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The Basketball Prodigy: Emoni Bates
PRELUDE: Reaching Out to Rashad Phillips | FEATURING: Eastern Michigan Star and Basketball Prodigy, Emoni Bates
Prelude: Reaching Out
Now, before I dive too deep into this column, I have to admit something: I am not equipped to accurately discuss all that will be covered in this piece. To be completely honest, very few are. With Emoni declaring for the draft, I knew I wanted to write about him. But, to do any sort of analysis on him, I knew I would need a little help. To go along with helping me, I also thought it would be incredibly valuable to enlist some help for those of you that are either scouting prospects, fans of the draft, or anyone that wants to know what
players people go through during the draft cycle.
Former Division I star, former NBA draft prospect, author, basketball historian, consultant, father, Michigan native, and friend of mine, Rashad Phillips, joined me to provide a unique perspective on how to contextualize what we have seen from Emoni Bates thus far. The insight Rashad has within the game makes him more than qualified to suggest how people should parse through the journey Bates has been on. Without further ado, let’s dive into Emoni Bates.
The Basketball Prodigy: Emoni Bates
News around Emoni Bates has always been at the forefront of seemingly every move he has ever made. As is the case with most basketball prodigies, Emoni Bates’s name has been known from a very early age. Even for the most casual of basketball fans, news of these players that are billed as “The Next Big Thing” is perpetuated years before they are even eligible for college. This was no different for today’s featured prospect, Emoni Bates.
You can fire up the old Google machine—or whatever search engine you prefer—and find all sorts of articles, magazines, interviews, talking-heads sports takes, podcasts, etc. all articulating on how inevitable Emoni Bates was bound to become. SI wrote an article in 2019 titled: ‘Magic, Michael, LeBron …Emoni Bates? Meet the 15-Year-Old Next in Line’. This article, which echoed the vibe at the time, went on to say:
He’s a typical high school sophomore and a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s the pride of Ypsilanti, Mich., and the future of the NBA. Not even old enough to drive and likely to be a straight-to-the-NBA No. 1 Pick, Emoni Bates is both a product of his era and way ahead of his time.
Try to fight the revisionist history here. It can be hard to see these comments at this point of Emoni’s journey and immediately try to figure out how we got from Point A to Point B. Again, SI was not some sort of isolated standout in the world of basketball. Just look at this issue of Slam Magazine.
On a magazine cover that featured names like Stephen Curry, Zion Williamson, and Anthony Edwards, Emoni Bates being featured on this iconic piece of sports culture with the tag “IN A CLASS OF HIS OWN” set a precedent for the young man. How about the highly anticipated matchup that took place on ESPN? The #1 high school senior at the time, Chet Holmgren, took on the #1 junior phenom—you guessed it—Emoni Bates.
Holmgren’s team, Team Sizzle, secured victory in a 78-71 bout with Emoni Bates and Ypsilanti Prep. Chet had a stupendous game, totaling 31 points, 12 rebounds, and six blocks, while Bates dropped 36 points and 11 rebounds. It was an impressive matchup between two of the most anticipated draft prospects in their respective classes. With everyone watching the impressive moments and with the hype building around Emoni, it seemed that he was taking the necessary steps that a Basketball Prodigy must take in order to achieve the greatness that fans…and the media expect. What does a player feel in moments like these? How heavy do the expectations and the hype fall on the shoulders of the players that are "supposed to” be our next superstars?
“When you talk about prodigies, I think the media creates their own monster, so to speak. These kids don’t play basketball to be called a prodigy; they don’t ask for that title. It’s what the media gives them. I always think when you use the word ‘prodigy’ on a kid—no matter what sport it is—you’re setting them up for failure, and I don’t think it’s fair for the kid or the family to use that title to describe a kid that’s playing a game that there is a profession in.
I think for Emoni, personally, I think that he handled it [the hype and expectations] really well. I speak from being a parent, myself, and having two children. I always look at things differently now, being a father, than I used to, before fatherhood. A lot of times, when you have this title of ‘The Next One’ or ‘The Next Great’, it puts another layer of pressure on you to always try and be perfect. And I believe that, as a basketball player, there’s no such thing as being perfect.
Emoni did a tremendous job in his early age of answering the bell or ‘living up to the hype.’”
Many would agree with Rashad on that point as, in as early as 2019, Emoni received a number of scholarship offers. Two in-state powerhouses, Michigan State and Michigan, were among some of the schools that recruited Bates heavily. Other schools like Texas, Tennessee, and Baylor came calling as well. There were even reports that Emoni entertained committing to the G League—as well as the OTE and the NBL.
With the pre-NBA world serving as his proverbial oyster, Emoni eventually committed to play for the Memphis Tigers under the incredibly popular coach, Penny Hardaway. Coach Hardaway was hired by Memphis in 2018, with the expectation that the Tigers’ basketball program would return to prominence in the national spotlight. Coach Hardaway made a splash by bringing in now-NBA players Jalen Duren and Josh Minott, but the signing of Emoni Bates was thought to be the player that would help fast-track the goals of Memphis University.
“I think anytime you go through things in life, you learn from it. That experience for Emoni—I think it grew him up. He needed that situation to bring things back down to earth. You know, hindsight is 20/20. We can act like we have this magic ball, this crystal ball, and say ‘He should have done this’ or ‘He should have done that’. It’s always easier to say that after it happened.
Emoni went to college when he was supposed to still be in high school. For me—knowing the game and having been around it for 40 years—I knew that he was going to struggle at the college game. I knew this personally. And it had nothing to do with his skillset or any of that. It was the other things that go with being a college athlete: the social acceptance, the going to school every day, the practices, and trying to juggle so many things at one time at such an early age.
I couldn’t imagine trying to play college basketball at 17 years old. I just wanted to play my video games at 17. You have to know how to manage time, manage people, and manage your energy. I just think that it was too much for him at that time but, again, I always feel like the media forced that upon Emoni. They put him on a pedestal too early. He wanted to prove that pedestal could hold up, instead of staying in high school and just being one of the most dominant high school players we’ve ever seen. I would have preferred to see him just stay in high school and do something like what Chris Webber and Magic Johnson did and be a legendary Michigan basketball player.
A lot of the times, we [basketball players] read our own press clippings, and it’s like ‘Hey, man. I’m ready for this. I’m ready for the NBA. I’m ready for college’. I think it was a little bit of that, and a little bit of just not being ready.”
As we know at this point of Emoni’s path, the Memphis experience didn’t go the way many were hoping or expecting. For Bates, he only played in 18 games with the Tigers—starting in just 13 of those contests. Injuries played an unfortunate part in Emoni’s freshman campaign. Memphis missed two games in December of 2021 due to COVID, but Emoni also missed time due to a finger injury sustained early in the season. He later went on to injure his back—for which he sought out a back specialist. That back injury caused him to miss 12 consecutive games, but he returned for Memphis’ March Madness game on March 17th.
When he did play early in the season, Emoni was asked to play a role that many didn’t expect. Coach Hardaway put Bates in position to create on the ball, vice being a play-finishing perimeter threat. He averaged only about 10 PPG on low efficiency. During his absence with the back injury, the Tigers were able to go on a 10-2 run while pushing to make the tournament. When Bates returned, he played a much smaller role.
With everything that worked against him, most notably the role and position he was put into, what were we supposed to take away from that?
“I think a lot of times when you play high school basketball, no matter what position you are, the ball is always in your hands in high school. The ball is always in the most dominant player’s hands in high school, no matter what position you are. Once you get to college, now you start getting slotted into roles and strategic planning in how you should play and attack because all of your teammates were the best players at their high schools—everybody was a 20 point per game scorer in high school. Once you get to college, everybody has to find a role.
I think Emoni is best when he is off the ball; he’s an off-ball Small Forward. Memphis was trying to use him more as a Dual Forward—putting the ball in his hands like a LeBron and letting him dictate pace. But that’s not what he really was. In high school, yeah, it’s a little easier to let him bring the ball up the court, come off a ball screen, dominate the other players. But in college, it’s too strategic; the defensive coverages are too good, the players are too strong, and I think, physically, he just wasn’t ready for the college game, as far as a physical standpoint.
I just thought Memphis just didn’t use him correctly. I thought they should have used him more off of stagger screens, elevator screens, some DHOs, and just let him play off of the guards—just be more in a catch-and-shoot type of role. But that wasn’t the case and he struggled with that.”
Due to the rules that have been put in place for the NBA Draft, Emoni would have to wait another year before being able to declare. Coming off of a year filled with understandable frustration and disappointment, he would have to make a decision on where the last stop would be before entering the draft. On April 15th, Bates would announce on social media that he would be entering the transfer portal. His post regarding the decision also included kind words for the Memphis basketball program.
“I’d like to thank Coach Penny [Hardaway], my teammates, and the entire coaching staff at the University of Memphis for giving me the opportunity to be a Tiger. Thank you Tiger Nation for embracing me and all of you who supported our team throughout the season. With that being said, I have decided to enter the transfer portal.”
In an interview conducted with Joe Tipton of On3 in May of 2022, Bates produced a list of schools he would want to possibly transfer to. Arkansas, DePaul, Louisville, Michigan, and Seton Hall were five of the six schools he was heavily considering (more of the sixth school later). Interestingly enough, that interview also informed the world that college would be the only path he would entertain. Unfortunately, Bates landed in a bit of trouble in September of 2022. Emoni was arrested and charged with two felonies—both non-violent—but dealt with a gun. In October, those charges were dropped. After being given a chance to continue to chase his dream, Emoni made a statement on social media. After thanking “the Creator,” his parents, his supporters, and his lawyer, Bates included the following:
“The crazy thing about living your life on stage is the inability to escape judgement, and experience the growing pains of life as a normal adolescent—privately. I hold myself accountable for making a poor decision, and hope you can forgive me as I grow because this will not be my last mistake, however; a lasting stigma to remind me of the severity of such a mistake.”
Still a teenager, Emoni now had to go through the highs and the lows that come with being a basketball prodigy. After the events that had taken place, Emoni would commit to play for Eastern Michigan—a team that was close to home. This move was one that many were surprised by but, in the aforementioned interview with Joe Tipton, Emoni was heavily considering them for months. It wouldn’t be long before questions about Bates’ motivation to take a “step down” in competition would begin to surface. Was he “running from the grind”?
“One thing about Emoni and his family—they wasn’t running from anything. I think the move to Eastern Michigan was all about demographic. That’s where he’s from; he’s from Ypsilanti. I think he wanted to be close to family—be close to home where he had a little more comfort.
When you have a traumatic type of experience, as a 17 year old, the first thing you’re supposed to do is run towards your parents. He’s not 25, 26. He’s not grown; he was 17. He wanted to be close to his parents and I understand that. Eastern Michigan just happened to be in the right place at the right time. This had nothing to do with ‘Oh, he just wanted to play at a lesser conference.’
I think playing at Eastern Michigan and having his family in the stands every game and having that support system is very important. I can speak from experience; I went to the University of Detroit. I lived 15 minutes from the college campus. Having my parents close to me was a security blanket that I needed at the time. And I was 19, 20, and 21 years old.
I commend Emoni for staying home, and staying close to his family.”
The season at Eastern Michigan has been heavily dissected, as has been the case with anything Emoni has done. While the level of competition may not have been the motivation for Emoni, it was certainly apparent that the teams he would face on a regular basis in the Mid-American Conference weren’t on the same level. But, Emoni did have games against some bigger universities.
“He had some big games. The game against Michigan earlier in the year. That was one of the best college games I had seen this past year, in terms of visual performances. And he started to repeat that, with his ability to make shots and score in big moments. And a lot of that wasn’t just because he had on an Eastern Michigan jersey; it’s because he was comfortable.”
That comfort was also apparent. Bates would go from averaging 9.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, and 1.3 APG while shooting 38% from the floor to logging 19.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, and 1.4 APG while shooting just shy of 41% overall. His efficiency numbers all rose from his season at Memphis while being “the guy” for the Eagles. But, with his season being completed and his star becoming a little dimmer than what it had been previously, there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether or not Emoni would even declare for this coming NBA Draft.
To put some more perspective on the uncertainty, the latest No Ceilings $DRFT rankings—which are, essentially, how we measure where “the consensus” has prospects ranked collectively—showed that Emoni wasn’t even in the Top 55 among outlets like ESPN, Bleacher Report, The Athletic, Tankathon, The Ringer, Swish Theory, and, of course, No Ceilings.
The deadline for players seeking to be early entrants for the draft was April 23rd, and Emoni Bates’ decision to declare came right at the very end. Teams now have to consider Bates more seriously, because he is coming. Scouts that have been in the weeds this season have varying takes and opinions on what to do with him. A once-top recruit has somehow found his way into a likely second-round-to-undrafted range.
What makes this evaluation tough is that there is no previous example of a player who has gone through what Emoni has.
“Emoni is a ‘Social Media Baby’. Social media is still relatively new, in regards to it’s timing in sports. Coming up, for me, there was no social media; there was newspapers and magazines. So Emoni is, kind of, one of the first of his kind—of those kids that grow up in the social media space. It’s a very slippery slope when everything is documented on social media. If Emoni misses a layup, it’s documented. If he plays well, it’s documented. If he gets his shot blocked, it’s documented.
I think there’s a gift and a curse to that, and you can pick-and-choose on which side of the fence you want to stand on. It’s because you have so much data to pick through. At times, I wish we could go back to where there wasn’t a lot of social media. We’ve used it to pick at people, instead of uplift them.
The things that I choose to watch with Emoni are great things. Like his ability to come off of screens and make big shots. The ability to go hard, take two dribbles to the right and hit a fadeaway. Coming off of an elevator screen and hitting at 27-footer. Off one leg. I look at those type of things.
You can pick through his Synergy and say ‘Oh, he can’t do this, he can’t do that’, and that’s fine. But you could do that with Michael Jordan’s footage. You could find flaws in Jordan’s game. There’s no such thing as a perfect basketball player.”
One thing that many draft analysts would agree on with this upcoming draft class is that there is a distinct drop-off that occurs around the 20-25 spot. From that point and beyond, there are a lot of prospects that could make a legitimate case to be a late first/early second round pick. Would it be out of the question for this basketball prodigy, to be taken in that range?
“I would take him anywhere between 25 and 35. It depends on what team I work for. When you draft a player in the first round, they’re automatically slotted a specific amount of money. In the second round you don’t really have to make that investment. It’s going to come down to which NBA team wants to make an investment in Emoni Bates. There may be four teams, it could be one team, there may be twelve teams. ‘Team X’ may not want make that type of investment in Emoni in the First, but may like him in the Second. ‘Team Y’ may want to invest in Emoni and take him at pick 27. It will all come down to which team is willing to make an investment in Emoni Bates.
I’ve watched Emoni since he was, like, in the 6th Grade. I’m extremely proud of the growth. I think this year was a year of growth. Whatever team gets Emoni, they will get the best version of Emoni Bates. His best basketball is in front of him.”
For those that are into analytics…we aren’t going to dive too deep into them. At Memphis, Emoni was in the 26th percentile (Below Average) on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions, and in the 10th percentile (Poor) on off screen plays. Interestingly enough, Emoni is ranked in a manner offensively that probably would have vaulted him into Top 3 status if he came into this season with our memories wiped of what took place in the year prior:
Pick-and-Roll Ball-Handler (164 Possessions)- 58th Percentile (Good)
Spot Up (107 Possessions)- 60th Percentile (Good)
Isolation (105 Possessions)- 76th Percentile (Very Good)
Transition (95 Possessions)- 39th Percentile (Average)
Handoffs (46 Possessions)- 56th Percentile (Good)
Off Screen (30 Possessions)- 83rd Percentile (Excellent)
Cut (23 Possessions)- 71st Percentile (Very Good)
Put Backs (16 Possessions)- 88th Percentile (Excellent)
Despite everything that we have seen Emoni go through, and regardless of how he has performed relative to the expectations that were thrust upon him, the 6’10”, 19-year-old, basketball prodigy is embarking on the inevitable next step of his young basketball career. The Emoni Bates story—the real Emoni Bates story—begins now.
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