Kai Sotto carries a nation on his shoulders as he makes Orlando Magic debut

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 05: Kai Sotto of the 36ers warms up before the round 18 NBL match between Melbourne United and Adelaide 36ers at John Cain Arena, on February 05, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 05: Kai Sotto of the 36ers warms up before the round 18 NBL match between Melbourne United and Adelaide 36ers at John Cain Arena, on February 05, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images) /
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There is a lot of noise and excitement around the Orlando Magic.

It is not for their two Lottery picks. Not entirely at least.

Everyone has been waiting eagerly for the debut of a national hero. And this is a basketball-hungry country eager for their first crack at seeing a native son in the NBA.

We see it in our traffic numbers — both here on Orlando Magic Daily and on Locked On Magic. It is audible inside the Thomas & Mack Center with the chants for the big man sitting on the Magic’s bench.

The Magic’s social media team feels it too — they are catching some unneeded heat for promoting the latest social media darling on their Summer League team only for him not to appear in the first three Summer League games.

Everyone knows who plenty of people around the world are eager to see. And everyone was feeling the frustration they had to wait so long.

Everyone gets their turn in Las Vegas though. Kai Sotto would get his turn.

Kai Sotto made his long-awaited debut for the Orlando Magic. The national hero looked solid in his first game, but there is still a long way to go for him to reach the NBA.

After a much longer wait than anticipated, perhaps, Sotto took the floor for the first time with an NBA team on Thursday in the Orlando Magic’s 88-71 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. And he did fill up the box score, scoring six points on 3-for-7 shooting with four rebounds (two offensive rebounds) and three blocks.

This was hardly an invisible debut for the long-awaited big man. It just looked like he needed the opportunity to get comfortable and find his footing.

"“It just feels good to finally be out there,” Sotto said after Thursday’s game. “It’s my first time here in the Summer League and first time on the court. It’s just a lot of excitement. I just wanted to impact the game. Sadly we didn’t win. But there is a lot to learn from this game.”"

There certainly was for a player like Sotto. So much of Summer League is about getting players that experience and letting them feel what an NBA game is like.

Sotto still has a lot of work to do, but he more than held his own. If Summer League is about figuring out more who can’t play than who can, Sotto showed he could do a few things on the NBA court. That is at least an initial success and something to grow on.

Sotto said he started feeling comfortable after he recorded his first block, coming on a shot near the basket in the second quarter. His second-half stint looked a lot better than his first, suggesting there is more improvement to come.

Perhaps his biggest defensive impact play came when he rotated along the paint and emphatically swatted a shot in the fourth quarter. This is a player who uses his 7-foot-3 size to make an impact. The Blazers knew he was hovering around the paint if they were not careful.

Offensively, Kai Sotto did well to be available at the dunker spot, at one point getting a good dump-off from Tyger Campbell for a two-handed jam. He showed his nimbleness and offensive potential when he got a post-up and ended with a fadeaway jumper. It missed, but the potential was there.

On top of this, Sotto looked fairly comfortable operating with the ball at the top of the key as a distributor. That is a key in the Magic’s offense where they love running players off their center using dribble hand-offs and high-low passes.

No one should draw conclusions one way or the other based off 13 minutes in a Summer League game. Sotto did show however that there was something to work with and something to grow at the professional level.

"“I thought he did well,” Magic Summer League coach Dyland Murphy said. “He protected the rim. He had a couple of nice finishes. Credit to him for staying ready. Obviously not playing the first couple of games. I’m definitely proud of his performance. sometimes it can be hard to come in cold and perform and I thought he did well.”"

It was certainly a long time coming for Sotto. It would have been hard to expect Sotto to come in after sitting for so long — practice time is limited once the team arrives in Las Vegas — and he should improve in his second game when the Orlando Magic wrap up their Summer League Saturday against the Boston Celtics.

Still, Sotto clearly has work to do.

At 7-foot-3, while he has some nimbleness and athleticism, locking that in defensive is still a bit of a challenge. Especially at the speed the NBA game is played.

Perhaps it was first game jitters — this is his first foray into Summer League and playing at the NBA level after playing in Australia and Japan throughout his career — but the game looked very fast for him.

That is a normal challenge for young players getting their first exposure to the NBA.

"“I think the game in Summer League is more fast-paced,” Sotto said after Thursday’s game. “It’s a lot of young players. Everybody is trying to prove they can play in an NBA game and NBA environment. It’s pretty fast-paced. Everybody is pretty skilled. Everybody is pretty hungry to show they are worthy of a roster spot. It’s competitive. It’s nice to finally go out there and play.”"

Sotto showcased some of his skills. But there is also clearly a lot more for him to develop before he reaches an NBA level.

There was one play that seemed instructive when he got into drop coverage and the offensive player had him in a bind before finishing at the rim. Sotto is big and can protect the rim, but he does not have the athleticism to guard in space.

Further, while he had his share of rebounds in a short amount of time, he was not exactly chasing boards either. He got outmuscled on several rebounding opportunities and he did not seem to seek contact at his size.

Some of that just goes back to the speed of the game and how fast everything seemed to be moving. Sotto just seemed a step slow.

More than anything else, seeing him more comfortable and understanding what he will see in front of him will be key to making his second game that much more successful.

Everyone can clearly see Sotto has talent. But getting that to NBA speed is going to be the battle for him. One that will likely take place in another season away from the NBA — although it seems possible an offensive-minded league like the G-League could be good for his development.

Regardless of where Sotto ends up this coming season, his getting to this point is a huge step for a basketball-hungry nation in the Philippines. Sotto has taken some critical first steps — and this year’s FIBA World Cup will continue to expand basketball’s reach on the island nation.

There will certainly be more steps to take for him. And he will have a big fan base following. He will have a lot of people outside of the Philippines cheering him on.

"“It feels good,” Sotto said of the fan support in Las Vegas. “To anybody that is playing to have a lot of guys cheering for you, it’s a blessing. It’s just for me to do my part and show my 100 percent effort every game. Hopefully, I make them happy and proud.”"

Sotto has come a long way. He has earned his spot and a longer look and continued look as the 21-year-old continues to develop and grow.

He carries the hopes of a nation on his back, which cannot be easy. There is a lot of pressure that is involved in that.

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Sotto though has handled it well and now that his opportunity has finally come, he is showing what he can still develop and how he can still grow.