Entering NBL23 armed with the knowledge and experience of one year in the league, Kai Sotto hoped to take a significant step and cement a major role on a 36ers squad that entered the season with championship expectations.
There were some promising moments on both ends of the floor, but much like the team overall, Sotto rode the rollercoaster of inconsistency as opportunities remained sporadic on a squad that never appeared to be settled en route to once again missing the postseason.
"He'll have a role I hope bigger than he had last season," head coach CJ Bruton told ESPN in the preseason.
"I believed he was two years away from the NBA but that's still a lot of work, there's a lot of work for him to help us win but also get where he wants to be."
Despite making 13 starts this season compared with just two in his rookie campaign, Sotto saw his minutes dip from 15.2 per game to 12.9, which expectedly resulted in his scoring and rebounding also taking a hit.
Incoming import star, Robert Franks and veteran Daniel Johnson were the main rotation players in the front court, while Kyrin Galloway also worked his way into some key minutes as the season wore on.
Sotto responded with maturity when asked about returning to the club for a second season despite the high-profile recruiting spree in the offseason, seemingly aware that it would be a battle to expand his role.
"It's tough for a head coach. Especially this year, you have a lot of talent, it's a good team, it's tough to try to feed everybody what they want. I know we have a relationship where he knows what's best for me. I just try to prove to him every day that I can help this team win. He knows I need to get better and he's helping me, so it's been good," Sotto told ESPN in September.
A major area of growth targeted mobility on the defensive end of the floor. While Sotto has flashed elite rim protecting capabilities, the modern game asks more questions of traditional big men than ever before, with opposition teams constantly trying to drag rim protecting fives away from the paint.
"All in all, I just have to be better. I have to show that I can move better, being 7'3", the game is getting smaller now," Sotto said.
"The players are getting bigger, but the game is getting smaller, more spaced out, so I have to be able to get smaller players than me. I have to show I can move and that I can do it consistently. I can be knocking on the NBA's doorsteps once I can show I can do that."
Sotto's ability to block shots remained a highlight, with his 5.8% block percentage ranking third in the league for players to see a minimum of 300 minutes -- Isaac Humphries 7.6% and Will Magnay 6.0% led the league.
Interestingly, the most efficient five-man lineup for the 36ers on the season (minimum 100 possessions) involved Sotto, with the big man playing alongside Antonius Cleveland, Robert Franks, Sunday Dech and Mitch McCarron. That five-man group saw just 137 possessions together across the season.
Unsurprisingly, the best defensive numbers came in lineups where Cleveland and Dech were on the floor, with the pair providing elite perimeter coverage to assist Sotto. The trio played 227 possessions together on the season, registering a very respectable defensive rating of 108.0, with the 36ers outscoring the opposition by 8.3 points per 100 possessions in the admittedly small sample. It's worth speculating whether the 36ers could have leaned into more defensive minded groupings for longer throughout the season.
On the offensive end, Sotto was efficient with his limited touches. Attempting just 5.0 shots per game, the 20-year-old finished 55.6% of his two-point attempts. Given the low volume it's hard to extract too much from the data, though he did show decent touch from the midrange, where he can face up and knock down jumpers, or utilise his sweeping hook shot that became a go to move.
Overall, it was a challenging and most likely frustrating season for both club and player, with Bruton admitting to the difficulty of finding minutes on what appeared to be a deep roster with plenty of mouths to feed.
"It's disappointing. You look at the names but it's just names on paper," Bruton said after the final game of the season. "Trying to get them to communicate and come together as a unit was a tough challenge. We had disruptions throughout the season, overall, I take responsibility."
Recently signing with the Hiroshima Dragonflies in the Japanese B.League, Sotto will have an opportunity to continue to develop his game in the short term. After two up and down seasons in Adelaide, his time appears done with the franchise, which might be for the best for both parties. A fresh start could become the catalyst for further growth, with Sotto still steadfast on ultimately reaching the NBA.
Advanced stats for this story via spatialjam.com