Gilas Pilipinas head coach Tab Baldwin praised the courage Kai Sotto displayed in his men’s national team debut, which ultimately led to a thrilling victory over South Korea in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers Wednesday night.
“I think what we saw from Kai is a very young player who wasn’t really well-prepared,” the decorated mentor said moments after their 81-78 triumph that sent them to the tournament proper in August.
“But what a heart he has.”
The 19-year-old only returned to the Philippines on the eve of May 31. He was only able to rejoin the Filipino dribblers 10 days later. Questions then surrounded his status on whether he would line up against Korea.
But a day before the much-anticipated clash between the long-time rivals, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas unveiled the 12-man lineup. And bannering the crew was, well, the second-generation cager.
Baldwin then explained the rationale, saying that Sotto has ‘great retention of information’. He was able to remember Gilas’ schemes when he first came back to the country last February for the supposed Doha bubble.
And the former NBA G-League Ignite member did not disappoint. As he got his groove on, Sotto went on to produce 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting from the field. He also picked up seven rebounds, two assists, and a steal.
Furthermore, he was able to show that he can bang bodies with much more experienced foes, such as naturalized Korean Ricardo Ratliffe.
“The first couple of times he tried to score, you know… You could’ve easily called a foul, but probably there wasn’t either. And he was very disrupted by the physicality of Ratliffe,” recalled Baldwin.
“What you saw [from] him [was] to make an adjustment and start to deliver back, to dish back the physicality,” he furthered. “But most importantly, you saw the determination in Kai to make an impact in the game.”
Still, Baldwin noted that there’s more to be seen from Sotto. And he expects that to be evident as the tournament goes along.
“You can see the fatigue, you know, he’s only good for three to four minutes, he gets tired. So I think it’s a really courageous effort by Kai, but we’re gonna see a lot better basketball from him as we move forward,” he said.
“He’s a very good talent — he’s a great, great guy to have in the team and the environment. He’s made himself very beloved not just to his old friends here, but to everybody. And I think now we all see what kind of competitor that he is because he really wasn’t ready for significant minutes in this game, and yet he gave us some great minutes.”