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How Emoni Bates survived the early hype and remained a top NBA prospect

Emoni Bates is still standing after the premature hype.

Emoni Bates didn’t ask to be hyped as the “next Kevin Durant” from the time he was 14 years old. He didn’t request Sports Illustrated to put him on a magazine cover a year later that bears a striking resemblance to the first one LeBron James graced in high school. He certainly didn’t urge the publication to write that he “often resembles a 6’ 9” Stephen Curry.”

All of this was outside of Bates’ control before he was legally old enough to drive a car. After a standout performance at his first USA Basketball junior minicamp in 2018, he was considered the best high school freshman in recent memory by some of the sharpest people in the industry. He felt like a player who personified the recent evolution of the modern game: a tall, lanky wing who could handle the ball like a guard and pull-up confidently with his jump shot from anywhere on the floor all before he was legally old enough to drive a car. I won’t act like I was above it. When I wrote a list of the best long-term prospects in the high school ranks three years ago, I put Bates at No. 1 just ahead of Jalen Green, Anthony Edwards, and Evan Mobley.

It all feels so unfair to Bates now, not because he’s necessarily fallen short of his ‘generational prospect’ status, but because the burden of those expectations would be unfair to anyone. The fact that Bates is still standing near the top of his class rankings is a testament to both his focus and talent.

Bates’ high school career feels like it ended in the blink of an eye. As a freshman, he led Lincoln High to a state championship in Michigan. The next year, he became the first sophomore to win boys Gatorade National Player of the Year, but the pandemic interrupted his playoff run. As a junior, Bates left Lincoln for a start-up prep school founded by his father. It was at Ypsi Prep that the same people who hyped Bates in the first place started to wonder if he was coming up short: there were some big losses, concerns about his scoring efficiency and frame, and rumors of tension with his teammates. Somewhere in between, he committed and decommitted from Michigan State, lost his No. 1 ranking to Jalen Duren, and had to publicly ask for more scholarship offers from college coaches who assumed he would never step foot on campus.

Bates should be preparing for senior year right now, but like most aspects of his life, he surged past that, too. Bates reclassified to essentially skip his final year of high school ball and get ready for the next level. It’s a common move for big-time high school prospects — R.J. Barrett, Marvin Bagley III, and Andrew Wiggins did it, too — but Bates is in a particularly unique situation because he’s too young to enter the 2022 NBA Draft. He could be set to spend two years at the college level.

Bates has now announced his next step. He committed to Memphis over Oregon, Michigan State, and the G League Ignite. Bates will join Duren on the Tigers while playing for head coach Penny Hardaway and assistants Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace. While the G League would have been his only profitable route only a few months ago, the adoption of NIL rules across college basketball means Bates will now see a big pay day while going to school at Memphis. ESPN has already named him the most marketable player in men’s college basketball before he makes his decision.

The discourse around Bates has already been swirling for years in every direction. Where is Bates really at as a player right now? This is what we see from him on the brink of his big announcement.

Why Emoni Bates is still an excellent prospect

Emoni Bates almost certainly won’t be the first pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, the first year he’s eligible to enter. That distinction will go to the next super prospect to earn the ‘generational’ tag: 7’3 French big man Victor Wembanyama. But even if Bates doesn’t eventually become a No. 1 overall pick, he’s certainly going to get selected near the top of the draft when he’s able to enter.

That’s because Bates is still an awesome prospect.

The appeal of Bates starts with his intersection of height and shooting. Most measurements put Bates at 6’8.5 or 6’9. He typically plays with the ball in his hands, and often dribbles it up the court like a lead guard. Bates’ scoring mindset could be described in one word: aggressive. As soon as he touches the ball in the halfcourt, he’s ready to set his man up to surrender a bucket.

Bates’ top skill is shooting off the dribble. He shoots an effortless ball with deep range. He already has a bag to step-backs and step-steps he can go into to get off open looks from three-point range. You won’t find another player in high school ranks that has this level of shot-making at the same size.

Bates is also an advanced ball handler at this stage, especially for a nominal wing. Ball handling is typically one of the biggest areas of improvement for high school age wings, but Bates usually has good control of the ball and knows who to create separation off the bounce. This is where his status as a super-hyped prospect from a young age has paid off: he has the handle of someone who had to learn how to open up space because he knew the ball was always going to be in his hands.

Check out the quick change of direction and body control on this layup.

While Bates’ feel for the game has come under question at times, he certainly has some impressive passing flashes. His occasionally poor shot selection could be chalked up to the fact the he had to score for Bates Fundamentals, the Nike EYBL team founded by his father, because he was so obviously the best player on the team.

The easier way for Bates to level up offensively is to continue growing as a playmaker for others. He’s going to generate so much defensive attention that his teammates are bound to be open if he can find them.

His play is another example of Bates using his tight handle to get into the paint, and then keep his eyes up until his teammate pops open. This sort of thing is exactly what NBA scouts are going to want to see from him at his next stop:

While Bates is still rail thin and badly needs to add muscle, he doesn’t shy away from contact — he embraces it. His ability to get two feet in the paint and try to initiate or play through contract will help him even as he tries to add weight early in his career.

Again you see his body control and burst with the ball in these plays. It’s encouraging to see him drive the ball to the basket instead of settling for his jumper all the time.

The upside here is a 6’9 wing who can be high volume three-point shooter, act as a secondary initiator in the halfcourt, and put some pressure on the rim with dribble combinations and solid burst helped by the threat of his shooting. These can still be bankable NBA skills if he isn’t a once-in-a-generation prospect.

Why Bates might not be as ‘generational’ as he was once thought to be

Bates started so far ahead of his peers in part because he stood out so much for his height. Three years later, other players in Bates’ class have caught up to him physically. He hasn’t gotten much taller or added much weight since the hype began.

Bates is still tall for a wing, but the lack of strength holds him back at times. He also isn’t particularly long, with a wingspan reportedly proportional to his height. It will be tough for him to slide up in lineups at the NBA level unless he adds significant bulk.

The last time we saw Bates was at Nike Peach Jam. While he put together some remarkable highlights, his scoring efficiency left a lot to be desired. During nine games in July, Bates averaged 20 points per game on 37.8 percent shooting from the field, 30.2 percent shooting from three (on 53 attempts), and 89 percent shooting from the foul line. He had the same number of assists (25) as turnovers, and he didn’t record a block, but he did grab 1.4 steals and 5.2 rebounds per night.

Keep in mind that Bates was asked to carry a huge offensive load for his team at Peach Jam, but it would have been nice to see him score the ball more efficiently given his lofty status.

Mike Gribanov, an analyst who has written for The Stepien, noted that outside of Bates’ shot-making, the rest of his skill set development hasn’t progressed as quickly as hoped. Gribanov said he thought Bates would have benefitted from playing on a more established high school team last year. He has Bates No. 6 overall in the early projection of the 2023 draft class.

“Building the school and building the team around him feels like it has been a bit of a problem,” Gribanov told SB Nation. “It happened to the determent of Emoni’s long-term upside. If he had played at Montverde or IMG, his future as a player would almost certainly turn out better than it has this year.”

The areas where Bates lacks on the court often feel more based on intangibles. He needs to learn to keep the ball moving in the halfcourt, and how to pick his spots as a scorer without holding the ball. More than anything, evaluators would like to see Bates simply play a winning brand of basketball.

“His feel for the game hasn’t always been good, but he also hasn’t been put in great spots,” Gribanov said. “Put him in a place with more established coaches and a program that has a lot of talent around him, and you’ll see if it improves. Hopefully they get him in a good spot and he figures some of those things out as far as his approach goes.”

Gribanov said Bates reminds him a bit of two players who were just taken in the 2021 NBA Draft: B.J. Boston and Ziaire Williams. Gribanov thinks Bates has higher upside than either player, but sees similar appeals to their games.

“It’s the ability to make shots and make shots off the dribble at a young age. Maybe you’ll see 6’1 or 6’2 guys hit shots off the dribble at that stage, but 6’8, 6’9 guys it’s not very common to be able to do that the way he does.”

How Bates fit with other great players on Team Final

Bates has had an insular upbringing in the game since rising to fame. He played for his father’s grassroots program on the EYBL, and later at his father’s prep school that was designed specifically for him. He never played on USA Basketball’s junior teams. But Bates did embrace playing on a talented, veteran team when he spent parts of May and June playing with Team Final.

Team Final is one of the premier programs on the EYBL based out of Philadelphia (alumni include Mikal Bridges and Cam Reddish). Bates had close relationships with several players on the team, including fellow top-10 overall recruits Jalen Duren and Dereck Lively. According to Team Final assistant Wayne Jones, Bates saw something special going on with the program and wanted to be part of it.

“People don’t realize how coachable and how much of a team player he was,” Jones said of Bates’ time with the team. “He was a listener and not a talker. He fit way better than most people would have thought he could. He superseded all expectations as a teammate. He was bringing energy, being a vocal leader, doing everything you want out of a player of that caliber.”

Bates was back playing for his father’s program by the time Peach Jam started, but according to Jones it felt like he never really left Team Final. As Team Final took the floor for the championship game at Peach Jam, Bates was there working with the guys in the warmup line. When Duren passed Bates in the rankings for the No. 1 player in the class of 2022, Jones said Bates was the first to congratulate him.

Jones also saw a more well-rounded player when Bates joined Team Final. On such a loaded roster, he didn’t need to focus solely on scoring. There were some games where he didn’t even start, and he was fine with that.

“Emoni didn’t care about starting,” Jones said. “He did anything for the team. Sometimes he was a shooting guard, sometimes he’s a four man, he just fit in with the team. The kids on our team loved each other, and they brought him in with open arms.”

“He went against a lot of double times, junk defenses, and box and one (on Bates Fundamentals),” Jones said. “He has to score the ball for the teams he plays on. He takes some tough shots, but when you’re the best player on the court night in and night out you’re going to get forced to take shots like that. when he gets to the next level, his supporting cast is going to be better. You could see how diverse his game is when he played with us.”

Bates is about to fully step outside of the bubble that was created for him after his rise to notoriety. Memphis will be expected to be a top-10 team with him. Having another superstar freshman in Duren next to him will alleviate some of the burden he’d likely feel to carry the team. Having a coaching staff with Hardaway, Brown, and Wallace could be massively beneficial, too.

The spotlight on Bates has always felt a little more intense than other top prospects since he entered it. At the next level, the early hype and outrageous comparisons will matter less. It will be about contributing to winning at a high level and proving his skill set can scale alongside and against other great players.

Bates has been touted for so long that it’s hard to believe he was born in Jan. of 2004 and is still only 17 years old. For as exhausting as his path as felt at times, there is still so much room for him to write his own story. The next chapter starts now.

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