Kai Sotto excelling at elite NBA facility as big decision nears
At 2.18m (7'2") tall, Kai Sotto is the best hope the Philippines has.
The basketball-crazy country has never seen a homegrown player make it to the NBA, and it's become a national obsession.
Kai is the latest - and maybe the greatest - chance of one of their own making it to the big time.
And he's getting every possible leg-up along the way.
Kai travelled from Manila to Atlanta, Georgia, with his father Ervin Sotto on 1 April to the elite Emory Sports Cente Complex where the Atlanta Hawks train.
Sotto is making good progress in Atlanta with coaches seeing noticeable improvements in less than a month.
A big decision on his future is expected soon.
Prodigy on a program
Kai is working on a personal program that has him eating like a pro, training like a pro, and playing pick-up basketball with NCAA players and ex-NBA pros.
This individualised, personalised and customised training program at the P3 Peak Performance Project seeks to help the young star follow NBA luminaries Paul Millsap, Khris Middleton, Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin, Ricky Rubio, and Carmelo Anthony through the Emory Sports Complex on their way to the big time.
Sotto is working a tailored program with strength and conditioning coach Paddy Hogben and basketball skills coaches Nick Stapleton and Roy Jones.
Hogben is a 35-year-old English performance specialist who spent more than 3 years at the Sarecens rugby club in the UK, Stapleton, 39, is the greatest scoring point guard ever at Austin Peay University, and Rory Jones is American-Filipino pro-baller Andray Blatche's personal trainer.
“Kai’s currently doing pick-up 2x2 with some select ex-NBA players and college players and will ramp up towards 3x3 and finally 5x5 when the NBA regular season ends and more NBA players come to Atlanta,” a source close to the action in Atlanta told the Philippines' Philstar.
Sotto is getting the star treatment and has spent time on the court with Dale Davis, a 2.10m (6'10") NBA vet with the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Detroit Pistons, playing in the big league from 1991-92 to 2006-07.
A crack team of professionals who know what it takes to make it to the top.
But right now for Kai, it's time to grind.
Kai Sotto: Training three times a day
“Kai has a very intensive nutrition program designed to add healthy pounds to his currently very lean frame so he can build muscle especially in his flutes, thighs, legs and core,” said the source.
At 2.18m (7'2") tall Kai may have the height, but he needs to bulk up to become a real presence as a centre and dominate around the ring, muscle mass that will also help him quicken reaction times and improve his jump.
“He’s training twice or three times a day, six days a week with two main coaches. One session a day is with a P3 coach for strength and conditioning based on a very scientific evaluation ... and the other two workouts are under an NBA professional trainer for basketball skills, footwork and strategies.”
Kai Sotto and Ervin Sotto: father and son team
Wherever Kai goes, so does dad Ervin.
Right now Sotto Sr. is in Atlanta supporting his boy, the father-son bond growing ever stronger.
Kai's relationship with his pops is the backbone of Kai's grounded approach to fulfilling his ultimate goal.
As a pro baller himself, Ervin understands the game, and the value of protecting his son from the 'too much too soon' culture of modern sports.
“It’s a big thing to have your dad supporting you.” - Kai Sotto
Ervin has a simple plan for Kai's world conquest: First the Philippines, then Asia, then the world.
In September 2018 Sotto senior told Slam Philippines that "the next three years are crucial. International players shooting for the NBA go there at 19, 20, 21, so Kai has three or four years to develop physically."
While making it to the NBA is serious business, this father-son combo is enjoying the ride too.
Kai Dunks over his dad
"My real O.G. My dad"
Kai's admiration for his father is obvious and when pops said this in an interview with Filipino news channel ABS-CBN:
"Why would you be afraid if this is what you really want?" - Ervin Sotto on son Kai's future
Kai reposted the story on Facebook saying "My real O.G., my Dad".
On Instagram he showed that making his dream a reality is a collective project.
"The game is tough. It’s full of highs and lows, with every day and every opponent presenting new challenges that we are expected to overcome," Kai posted on Instagram in November 2018.
"Thank you for being with me every step of the way, dad! This one is for you, the TRUE OG."
Kai Sotto in the Euroleague?
This father-son team has a big decision to make about Kai's next step.
Will he stay in the States? Head to Europe?
For now the focus is on raising his game - bringing technical and tactical understanding of the game up to a professional standard.
Sotto's next big tournament target is shining for the Philippines at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece, which takes place from June to July.
But after that?
“There’s no decision yet on the steps to take when Kai returns from Greece,” said a source close to the family. “That will be discussed with Kai and his family. The direction to take will be in line with our collective dream of bringing Kai to the NBA.”
His father Ervin has offers on the table but knows there's no rush:
"We can go back to the States, or we'll go back to Europe. We have no fear, there are paths open to Kai" - Ervin Sotto
Sotto Jr. is expected to announce the club he'll sign with after the U-19 World Cup, with Spanish teams Barcelona, Real Madrid, Baskonia, and Estudiantes, as well as German club ALBA Berlin all in the hunt to sign the precocious teenager.
Teams from the United States have also joined the queue: IMG Academy, NCAA teams Texas Longhorns and Gonzaga Bulldogs also threw their hats in the ring.
Both Ervin and Kai are cool on Kai's next step.
Is Real Madrid the way to the NBA for Kai Sotto?
The 2017-18 EuroLeague champions have history when it comes to bringing players through their academy system and on to the NBA.
Not surprising when you see the stats for his newbie NBA season:
Luka Doncic rookie season stats: 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 43% FG, 33% 3P
Doncic saw his dream come true when he lined up next to his hero Dirk Nowitski in the NBA.
Kai could potentially follow in Luka's footsteps.
Will Kai Sotto make it to the NBA?
It's not guaranteed.
The last big name to raise Filipino hopes of an NBA breakthrough was Kobe Paras.
A 1.98m (6'6") small forward with a Hollywood highlight reel and all the athleticism and agility that made it look like making the NBA was only a matter of time for Kobe.
After all, he already had the name.
After standing out for the La Salle Greenhills Junior Blazers, Paras made the move to the U.S. and played at Cathedral High School and Middlebrooks Academy in Los Angeles.
Kobe played in the NCAA Division 1 with the Creighton Bluejays, but getting little game time he transferred to the Cal State Northridge Matadors where a change of coach once again dashed his hopes of regular playing time.
Paras returned to Manila and now plays for the UP Fighting Maroons in Manila.
Japeth Aguilar was another homegrown star in the making, but didn't reach the NBA either.
Filipino b-ball fans see their stories as cautionary tales.
The debate in the Philippines is furious on whether Kai has what it takes to be the first, but high hopes and doubting voices don't make Kai Sotto dizzy, this Filipino phenom has his feet firmly on the ground.
At just 17 years old on May 11, Sotto has time on his side.