Eaglets coach says at 16, Kai already did all he could do in Philippines

Norman Lee Benjamin Riego on May 19, 2020 03:12 PM
Eaglets coach says at 16, Kai did all he could do in PHI
(Photos by Josh Albelda, Arvin Lim)

All of the Philippines is behind Kai Sotto as he sets out to be the first full-blooded Filipino to play in the G League.

Among those, of course, are his former mentors in his three years in Ateneo de Manila High School.

For Joe Silva, the head coach who recruited him after he opened eyes in the 2016 Jr. NBA National Camp, the 7-foot-2, 18-year-old's decision was a no-brainer. "Kai made the right decision because the G League will give him the best preparation possible. Also, since the G League is affiliated with the NBA, all the exposure, all the training, and all the games will be close to NBA standards," he said.

He then continued, "Joining the G League is like having one foot in that NBA door."

Silva's successor, Reggie Varilla, was of the same mind. As he put it, "When Kai and family left the Philippines, their plan was to play in the Euro League for a couple of years before applying for the NBA Draft. That's why I wasn't surprised by Kai's decision since the Select Program is very similar."

Now Sotto's next move has been set in stone, Varilla has no doubt that he will only do what he has always done since Day 1. "I was fortunate enough to have worked with Kai for all his three years in Ateneo. I witnessed firsthand his transformation from a shy kid who usually deferred to his teammates to a monster who dominated opponents three years older than him," he said as he was the Blue Eaglets' head coach in UAAP 81 and assistant for the two years before that.

He then continued, "His performance just improved each year. Yes, growing taller also helped, but Kai made sure that on top that on top of polishing his existing skills, he added another weapon to his arsenal each year."

Indeed, the Philippines' tantalizing and towering talent went from Rookie of the Year to Finals MVP to Season MVP in his three years in blue and white.

As a rookie, Coach Reggie said that Sotto's hands and feet were already all good. "What stood out then, however, was his defensive awareness. That was his main contribution to the team - his defensive awareness," he said.

That year, the son of PBA veteran Ervin Sotto posted per game counts of 4.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks and made an immediate impact as rim protector while the scoring load were on the shoulders of SJ Belangel,

A year later, he upped all those to 12.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks. "Kai averaged a double-double and owned the pain in his second season. I also think Kai achieved superstar status when he turned the UAAP Finals into his playground," Varilla said, recalling the 22-point, 16-rebound, 11-block triple-double put up in Game 1 of the UAAP 80 Finals.

He then continued, "Imagine this 15-year-old boy dropping a triple-double. In Game 1. Of the Finals."

Then, Sotto's dominant MVP with averages of 25.1 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.6 blocks in UAAP 81 was, individually, his best yet. "In his third year, Kai made me look like a genius by showcasing his passing ability and perimeter shooting. At the age of 16, Kai was the runaway MVP of a 19-under league," coach Reggie said.

By then, it was very much evident the one-time champion and one-time MVP had done all he could do where he was. "Needless to say, there was nothing more to prove for Kai," Varilla said.

Now he is only one step away from the NBA, however, his former mentor reminded everybody that much work remains to be done for Sotto. "I beleive he needs to improve his perimeter defense and, more importantly, work on his ball screen defense," Coach Reggie said.

He then continued, "With pace-and-space being the trend now, it will really increase Kai's chances if he can show versatility at the defensive end."

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Follow this writer on Twitter, @riegogogo.

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