There’s still plenty of time for the Emoni Bates story to have a happy ending. The talent that once made him one of the most promising 15-year-old basketball players in recent memory is still in his possession. He has three years of eligibility left in college basketball, and after this upcoming season, he’ll finally be old enough to enter the NBA Draft.
It’s important to remember that time is on his side when discussing Bates’ remarkable fall from grace in the basketball world, if only because the alternative is too sad to consider. In the matter of a few short years, Bates went from the “next Kevin Durant” to a mid-major wing whose future in the sport is the extremely murky at the moment.
The latest and most disturbing chapter of Bates’ career arc happened earlier this week when he was arrested on gun charges in Michigan. Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and “altering ID marks” on a firearm. His attorney said Bates was driving a borrowed car, and entered not guilty plea on his behalf. “Reserve judgment on this,” his attorney Steve Haney told ESPN. “There’s way more to the story. He borrowed someone’s car, was pulled over and a gun was located in the car.”
Bates left the Memphis Tigers after a star-crossed freshman season earlier this year. He was courted by Michigan, Louisville, and a few other big boys in the sport, but instead he chose to go back to Eastern Michigan, which is located in his hometown of Ypsilanti. For a prospect of Bates’ caliber to enroll at a MAC school that ranked outside the top-300 in KenPom last season — and one that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1998 — is both stunning and disheartening. This wasn’t supposed to be how Bates’ pre-draft years would go.
Bates is a cautionary tale for both parents guiding their children through potential stardom, and media who have a tendency to crown “the next big thing” before the title has been earned.
Bates reportedly averaged 40 points per game as a seventh grader, and then didn’t play his eighth grade year to instead train for high school. As a freshman, he led Lincoln High to a state championship. The next year, he became the first sophomore to win boys Gatorade National Player of the Year, but the pandemic interrupted his playoff run. Things started to get weird ahead of his junior year: Bates left Lincoln for a start-up prep school founded by his father Elgin. His father also founded a grassroots team, Bates Fundamentals, on Nike’s EYBL circuit.
Instead of competing in a more structured environment playing with other great players and getting proper coaching, Bates was the center of everything his teams did. There was less accountability and instruction on shot selection, defense, and playing a winning brand of basketball. The only mission of those teams was to boost the star-power of Emoni Bates, and it sure feels like it was to his long-term determent.
Meanwhile, the media placed the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bates famously graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 15-year-old alongside the phrase “Born For This.” They wrote in the piece that he “often resembles a 6’ 9” Stephen Curry.” ESPN wrote “it was hard not to liken him to a young Kevin Durant” while scouting him at the 2018 USA Basketball mini-camp. Rivals said he was “perhaps the best prospect regardless of class.”
I’m not letting myself off the hook here, either. In the fall of 2018, I ranked the best NBA prospects at the high school level. That list included some good calls — Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, Anthony Edwards, and Jalen Green made up No. 5 through No. 2 on the list — but my top player was Bates. I bought into the hype way too early just like everyone else. I feel terrible about it, and I’ve resisted doing similar stories since even with a few ‘hits’ on that list.
When he decided to “reclassify” ahead of last season — essentially skip his senior year of high school — he committed to Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers, but enrolled so late that he never experienced the regular preseason workouts that benefitted the rest of the team. He was the youngest player in college basketball at 17 years old. Hardaway said Bates would be his point guard, but it was immediately evident he was overmatched the role. Bates eventually went down with a mysterious back injury and went home to Michigan. Memphis finally reached its potential without him.
Bates was never set up for success — not by his family, not by the media, not by Memphis. The start of his career at Eastern Michigan doesn’t seem to be any different.
There’s still plenty of time for Bates to resuscitate his career, and make it to the NBA. It’s still possible he could be selected in the 2023 NBA Draft. For a prospect of Bates’ caliber, it was supposed to be a matter of when, not if. Right now, this looks and feels like one of the saddest stories youth basketball has ever produced.