Kai Sotto proved that he belongs to the major league when he delivered a promising performance in the Adelaide 36ers’ impressive 134-124 victory over the Phoenix Suns in the NBAxNBL Preseason Series Monday morning (Manila time) at the Footprint Center in Arizona.
The 7-foot-3 Filipino rising star tallied 11 points in a little less than 18 minutes of action for the 36ers, who made history when they became the first team to beat a National Basketball Association club in a preseason battle since Fenerbahce shocked the Brooklyn Nets, 101-96, at the Barclays Center on 6 October 2015.
It was also the first visit to the United States by National Basketball League team since the 2019 preseason, which was the third-straight year Australian teams made the trip for pre-season games.
And while other NBL teams had threatened upsets, none of them had successfully prevailed until the 36ers held their nerve — and kept making shots – in Phoenix.
American reinforcements Craig Randall and Robert Franks had 15 triples between them while the rest of their teammates had a field day from the rainbow area, converting 24 of their 43 attempts for a sizzling 55.8 percent shooting.
Randall, who played high school ball at nearby Shadow Mountain, fired 35 points laced with nine three-pointers while Frank, who went undrafted in the 2019 NBA Rookie Draft before launching a journeyman career, chipped in 32 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in 41 minutes of action.
Another American import in Antonious Cleveland tallied 22 points while Daniel Johnson added 15 markers to underscore the 36ers’ balanced attack against the Suns, who came in full force with All-Star guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker at the firing end and former No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton patrolling the shaded lanes.
Paul had a quiet night with six points and 12 assists while Booker fired 13 markers and Ayton finished with 22 points on an impressive 11-of-14 field goal shooting in 22 minutes of play.
Cameron Payne topscored the Suns with 23 followed by Mikal Bridges with 22.
“I think he was in tears and I understand why – it’s a big moment for everyone,” Randall said moments after making a post-game phone call to his father.
“I told you, we’re not scared of nothing; I put my team against anybody.”
“Playing in G League, I found a rhythm and I’m locked in on the NBL season right now, will worry about the NBA when it comes.
“But I hoped everyone watched tonight; Adelaide is here.”
Still, it was Sotto — who was being groomed to become the first full-blooded Filipino to make it to the NBA but went undrafted in the previous NBA Rookie Draft — who made a strong impression.
With the Suns erecting an early 20-14 lead, the 36ers unleased a sizzling 19-8 rally capped by Sotto’s dunk at the end of the first quarter to post a 33-28 lead.
It was also Sotto who gave the 36ers their biggest lead of the game at 16 points when he nailed a pair of free throws for the 57-41 count with still 6:20 left in the second period.
Against a skillful seven-footer in Ayton, the Gilas Pilipinas standout held his own as he converted 3-of-6 from the field and nailed a three-pointer to draw praises from 36ers head coach CJ Burton.
His high school coach, Joe Silva, was truly impressed.
“Offensively, I was impressed,” said Silva, who mentored Sotto at the Ateneo de Manila University.
“He was able to catch those no-look passes from his teammates and his speed had improved. Of course, he still has a lot to work on, but his speed and strength had improved a lot.”
Silva said playing against Ayton, Paul, Booker and other NBA rising stars like Payne, Cameron Johnson and Bridges under the bright lights of the NBA is a major boost to Sotto’s confidence.
Aside from that, he also put coaches, scouts and talent evaluators on notice, making them realize that he has what it takes to play against legitimate NBA players.
“Somehow, the NBA atmosphere got a glimpse of how he played or what he looked like playing against NBA teams,” Silva said.
Sotto and the 36ers will saw action anew when they travel to Oklahoma City to face the Thunder on 7 October.