The 2022 NBA Draft was witness to a potential history-making moment had Filipino prospect Kai Sotto’s name been called among the 58 draftees.
However, the Philippines’ dreams of fielding a pure-blooded player in the league were forced to park outside of the NBA as he went undrafted.
What most fans and observers failed to notice is that the warning signs of this happening were already there as early as March 2021.
During his high school career with Ateneo de Manila High School in the Philippines, Sotto’s potential was skyrocketing after leading the Blue Eaglets to a University Athletics Association of the Philippines (UAAP) title in 2018.
Just when many thought Sotto would make the leap to the seniors division of the UAAP, it soon became apparent that he was setting his sights towards making the NBA by joining the preparatory program, The Skill Factory, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Sotto would go on to be named MVP of the King International Tournament after averaging 27 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.3 blocks, and three assists in three games.
This earned him an invite to the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp during the 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago.
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing ravaging the globe, it seemed as if his dreams of playing in the NBA were going to have to be parked for later.
That would not deter his dream however as he signed with the newly-formed NBA G League Ignite team in May 2020, where he was set to do great things alongside Filipino-American Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga.
With a reported deal worth $200,000, Sotto’s entrance into the G League system was seen as his best shot at making the NBA.
However, the first twist in his story is when Sotto decided to pull out of the G League in February 2021 to play for the Philippines’ national team in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers.
This effectively ended Sotto’s affiliation with Ignite as NBA G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim confirmed that he would not be returning to the team in a “mutual decision” by both sides due to travel constraints brought about by the pandemic.
Ending his G League stint so early was seen as a big waste of opportunity by most in the local basketball scene because if Sotto truly was gunning for the NBA, he and his team would do everything in their power to make it happen–even giving up international play for a while.
Because he signed with the G League, this also closed the door on him from playing at the NCAA’s Division I level.
Sotto was named to the final 12-man roster of the national team in June 2021, ahead of their 81-78 victory over South Korea.
“Kaiju” also suited up for the Philippines’ outings against Indonesia and South Korea to round out the tournament, averaging 9.3 points, seven rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 18.9 minutes.
An argument could be made that Sotto’s inclusion into the national team was not needed since the country was going to qualify for the 2023 FIBA World Cup regardless of their placing because they are one of three host nations–the other two being Indonesia and Japan.
As for Sotto, his journey to the NBA saw him take another detour, this time in Australia as he signed with the Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League (NBL) as a “Special Restricted Player.”
This meant that his contract was going to be treated as if he was a local and was not registered as an import for them.
ESPN Australia reported that Sotto’s deal was guaranteed for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons with a team option set for a potential third year.
With the G League door being behind them now, his fans and followers believed that this was going to be his next best shot at impressing international scouts, hopefully being on an NBA team as soon as possible.
The problem here is that Sotto did not do much of note in terms of the box score, save for a few highlight reel-worthy moments.
In 23 games with the 36ers, he only averaged 7.5 points on an even 50 percent outing from the field, 4.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals, and 0.8 blocks with just 15.3 minutes of game time.
His best game was a 12-point, four-rebound performance against reigning champions and top-seeded Melbourne United.
While he was able to show off his wares, the rawness in his game was very much apparent as the 20-year-old sometimes struggled with the physicality of foreign play and lacked the polish that NBA scouts are on the lookout for.
The pride of the Philippines certainly looked as if he was going to give it another go-around with the 36ers to further hone his craft, but he made the shocking decision to enter the 2022 NBA Draft shortly after winning the 2022 NBL Fans MVP award.
It was a move that garnered mixed reactions from local hoops circles as they argued that Sotto could use more time to develop before evaluating his chances at making the big leagues.
The hype train was certainly chugging along when it was revealed that Sotto had worked out with teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings.
Sports Illustrated whipped Filipino fans into a frenzy when Sotto was included in the 58-man pool of draftees, going 49th overall to the Kings.
Ultimately, Sotto’s NBA dreams were sent crashing back down to earth when his name was not announced.
Sotto and his agent Joel Bell spoke with Filipino sports personalities Quinito Henson and Gretchen Ho to break down their experience as soon as the draft concluded.
Bell revealed that Sotto and his management team, East West Private, turned down a possible draft-and-stash situation with one franchise because it would limit the young player to just one team instead of having the freedom to speak with other potentially interested teams.
The agent later mentioned that Sotto would not be signing a G League, Exhibit 10, or Summer League deal and bared that the Filipino cager was going to play for a non-North American team–potentially another run with the 36ers or a European team.
According to Bell, Sotto’s immediate plan was that he was going to play in the FIBA Asia Cup with the Philippines national team on July 12.
Shortly after the interview, Sotto disclosed in a now-deleted tweet that Bell simply misspoke about turning down Summer League and G League while adding that there were no concrete plans as of yet.
With Sotto going undrafted, finger-pointing has begun among his fans as it has become apparent that a multitude of forces was going against his ambitions of becoming an NBA player.
The trouble began with the decision to leave the G League barely a year into his stint, and while his talent has always been there, it cannot be denied that there could also be some form of mismanagement from his side that may have happened along the way.
Sotto already had his foot in the door by joining the Ignite, but he surprisingly turned his back on it when he decided to come home and take the international route.
Whatever the case may be going on behind the scenes, Sotto’s journey to the NBA will certainly have more twists and turns along the way as the eyes of an ever-watchful basketball-crazed nation continues to cheer him on.