At seven feet two inches tall, Kai Soto is a mountain for a man. He also has a lot of expectations on his shoulders as he is trying to be the first player from the Philippines to be recruited and play in the NBA.
The 20-year-old has garnered a lot of attention in his basketball-obsessed homeland since he was 13. They followed his journey as he moved to the US for high school and G League, and then to Australia. Now, he is on the brink of making history.
“It was fun,” Soto said of the next he developed. “It’s a lot of interest, but I’m really grateful for all their support. These (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 get there too.”
Soto was one of two players who visited Indiana on Tuesday for the Pacers’ thirteenth and final practice. It was also his last stop before returning to his base in Atlanta for Thursday’s draft, which he plans to watch with family and friends.
When Soto first came to the United States as a teenager in 2019, he joined the Atlanta-based The Skill Factory, where he was impressed enough to garner attention from several Division I programs. But instead of going to college, Sotto chose to sign with G League Ignite for the development team’s inaugural season in 2020-21.
Soto trained with Ignite, who was coached at the time by former Pacers assistant Brian Shaw, but the logistics of the G League season prevented him from playing for the team.
The 2020-21 G League season has been condensed to one month in a controlled bubble environment due to the pandemic. Soto opted to play for his country in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers at the start of that time frame, and protocols around travel schedules and quarantines made it unrealistic for him to join Ignite before the relevant season ended.
While many of his Ignite teammates such as Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga entered the 2021 NBA Draft, Sotto was not yet eligible due to his high school graduation date. So he chose to spend last season in a different professional environment, and signed up to play for the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL.
In Australia, Sotto gained valuable experience playing in one of the top professional leagues abroad. In a fight against adult men, he watched the action in 23 matches, averaging 7.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per competition while shooting 50 percent of the field.
Now, he’s back in the States, hoping to prove to the teams that his game is ready for the NBA.
“I’m a good seven-footer and I can shoot from outside,” Soto said of his strengths. “I’m a very good runner in my height as well and I have a high IQ in basketball. My blocker is very good.”
There will always be a place for a seven-footer in the NBA and Soto hopes his skill set will translate enough into modern play that he can find a niche for someone’s roster. Describing himself as the “modern Pau Gasol” to the media on Tuesday, a tall player with ball-making skills with his hand rather than just taking up space on the edge.
But Sotto’s development will take some time. He needs to add significant weight to his chassis and has told the media his three areas of focus are getting “stronger, faster and more athletic,” a trio of improvements that are easier said than done.
The team will have to take a patient approach with Sotto, but he’s the kind of player the organization might risk the chance to pick in a second round or two-way contract. You can’t teach size, and that alone makes Sotto at least worthwhile.
No matter what happens on the night of the draw, Sotto should at least have the chance to play for a team in the Summer League in Las Vegas. And he might make history by taking the word for the NBA team, whether it’s next fall or sometime down the road.
There were a few NBA players of Filipino ancestry, notably Jordan Clarkson and Galen Green, but none of the NBA players was born and raised in the Philippines.
“It means a lot to me and my Filipino teammates,” Soto said of his arrival in the NBA. “The biggest goal for me is to get to the NBA.
“But when I look at the bigger picture, I want to go to the NBA to be an example and an inspiration to the younger players, the younger athletes back home in the Philippines. If they can say that if Kai can make it, can I, that’s a dream come true.” “.
Kells, his Duke teammates hope to make history
Joining Soto in Tuesday’s preliminary practice was Duke guard Trevor Kells. The 6-4 goalkeeper became a pro after one season with the Blue Devils, scoring 11.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
Keels hopes to help Duke set a record on the night of the raffle. Kentucky produced five first-round picks in 2010, a sign Keels and the company could match if all went well on Thursday. Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, and Mark Williams are the first round lockouts and they will all likely go into the lottery. Meanwhile, Keels and Wendell Moore Jr. As potential picks late in the first round or early in the second.
“It’s a special thing,” Keels said of the possibility of getting five picks in the first round. “The practice was incredible. We competed against each other in open rounds, five against five, it was intense. We (were) fighting, we (were) facing each other and that made us better.”
Kells was impressed by the relationships he built with his teammates during their time together in Durham – “true love,” in Kells’s words. The quintet has a hangout called “The Road Crew” dating from a road trip they took together to the Peach Jam basketball show in Georgia last summer. They even made a call to Keels before Tuesday’s workout in Indiana to offer him support and encouragement.
However, Keels has hardly followed his NBA teammates this year. He thought hard about going back to school for another year, making up his mind until the May 31 NCAA deadline before finally choosing to stay on the draft.
“I think it was hard for me just because Duke is such a special place for me,” said Kells. “It’s been my dream school my whole life and I wanted to do it again. I wanted to do it 10 times. (But) I think it’s time to take the next step. You can’t leave this opportunity on the table.”
Keels definitely has a game ready for the NBA even at this age (he won’t turn 19 until August 26, making him one of the youngest players in this year’s draft class). The 6-5, 232-pound goalkeeper can play on or off the ball and defend multiple positions.
Even surrounded by a lot of talent in Duke, Keels had times when he stood out. In his first collegiate game, he scored 25 points to lead the Blue Devils to a win over Kentucky. He’s hit double figures in 23 games, including 25 points and 11 double rebounds at Clemson on February 10 and a 27-point performance at Pete on March 1. Their loss in Final Four to North Carolina.
“I feel like what I bring to the table is everything,” Keels said. “I’m guarding, being able to handle the ball, being able to play the ball, being in the catch-and-shoot game. I feel like I can do whatever the team wants me to do. I have that winning mentality. It’s all about winning and then my positive reactions. off the field.”
Kills actually lived one dream of playing for Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season. He might have gone back to school had it not been for a conversation he had with new coach John Scheer (Krzyzewski’s first assistant last season), who encouraged Keels to pursue his next dream if he felt prepared.
With Scheyer’s blessing, Keels is ready to see where he’ll begin his NBA career.
“I don’t care about his choice, I’ll just get the chance,” he said. “I’m not going to go crazy – I don’t really care about my number. Only when I hear my name being called, when I get that chance, will I take any chance I get.”
“Hugging my mother, hugging my dad, hugging my brothers is something I really look forward to after hearing my name call out. You get goosebumps thinking sometimes. I just wish time would pass faster.”