Evan Nelle and Kai Sotto used their differences to dominate the #SLAMRisingStars Classic

As Evan Nelle and Kai Sotto were called on to center court to accept the SLAM Rising Stars 2018 MVP award, the differences between the two could not have been more evident. Kai was a 7-foot, 15-year old, behemoth, who possessed physical tools Evan could only dream of having. On the other hand, Evan was 5’11”, 19 years old. He was a guard whose body was slowly gaining muscle, something we hope Kai to have in the near future.

Kai and Evan are largely different from each other. One is seen as the future, while the other is already being banked on to help lead the present. But intersecting lines need just one point in order for them to meet. Just one thing to have in common so they can be on the same page.

The SLAM Rising Stars 2018 co-MVPs had that moment. It wasn’t height nor was it age. It was the simple desire to win and to prove something to the those watching the Rising Stars Classic.


Evan Nelle and his last ride

The SLAM Rising Stars Classic 2018 meant a lot to Evan. You could immediately get a sense of this if you scrolled down his Twitter feed.

The Rising Stars Classic was set to be Evan’s last game as a High School player. The next time we’ll see him is when he suits up for the Red Lions in the seniors division. But the juniors division has meant a lot to Evan. It’s the stage where he experienced the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. Just three years ago, Evan was named as Finals MVP during the NCAA Season 91 Finals. Many were already asking as early as then which college Evan was headed for, but the reality of it was that, he still had two years left. They were pleasantly surprised at this, excited at the possible development we would see in Evan’s game. Sadly, the road to development wasn’t as rosy as many hoped it to be. Season 92 was arguably the worst shape Evan was in as a basketball player, frustrating fans and observers with his showing that season. From being a scoring guard, he slowly started to make his transition as a point guard. But it wasn’t a smooth transition. His tendencies as a scorer still showed, and it caused him to make some questionable decisions for the Red Cubs. As his senior year approached, Nelle continued to put in the work. Almost everyday, he would post in Snapchat or in his Instagram stories videos of him in the gym or in the basketball court working out. Others may call it showboating and a player seeking attention for the grind he puts in. It wasn’t like that for Evan. Every time he would post such a story, it was a reminder to himself of the work he needed to put in to reach the level he wanted to reach as a basketball player. During Season 93, the fruits of his sacrifices started to show. Evan was a far better lead guard during his senior year, becoming a nightly triple double threat for San Beda. He was making better decisions off the dribble, no longer forcing shots from the outside. More importantly, he was confidently driving to the rim, and a big part of that was the added muscle he put in over the summer. By the end of the elimination round, the Red Cubs wound up with the 1 seed, and they were set to meet Joel Cagulangan and the LSGH Greenies during the Final Four. It could have been the stage for Evan to showcase how he’s evolved as a player to a bigger stage. By all accounts, it was. He put up 26 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists in the deciding game between San Beda and La Salle. But he was just a backup to the heroics Joel Cagulangan pulled off for the Greenies in that game. The lasting image some had with Evan was him with his head down, singing the San Beda hymn one last time. It was heartbreaking for the graduating Red Cub. But he didn’t let the heartbreak get in the way of the grind he was putting in. The Instagram stories continued. He kept on shooting shots. More and more weights were lifted. It was the constant desire to improve that drove Evan even though he was technically a graduate already. When he was called up to join the Rising Stars Classic, Evan could not have been more thrilled. It was going to be his last ride, one final chance to showcase who Evan Nelle truly is to the entire country. “Last game ko, so I wanted to give it my all,” said Evan. The stage was set again for Evan to show his evolution as a player.

Once again, he made use of this stage given to him. This was no longer the Evan Nelle we saw two years ago in the SLAM Rising Stars Classic 2016 throwing up shots from Steph Curry range. This was a scorer transformed into solid point guard, someone who used his scoring to aid in his job to set up his teammates.

Any time the passing lanes would be closed down, he’d try to drive to the rim with a quick crossover here and there. He’d still take the occasional pull-up jumper, but these were no longer ill-advised. They were shots in rhythm, the result of hours and hours of work put in by the former King Red Cub.

Evan was the consistent force for Team Punks in the Rising Stars Classic, setting the offense well for his team, and scoring any time the opportunity presented itself. He was the lead singer this time around, unlike the NCAA Final Four where he was relegated to being a backup. But in finishing this final set of his, he needed someone to duet with. Someone to finish things off as Evan was called for his fifth and final foul during the overtime period.

Enter the Kaiju.


Kai Sotto and his consistent desire to win

If I was a 15-year old who was called into join the SLAM Rising Stars Classic, I would have been thrilled at the fun that was to be. Media sessions! Free food! Free shoes! Lots of attention being poured into me as I am recognized as one of the best High School players in the country. That’s just me though. For 15 year old Kai Sotto, how he treated being called as a SLAM Rising Stars was different.

No doubt about it, he was blessed at the opportunity that was being given to him. “Excited kasi siyempre makakasali (ako) sa ganitong kagandang event,” mentioned Kai about how he felt when he was called in as a SLAM Rising Star. But for Kai, this wasn’t an event that was all fun and games. Others – looks at self in the mirror – would have been pleased already at being called in to join the best High School players in the country for one big showcase. But Kai wasn’t satisfied at just being there. There was a basketball game to be held, with one winner set to be named.

“Sino ba naman gusto matalo?” mentioned Sotto.

Ever since then, Kai’s been quite the competitor. He’s never allowed his age to get in the way of his desire to win. Any time a winning moment has arrived, Kai’s embraced it. He’s been incredibly composed too, never allowing the moment to get in the way of making the correct basketball play when need be. Big stages don’t cause Kai to fold. He’s the rare breed who becomes even better when the game is on the line, who raises his level of play above and beyond what he was already capable of.

During the early goings of the Rising Stars Classic, Kai looked a bit tired and lethargic. It was understandable he was like this, especially when you consider how he had just come from Batang Gilas practice a few hours before. He was still moving well laterally, but his shot blocking wasn’t as elite as we’ve grown used to when talking about Kai. We weren’t getting an 11 block night from him this time around.

What we got from Kai despite his sluggish play early on were some flashes at the offensive prospect he could be in the future. A number of fans wound up shouting “Nikola Jokic!” when Kai would pass the ball from the post, whipping the ball around to his teammates with the kind of ease you wouldn’t expect a 7-footer to have, even in this day and age. With every pass Kai would throw, he would let out a smile whether his teammate would convert off the pass. By all accounts, he was having fun in the Rising Stars Classic, just letting the game flow and come to him.

When winning time came, however, the happy-to-be-there Kai was replaced by a Kaiju who wanted to win at all costs.

It didn’t matter anymore that he was feeling lethargic coming from Batang Gilas practice. With their best player that night, Evan, out with foul trouble, Team Punks needed someone to lean on versus the comebacking Team Hype. They had a 7-foot tower. So Team Punks used that to their advantage.

Where Kai truly made his money during the overtime period wasn’t in the offensive end, but in the defensive end. During the first four periods, Kai was a bit lax, not blocking shots with the same tenacity he had during the UAAP season. He was still grabbing rebounds, but his shot blocking was missing.

During the overtime period, the Kaiju high school slashers have come to fear, came out and flipped the switch.

He continued to move well laterally, while his rim protection was turned on to a completely different level this time around. He was disciplined on pump fakes, blocking two crucial shots during the extra five minutes. These were monster blocks by Kai, where he’d make sure to make the offense think twice at even trying to score against him. “Gusto ko dikdikin yung kalaban, gusto ko iparamdam na parang wala na silang second chance,” confidently mentioned Kai.

On the offensive end, he was a bit more aggressive, rolling to the rim with more electricity and posting up more rather than simply setting screens. He finished off a strong dunk to essentially seal the game for Team Punks. Not just a lay-up, but a two-handled slam with authority. No more second chances.

On to different directions

Kai and Evan are on to different directions now. Evan is on his way to the Seniors Division, with San Beda ready to welcome him into the Lion’s Den. Kai, on the other hand, still has three years of High School eligibility left. There’s plenty of uncertainty regarding his future, but that’s what makes it exciting. Ateneo or abroad? Center or power forward? Lots of questions, exciting times.

But as different as the directions these two may be going at, they were able to meet at one point just like intersecting lines. They met at the SLAM Rising Stars Classic 2018 as teammates. They worked well as a guard-big combo, leading Team Punks to victory. At the very core, both of them had driving forces which made them play at their very best in this All Star Game.

Evan had his last ride, a desire to come out of High School as a winner.

Kai had his addiction for competition and victory, a desire to continue a tradition of winning.

They’re Co-MVPs, and an image of what we’ll be getting for the present and the future.

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