A bulkier and stronger Kai Sotto looked right at home playing alongside his Gilas Youth teammates in his first practice since returning to the Philippines.
The 7-foot-2 wunderkind is fresh from his two-month training in the United States and shared that the main thing he gained, aside from his improved physique, was confidence.
"When I was in the U.S., I really practiced every day," Sotto said Saturday night after Gilas Youth's practice at the PhilSports Arena. "Every day, it was as if I was gaining more confidence with what I was doing. I even surprise myself sometimes that I can actually do all those things."
Sotto's rigorous schedule in the U.S. included waking up at 4 a.m. three times a week for 6 a.m. training sessions, followed by 10 a.m. workouts at the gym. The rest of the week consisted of more workouts plus on-court sessions in the afternoon. This on top of extra activities at a swimming pool every afternoon at 5 p.m. In his second month, 5-on-5 workouts were incorporated.
Sotto is now up to 223 pounds from 210 last March.
"So my training in the U.S. was big for me when I got back here, especially with the FIBA World Cup where it's a different fight," he said.
Two months ago, the 17-year-old Ateneo High School product decided to pack his bags for the U.S. in order to pursue his NBA dream. Before going abroad, he assured his commitment to the national team and the upcoming FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece, which is slated from June 29-July 7.
"Seriously, it's good to see him back first of all," said Gilas Youth coach Sandy Arespachoga, who was also pleased that his lineup was more or less complete. "In terms of Kai's individual improvements, strength-wise, he actually bulked up. Honestly, from what we saw today, we already saw before. The skill and the talent. We'll see more of his improvements in the coming days because he still has jet lag. But he gained weight and strength and he hadn't lost his speed."
Arespacochaga said the quickness and agility of the Gilas frontcourt will be critical against world-class opponents.
"Besides the height, we want our bigs to be quick and fast which is one of our advantages as Filipinos," the coach said.
"I think Kai and AJ [Edu] did well last year but they kind of balanced out. Our bigs and the bigs of our opponents canceled each other out. That is why the defense of our big men has to improve. They are shot-blockers but one weakness that they have is that they are not bulky. We need to come up with a scheme that will take advantage of their length and agility."
Sotto's presence, physique, and overall improvements were a welcome sight for the young national team, which is expected to face stiff competition. Gilas will first take on host Greece, then Argentina, and finish against Russia in the group phase.
"I think they'll be more competitive, smarter, and better," Sotto said about the opponents ahead. "But I know that if we practice well, train well, and prepare well, everything will turn out fine."
Gilas Youth will continue to hold practices in the next two weeks, then fly to Doha for a training camp, before heading to Heraklion, Greece, for the World Cup.