
Sotto was one of the 12 players who made the final cut for Gilas Pilipinas, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas announced on Tuesday, a day before the national team plunges in action in the third window of the Fiba Asia Cup qualifiers (ACQ) at Clark Freeport in Pampanga.
There were initial speculations that Sotto would not make it to the team for the ACQ, owing to the tight schedule forced by a required quarantine period that kept the 7-foot-3 center from joining the national pool practices until Monday.
But Sotto doesn’t think his lack of practice time with the pool would be a disadvantage.
“I don’t really find anything hard to get or to learn,” the 19-year-old sensation said in a Samahang Baksetbol ng Pilipinas video interview released to media outlets on Monday night, just after Sotto logged his first practice session with the the team.
Joining Sotto in the squad for the team’s first game against Korea (See related story on this page) are naturalized player Ange Kouame, skipper Isaac Go and hotshot guard Dwight Ramos.
“It’s exciting just to imagine [that] I can share the court with [Kouame],” Sotto said.
“Not only with Ange. There are also really good tall players—Geo Chiu, Carl Tamayo, and AJ Edu, who is not yet here. I’m really excited to play with them again.”
Making the cut are recent national coach Tab Baldwin recruits RJ Abarrientos, SJ Belangel and Tamayo while returning for another tour of duty are Justine Baltazar, Javi Gomez de Liaño, Wll Navarro, Mike Nieto and Jaydee Tungcab.
Gilas Pilipinas needs just one win out of three matches to qualify for the Asian championship. The Filipinos play fierce rival South Korea twice, sandwiching a game against Indonesia.
Kouame has said he is eager to finally get a chance to soak in the Philippines-Korea cage rivalry even as a rising Korean star said he is looking forward to sharing the court with Sotto.
Ricardo Ratliffe, the former Phillippine Basketball Association (PBA) import who represents Korea as its naturalized player warned Gilas Pilipionas that it should “look out for Lee Hyun-jung,” a 6-foot-7 US NCAA Division I swingman out of Davidson College, the same school that produced NBA champion and MVP Steph Curry.
Lee, however, is looking out for Sotto.
“He’s a star. I just want to play against him,” Lee said.
“I feel the Philippines has always been a good team. They’re great with one-on-one and like good on team basketball,” he said in a separate interview. “So I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to playing against them.”
The 20-year-old Lee Lee averaged 8.4 points during his rookie year at Davidson. He recently registered 13.5 to go with 4 rebounds and 2.5 assists through 22 games played, seeing action for nearly 30 minutes a contest.
How much floor time Sotto will get, however, depends on how much he has sponged up Baldwin’s system.
Sotto thinks he’s gotten that pretty much down pat.
“I think that’s one of my strengths is that I’m a fast learner and I’m very fast to adjust. It took me just a couple of days to learn all coach Tab (Baldwin’s) systems, plays, and defensive schemes, and everything,” he went on.
Sotto, who has been training overseas, arrived in Manila on June 1. He went through a government-mandated quarantine for 14 days despite being fully vaccinated and was able to join the Gilas pool only last Sunday when the Philippine contingent arrived at Clark Freeport.
Since the start of the year, fans have been eager to catch a glimpse of the rebuilt Sotto. But a scheduling snafu caused by the pandemic botched his appearance in the NBA G League and his debut with the national men’s team.
He will finally get to show his skills as he and Kouame clash with other naturalized big men.
While Ratliffe, who now goes by his Korean name Ra Gun-a, bolsters Korea, another former PBA import, Lester Prosper, will headline Indonesia’s roster. INQ
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