Sotto Pushing to Make the Philippines Proud

At seven feet, two inches, Kai Sotto is a mountain of a man. He also has a mountain of expectations on his shoulders as he attempts to be the first player from the Philippines ever to be drafted and play in the NBA.

The 20-year-old has been getting plenty of attention in his basketball-crazed homeland since he was 13. They’ve followed his journey as he moved to the United States for high school and the G League, and then on to Australia. Now, he’s on the precipice of making history.

“It’s been fun,” Sotto said of the following he’s developed. “It’s a lot of attention, but I’m really thankful for all their support. Those are (things) I don’t take for granted. If I make it to the NBA, I’ll be the first Filipino and my dream is to help others to get there, too.”

Sotto was one of two players to visit Indiana on Tuesday for the Pacers’ 13th and final pre-draft workout. It was also his last stop before heading back to his home base of Atlanta for Thursday’s draft, which he plans to watch with family and friends.

When Sotto first came to the United States as a teenager in 2019, he joined Atlanta-based The Skill Factory, where he was impressed enough to earn interest from several Division I programs. But instead of going to college, sotto elected to sign with G League Ignite for the developmental team’s inaugural season in 2020-21.

Sotto trained with Ignite, which was coached at the time by former Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, but the logistics of the G League season prevented him from playing with the team.

The 2020-21 G League season was condensed to one month in a controlled bubble environment due to the pandemic. Sotto opted to play for his national team in the 2021 FIBA ​​Asia Cup qualifiers at the start of that time frame and the protocols surrounding travel and quarantine timelines made it unrealistic for him to rejoin Ignite before the conclusion of the truncated season.

While several of his Ignite teammates like Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga entered the 2021 NBA Draft, Sotto was not yet eligible due to his high school graduation date. So he opted to spend last season in a different professional environment, signing to play with the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL.

In Australia, Sotto gained valuable experience playing in one of the top professional leagues overseas. Battling against grown men, he saw action in 23 games, averaging 7.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per contest while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Now, he’s back in the United States, hoping to prove to teams that his game is NBA-ready.

“I’m a skilled seven-footer that can shoot from the outside,” Sotto said of his strengths. “I’m a pretty good passer at my height as well and I have a high basketball IQ. Pretty good shot-blocker.”

There will always be a place for seven-footers in the NBA and Sotto is hoping his skillset translates enough to the modern style of play that he can find a fit on someone’s roster. He described himself as “a modern-day Pau Gasol” to the media on Tuesday, a tall player that has skills to create with the ball in his hand and not merely take up space at the rim.

But Sotto is going to take some time to develop. He needs to add significant weight to his frame and told the media his three areas of focus are getting “stronger, faster, and more athletic,” an easier-said-than-done trio of improvements.

A team will have to take a patient approach with Sotto, but he’s the type of player an organization might take a chance on with a second-round pick or a two-way contract. You can’t teach size, and that alone makes Sotto at least worthy of consideration.

Regardless of what happens on draft night, Sotto should at least have an opportunity to play for a team in Summer League in Las Vegas. And perhaps he will make history by taking the floor for an NBA team, whether that’s next fall or sometime down the road.

There have been a few NBA players of Filipino descent, notably Jordan Clarkson and Jalen Green, but never an NBA player who was born and raised in the Philippines.

“It means so much to me and to my fellow Filipinos,” Sotto said of reaching the NBA. “The biggest goal for me is to make it to the NBA.

“But when I look at the bigger picture, I want to make it to the NBA to serve as an example and inspiration to the younger players, younger athletes back home in the Philippines. If they can say that if Kai can make it, so can I, that’s a dream come true.”

Keels, Duke Teammates Hoping to Make History

Joining Sotto for Tuesday’s pre-draft workout was Duke guard Trevor Keels. The 6-4 guard turned pro after one season with the Blue Devils, where he averaged 11.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists.

Keels is hoping to help Duke tie a record on draft night. Kentucky produced five first-round picks in 2010, a mark that Keels and company could match if all goes well on Thursday. Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, and Mark Williams are first-round locks and likely will all go in the lottery. Keels and Wendell Moore Jr., meanwhile, are seen as potential late-first or early-second round selections.

“It’s special,” Keels said of the possibility of having five first-round picks. “Practice was unbelievable. We competed against each other in open runs, five-on-five, it was intense. We (were) battling, we (were) going at each other and it just made us better.”

Keels raved about the relationships he built with those teammates during their time together in Durham — “a real love,” as Keels put it. The quintet has a group chat called “The Road Crew” dating from a road trip they made together to the Peach Jam basketball showcase in Georgia last summer. They even had a call with Keels ahead of Tuesday’s workout in Indiana to offer him support and encouragement.

Still, Keels almost didn’t follow his teammates into the NBA this year. He strongly considered returning to school for another year, taking his decision right up until the NCAA’s May 31 deadline before ultimately opting to remain in the draft.

“I think it was hard for me just because Duke’s a special place for me,” Keels said. “It was my dream school my whole life and I wanted to do it again. I wanted to do it 10 times. (But) I think it was time for me to take that next step. You can’t leave that opportunity out on the table.”

Keels certainly has an NBA-ready game even at this age (he won’t turn 19 until Aug. 26, making him one of the youngest players in this year’s draft class). The 6-5, 232-pound guard can play on or off the ball and defend multiple positions.

Even surrounded by so much talent at Duke, Keels had times where he stood out. In his first collegiate game, he scored 25 points to lead the Blue Devils to a victory over Kentucky. He reached double figures in 23 games, including a 25-point, 11-rebound double-double at Clemson on Feb. 10 and a 27-point performance at Pitt on March 1. He was also Duke’s second-leading scorer with 19 points in their Final Four loss to North Carolina.

“I feel like what I bring to the table is everything,” Keels said. “Me guarding, me being able to handle the ball, me being able to play off the ball, be in catch-and-shoot. I feel like I can do whatever the team wants me to do. I bring that winning mentality. ‘m all about winning and then my positive vibes off the court.”

Keels lived out one dream already in getting to play at Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season. He perhaps would have returned to school if not for a conversation he had with new head coach Jon Scheyer (Krzyzewski’s top assistant last season), who encouraged Keels to pursue his next dream if he felt ready.

With Scheyer’s blessing, Keels is ready to find out where he will start his NBA career.

“I don’t care what pick it is, just me getting the opportunity,” he said. “I’m not going to be mad — I don’t really care what number I am. Just when I hear my name called, when I get that opportunity, I’m going to take advantage of whatever opportunity I get.

“Hugging my mom, hugging my dad, and hugging my siblings is something I’m really looking forward to after I hear my name called. You get chills thinking about it sometimes. I just wish time would go faster.”