Photo from FIBA

Kai Sotto excited to showcase improved skills with Gilas Pilipinas Men

Kai Sotto is 18 years old, 7-foot-3, and the hope of our hoops-crazy nation. That’s a lot to put on anyone’s shoulders. Thankfully, despite his freakish growth in height and game, he still approaches the challenge with the kind of joy that only a kid can muster. He just loves to hoop.

“’Yung game na nilalaro ko is the game that I love,” Sotto told Gretchen Ho in an exclusive interview made possible by Smart.

“Hindi mo dapat masyado iniintindi ‘yung pressure kasi kapag naglalaro ka, nag-eenjoy ka eh. Actually para sa akin, mas iniintindi ko ‘yung expectations ko para sa sarili ko and ‘yung expectation ng tatay ko para sa akin.”

Kai, the son of former PBA player Ervin Sotto, left the Philippines in 2019 after conquering the UAAP Juniors scene. Even then, Filipino fans had differing opinions on where Kai should next go to expand his game. It seemed everyone had a take on what was best for the future of the country.

Kai decided to go to the United States, where he got exposed to several NCAA Division I and professional league scouts while improving his all-around game. Every clip of Kai dominating in the U.S. and every article written about his potential had Pinoys salivating at what Kai could end up becoming. He was going places most Filipino basketball players could only dream of.

Kai returns to the Philippines to fulfill a promise. He is set to make his Gilas seniors debut on February 18, the final window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers, where the national team holds a perfect record in Group A and needs just one more win to qualify for the FIBA Asia Cup in August.

Gaining experience overseas and returning to anchor Gilas was always the goal for Kai.

“’Yung two years ko sa U.S. is probably the biggest two years of improvement para sa akin. Sobrang daming nagbago sa buhay ko, sobrang daming opportunities na dumating sa akin at sa family ko. And pagdating sa basketball, tumaas lalo ‘yung confidence ko sa sarili ko,” said Sotto.

“Kaya sobrang excited ko lang mag-work at i-showcase kung ano ‘yung mga na-improve ko, and continue on improving.”

Gilas has had the best guard in Asia, versatile wing defenders, and legendary shooters. But the team has never had a weapon like Kai.

At a young age, Kai already has a feathery soft shooting touch that most seven-footers never develop. He has also trained to attack close-outs on his 3-point attempts, while his added bulk has greatly helped his interior scoring and defense. He could already be the best big man to come out of the Philippines.

“Sa tingin ko ‘yung magiging role ko or ‘yung maia-ambag ko sa team is ‘yung presence ko, especially with my size and my length. Siyempre I will do my best to start on the defensive end, use my height, maging intimidation para sa kalaban,” Sotto said.

“And whatever the coach wants me to do, gagawin ko, kasi ganoon naman akong klaseng player. Kung gusto nila ako ipa-score, siyempre kaya ko naman gawin ‘yun.”

While expectations are already high, it’s important to remember that this is only the beginning for Kai and Gilas. There will be more games after the window, and Kai will still get better.

“Sa tingin ko, marami talaga akong matututunan sa trip na ‘to, dahil first time ko sa men’s team so magiging exciting and magiging magandang experience ‘to para sa akin. Dahil sabi ko nga, dream ko ‘to dati pa. I can’t wait lang na makasali sa team.”