The Prospect Overview: Emoni Bates, Basketball Player
Emoni Bates' basketball career has been shrouded in narrative. But how is he as a basketball player? PLUS: Big Board Updates and Quick Hits across the world of basketball!
Feature: Emoni Bates, Basketball Player
The narrative around Emoni Bates is largely inescapable, but it often overlooks why he’s become such a prominent figure in the first place—he’s a basketball player who plays basketball games on a basketball court.
Emoni Bates is a supremely talented basketball player who plays basketball games on a basketball court. He’s young, too. Bates turns 19 in January, making him the age of most college freshmen despite being a sophomore. At times, it feels as if he’s being graded like a sophomore by draft pundits because, well, he is one. He graduated high school early to play at Memphis last season, and the results were far from ideal. But in the grand scheme of things, he’s the age of most freshmen, and he deserves that benefit. That’s especially true now, given that if he was a freshman, he’d be considered one of the most exciting newcomers in the country. The Emoni Bates we’ve seen on the floor this year looks much different than the one we saw at Memphis a season ago.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Bates’s Head Coach at Eastern Michigan, Stan Heath. He’s been around the block, taking Kent State to an Elite Eight in 2002 and racking up consecutive 20-win seasons at Arkansas. Heath later won Big East Coach of the Year at South Florida in 2012, as well as G League Coach of the Year with the Lakeland Magic in 2021. That same Lakeland Magic squad won the G League title.
Heath followed up his G League Championship win with a move back to Eastern Michigan. While it may seem odd to an outsider, for Heath, it was an opportunity worth pursuing. “I’ll be honest, I went back and forth,” Heath started. “Do I want to go to an NBA bench or do something in college? If it wasn’t the right situation, I wouldn’t have gone back. My family is here. To be able to come here, spend quality time with my family…you live far away and get removed from your family. I wanted to come here and give back to my area. It’s my alma mater. I talked to a lot of people around the program. [In the 80s and 90s] we had the Thomas twins, Earl Boykins. We want to get this thing going. That energy and excitement made me want to do something special.”
Emoni Bates is a crucial part of the effort to jumpstart the Eastern Michigan basketball program. With that said, let’s dig into his game!
With Emoni Bates, it all starts with his scoring. It’s his specialty, and it’s what is going to get him drafted. “He’s a lethal shooter from range. This is what can get him there (the NBA), his ability to shoot long-range shots with accuracy,” Heath noted. Players with the combination of shooting prowess and size are a hot commodity and Bates fits the bill, measuring in at around 6’9”. He came out of the gate hot, making his debut against Michigan and posting 30 points on 19 shots. There was an evident confidence and swagger to him that felt lost at Memphis. Bates is fearless and aggressive from beyond the arc. He’s taking a lot of threes (8.3 3PA/game, 13.5 per 100 possessions), and he’s hitting them at a rock-solid 36.4% while being the clear number one scoring option for his team. Despite the heaps of defensive attention, Bates is maintaining a high level of efficiency. While his release is low, and he doesn’t get a ton of elevation, Bates gets the ball up and out of his hands in a hurry. His speedy shooting motion is difficult to anticipate and allows him to get off clean looks at the drop of a hat. He’s improved his handle and footwork, too, allowing him to better control the ball and gain separation from defenders. Bates is routinely hitting threes from NBA distance, and in many cases, he’s doing so off the dribble. Per Synergy, Bates has connected on 48.4% of his off-the-dribble three-pointers this season. His effective output from long range without getting easy, clean looks should not be overlooked. “At the next level, the defense won’t be so geared to him,” Heath commented. “There will be other guys being targeted. He’s a laser. He can go to a spot and make 25 in a row; I’ve seen him do that. And at that size…He can do more than that [shoot threes], but that’s his skill set. It’s going to create tremendous space for other guys on the team.”
Bates’s quick release also does him wonders when he has to pull up in the mid-range. His biggest improvement is at the rim, though. Per Synergy, Bates is taking 5.3% more shots at the rim in the halfcourt this season than last, despite the added defensive attention. There is still room for growth here, as Bates tends to play laterally, side-stepping and stepping back as opposed to getting downhill. Still, he’s getting inside more often, and he’s finishing more effectively when he gets there. Last season, he was converting 55.3% of those looks, and he’s up to 61.3% this year. Bates’ devastating touch has also emerged in the form of his floater. While he doesn’t settle for it often, he’s knocked down 6-of-9 runners on the year. His improved off-the-bounce game and three-level scoring have him ranking in Synergy’s 95th percentile on isolation plays. If you need someone to get you a bucket, Emoni Bates is one of the best options in college basketball.
The icing on the cake has been Bates’s willingness to get to the foul line. This is perhaps where his increased aggression is most obvious. Though his frame is slight, Bates isn’t contact-averse. He’ll drive into traffic and bet on his touch to get the job done through contact. As a result, he’s getting to the charity stripe 8.8 times per 100 possessions. His ability to get to the free throw line, connect from deep, and finish inside, along with his polished shot-making in the mid-range, makes him one of the most complete scorers in the nation at 18 years old.
Ball Control and Playmaking
Let’s start with the positives: Emoni Bates has drastically reduced his turnover rate this season. Memphis initially experimented with letting him run the offense, and it was clearly a case of too much, too soon. He coughed up the ball 5.6 times per 100 possessions. His handle was wide, and it looked like he was always a millisecond away from losing his dribble. More experienced opponents were eager to pounce on him. As a passer, he would play too sped up and erratic, forcing looks that weren’t there or throwing the ball with too much steam. This year, Bates is visibly in much greater control of himself. His dribbling improved by leaps and bounds. Rarely does the ball come loose, and he’s able to string together impressive east-west combinations with his feet while putting it on the floor. He’s now only turning it over 3.7 times per 100 possessions, a near 34% reduction, while shouldering a bigger offensive load. When asked about this turnaround, Coach Heath stated, “He’s in a more comfortable zone. Last year, he felt like he had to make it happen right away. This year, he’s comfortable, he’s trusting his teammates, can move it and know he’ll get it back, and he’s not dribbling too much.”
Where Bates still needs to take a step forward is as a playmaker for others. Because he’s such a devastating scoring threat and the clear-cut number one option on his team, defenders pay attention to him. He needs to begin to leverage that attention and find his open teammates on a more consistent basis. Bates is tallying a paltry 0.9 assists per game through eight outings. Currently, he’s on pace (as is Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh) to join Nick Ward’s freshman campaign at Michigan State and Jordan Washington’s junior year at Iona with the dubious distinction of being the only players in the last decade with a usage percentage over 30 and an assist percentage below 6%. Bates is wired to score. Because he’s so good at it, he could have worse problems. Still, the ability to take advantage of double teams and collapsing defenses would not only help his draft stock, but it would also help his team be more competitive. This is where Emoni Bates could transform himself from being a scoring specialist to being a more well-rounded offensive weapon.
While Bates isn’t a plus defender yet, he’s getting better. This is the area where Coach Heath noted he’d seen the most improvement from Bates so far. “He’s locking in and finding ways to impact the game defensively. Getting into the right spots. He can be switchable,” Heath remarked. Later, the conversation came back around to defense again. “As long as he can guard his position and switch a couple positions, that gives him a chance,” Heath told me. “He’s gotten a lot better guarding the ball. On a guard, his size can really bother guys. He still has room to get where he needs to get. We didn’t have him this summer [in practice]. We’re probably a bit behind because we haven’t had the roster in place. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen tremendous growth. He cares about it. He wants to get better at it.”
Bates isn’t the twitchiest lateral mover or the most explosive vertical leaper, but he is fluid and flashes solid recognition. He’s able to slide with players and seamlessly leap off the floor on the go to nab a block, even if he doesn’t soar the highest. His length allows him to sneak in and protect the rim as a helper at times, too. He’s posted a 1.7 BLK% in both college seasons, and as he grows more comfortable with the speed of the college game, I expect that to grow. He’s hit-or-miss off the ball. Because he doesn’t have the best forward first step, he rarely springs into passing lanes to pick off looping passes. There are moments where he appears lost in rotations, and his reactions in scramble situations can come a moment too late. His skinny body hurts him on the ball at times, too. While it doesn’t show up frequently yet, stronger NBA players will be able to drive through his chest and bully their way to their spots. Ultimately, Bates is young, and his winding developmental path hasn’t allowed him to see a ton of competitive basketball or even practice time over the past few years. His defense can be concerning, but for me, it’s more of a “what does this look like now versus what does it look like at the end of the season” type of evaluation come draft night.
It’s time to adjust expectations. At 15 years old, Sports Illustrated compared Emoni Bates to Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. It was an unfair weight to throw on a child’s shoulders. It’s also become increasingly unlikely that Bates will reach those heights. That said, Bates certainly doesn’t suck. After a rough freshman campaign and off-the-court concerns, haters and doubters were ready to put the nail in the Emoni Bates coffin. Unfortunately for them, Emoni went Undertaker Mode on their ass.
Emoni Bates bounced back. He’s scoring an efficient 21.5 PPG and outclassing whoever attempts to guard him. For an 18-year-old, his scoring package is utterly outrageous. He’s a threat everywhere on the court and doesn’t care if you want to send him to the line. While Emoni may not be Magic, MJ, or LeBron, his ability to put the ball in the basket gives him a real chance at a long NBA career as a scoring/shooting specialist. He could be a bigger version of players like Jordan Clarkson, Kyle Korver, Nick Young, or Jamal Crawford. Obviously, none of those comparisons are anywhere near perfect. Bates still has tons of work to do as a playmaker for others. His defense is inconsistent, and even the consistent parts need to be further honed. But his scoring profile is fantastic, especially at his age. Given his size at 6’9”, Emoni Bates could be a scoring specialist for a new era.
During my conversation with Coach Heath, it felt as if any time Bates’s problem areas were brought up, Heath would lead off with a statement along the lines of “Emoni and I talk about that all the time.” It was great to hear, as it means Bates is cognizant of where he needs to get better. It matters to him. Heath also noted Bates’s work ethic and drive to get better, both of which are encouraging. If Bates can make reads for teammates, add size, and become even a passable defender, his ceiling will skyrocket.
Hangups exist in Emoni Bates’s game, without question. Then, there are all of the off-the-court variables that have been discussed to death elsewhere. Going into the season, it was far from a sure thing that Bates would hear his name called on draft night. Now, it’s next to impossible to imagine him being skipped over 58 times. Frankly, I’m not sure that he’ll slip out of the first round. Because Emoni Bates is a supremely talented basketball player, who plays basketball games, on a basketball court.
The Expanding Big Board
Welcome to The Expanding Big Board! Every week, a new player is added to the board. Once a player is added, they cannot be removed. The current ranking is listed first, with last week’s ranking in parenthesis.
1. Victor Wembanyama (1)
2. Scoot Henderson (2)
3. Amen Thompson (3)
4. Cam Whitmore (4)
It was so great to see Cam Whitmore back on the floor. While he had some bad misses from three, he still looked like an absolute force. He’s a terror in passing lanes and gets to his spots with ease on offense. His ability to decelerate before slamming his foot back on the gas at his size is something to behold. He’s in prime position to jump Amen Thompson if he can get his outside shot going at all. Amen has mightily struggled from distance this season, and he has both Whitmore and his brother Ausar tight on his tail.
5. Ausar Thompson (5)
6. Nick Smith Jr. (unranked)
Nick Smith Jr., welcome to The Expanding Big Board! After a quiet, ease-in game against Troy, Smith posted 16 points and five assists against a solid San Jose State squad on Saturday. His 3-for-5 from deep showcased why he earned his reputation as a shooter. His release is quick and clean. Whether he’s behind the three-point line or in the mid-range, he doesn’t need much time to get off his shot. His first step looks to be scaling up well, and his floater is looking pretty. Smith keeps his head up, always looking for teammates and capable of making quick decisions. His eyes for the corner particularly stand out when he’s on the go.
My biggest concern with Smith’s immediate role translation to the NBA is his lack of strength and inside finishing. When I covered the McDonald’s All-American Game in person, it stuck out like a sore thumb. He’s really thin and somewhat contact-averse. As a result, he doesn’t always get all the way to the basket against bigger athletes, and he settles for worse angles at the cup. Defensive contact can be an issue too, as well-set screens leave him reeling. I firmly believe that everyone is capable of getting stronger, especially with high-level resources. But if Smith struggles to finish efficiently in college, it will be hard to imagine him lighting the world on fire there in the NBA out of the gate, even with a more spaced-out court.
7. Brandon Miller (6)
Brandon Miller did more of the same against South Dakota State this week. He gets usurped by Smith, who feels to have a clearer path to three-level scoring and offensive creation paired with his youth.
-While I had Stan Heath on the horn, I had to pick his brain about a few other interesting Eastern Michigan players. I started with Tyson Acuff, the junior transfer from Duquesne. The 6’4”, 200-pounder boasts great vision and has the power to get inside. While Acuff has struggled from three-point range on the season, Heath noted that “He’s a better shooter than the numbers show; he’s just off to a slow start.” He also praised his coachability and will to win. Heath complimented Noah Farrakhan as a dynamic offensive player and noted that he loves Orlando Lovejoy’s tenacity and toughness.
-At the recommendation of friend of the site Hunter Cruse, I checked into New Mexico State’s Deshawndre Washington. Through five games, the JuCo transfer is averaging 12.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.6 SPG, and 0.4 BPG. His shooting splits of 43.1/50/72.7 catch the eye, too. What stood out most was Washington’s creativity as a passer. He has an uncanny ability to disguise his passes, looking them off in unique ways or putting spin on the ball to get it to its intended target while freezing the defense in the process. He’s totally selfless, and his head is always up. Defensively, he has a good eye for sloppy handles and takes good strides when rotating. I’m curious to see where his three-point shot settles, as he currently plays a ball-dominant role, and I’m interested to see what he can do in a more complementary capacity. He’s also a bit of a load leaper, he’s not the fastest to recover, and he plays at a methodical pace. How he holds up athletically against better athletes should be telling.
-James Nnaji is an exciting big man defender. At 18 years old, his stance is rock solid, he’s quick off the floor, and he knows how to play cat-and-mouse in drop coverage. His motor is good too, as he rim-runs hard in transition, taking big, long strides down the floor. There’s still plenty of work to be done. He’s a 30.8% free-throw shooter on the year, and his touch appears non-existent outside the restricted area. He also struggles as a screener. Nnaji doesn’t make contact consistently, and he often sets moving picks that will get called against him in the NBA. Defensively, he commits some frustrating fouls. He’s still a project, but as a late starter with athleticism, size, and a degree of defensive savvy, there’s a chance he could be a “this year” guy. I wouldn’t mind if he continued to develop with Barcelona, though. He’ll be facing great competition in Spain’s domestic league (Liga ACB) as well as The EuroLeague.
-Another international prospect I checked in on was Bilal Coulibaly. He’s a part of the Metropolitans 92 organization, but he’s playing primarily in the “LNB Esoiurs” league for younger players. He’s a super intriguing draft-and-stash candidate who will still be 18 years old on draft night. The 6’6” takes long strides to cover ground on defense, contests shots well, and can soar for a putback. Coulibaly is at his best reading passing lanes and springing into action. His hands are great, enabling him to generate strips and poke-aways. Through 11 games, he’s averaging 3.1 SPG and 1.2 BPG. The competition isn’t great, but those numbers are still nothing to sneeze at. There were some interesting flashes as a passer that raised my eyebrows, too. I list him as a stash target because while the physical tools, defense, and thinking are enticing, the shot scares me. He’s hit 33.3% of his 5.8 attempts per game from three, but his load time is troublingly slow, even off the dribble. With a reworked jumper, he could be a wonderful modern NBA player.
-Iona sophomore Walter Clayton Jr. popped up on several statistical inquiries I like to run, so I had to check him out. I’ve got to tell you: I was not disappointed. The 6’2” point guard plays bigger than he is, flying off the floor to contest shots on the perimeter and providing surprising rim protection. He’s averaging a preposterous 3.3 BLK% so far, and he pairs that with a 4.5 STL%. Clayton is comfortable from long range and has no problem pulling up off a screen. He uses misdirection with his handle to get inside and has the strength to keep rising through contact. While he doesn’t make the most elaborate reads, Clayton keeps his head up going downhill and does an excellent job of rewarding his big man when help defenders crash toward him. On the year, he’s averaging 15.3 PPG on 50.0/44.4/100 splits, 3.5 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG, and 2.8 APG to 1.2 TOV. Playing the MAAC won’t put him on center stage, but he’s worth going out of your way to see.
-It was nice to see Jalen Hood-Schifino put together a big outing against UNC. Even when matched up with the imposing Leaky Black, JHS managed to find his way into the paint. He’s remained confident in his shooting stroke, and I’m hoping he can turn the corner inside the arc to get past his slow start.
-Speaking of imposing defenders, how about Andre Jackson? He’s so big and wide when he gets in his stance, and he’s fast moving in every direction. Offensively, I love how he runs all of his off-ball actions hard. When he cuts, it’s with intent. He doesn’t leave anything on the table, and the effort is always there in the little places. His three-ball isn’t falling yet (21.4% on the year), and while he can reliably make clever passes on the go, I wish he was a little quicker with his decisions. Jackson can briefly pause the offense off the catch, not prepared to shoot and not ready to immediately initiate his attack. Sharpening up that element of his game would help compensate for his shaky jumper, especially given his potent first step.
-San Jose State’s Omari Moore had his best performance of the year against Arkansas. He went 8-for-14 and finished with 21 points, four assists, and four steals. The 6’6” senior isn’t super explosive, but he does a good job of reliably getting inside the arc with his defender on his hip. From there, his second and third step allow him to get inside and use his wonderful body coordination to finish. The fact that Moore has NBA wing size, solid playmaking ability, and has consistently posted good defensive metrics are all in his favor. The question will be his jump shot. Moore is a career 30% shooter from long range, and his off-center, funky release makes it hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. Should that come around, he could find himself in the mix for a two-way/Exhibit-10/Summer League-type deal.
-THE MID-MAJOR MATCH-UP OF THE WEEK was not much of a match-up. Drake comfortably controlled UIC throughout the game and was up 20 at the half following a prolonged UIC cold stretch. Tucker DeVries had another big outing, scoring 25 points on 14 shots and making 4-of-8 three-point attempts. While he isn’t a blazing athlete, his first step is solid, and his ability to get low to the ground on drives enabled him to get by well-regarded defender Jace Carter on an island at one point. On one pick-and-roll possession, DeVries got by Carter by using a screen and dunked, an encouraging sign for his vertical pop. DeVries still doesn’t have the greatest recovery tools when beaten on defense, but he is sliding better and jumping out of his slide with more pop. Carter had a nice game himself, too, finishing with 18 points on 10 shots, seven rebounds, and two steals. His passing has come along, he’s playing with tunnel vision less often, and he’s even looking off some of his feeds now. Carter’s strength will always be a big selling point, as he’s an excellent rebounder and a tremendous screener for someone who’s 6’5”. Though he was only 28.9% from three going into the game, he went 3-for-7 on the night and hasn’t lost his confidence. Carter was a tad slow to react while guarding the ball a few times and finished with four turnovers. Improving his ball skills will be the best way for the sophomore to get himself on NBA radars in the coming years.
-Next week’s MID-MAJOR MATCH-UP OF THE WEEK will be Pepperdine against Nevada! No Ceilings readers know the deal with Pepperdine at this point: Max Lewis looks like a first-round pick, Houston Mallette is one of the most exciting self-creators out there, Mike Mitchell Jr. can pull up and hit threes anywhere inside the halfcourt, and Jevon Porter has an enticing mix of size and modern basketball skills. Nevada, though…Nevada is for the real sickos. Their best long-term pro prospect is freshman Darrion Williams. He’s an advanced stats dream, and the more you key in on him, the more you come away impressed. He’s averaging 8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, and 0.4 BPG, paired with 48.1/44.0/84.6 shooting splits. His rebounding jumps off the page. Williams has a great read on the ball’s trajectory and gets into position quickly. His right-handed shooting stroke is pure. Defensively, he’s consistently tuned in. He knows how and where to rotate and scramble. Williams is a savvy player who will need to increase his offensive production over time while maintaining efficiency. Kenan Blackshear is a strong, quick, 6’6” point guard. If the senior could get his three-pointer in check, he’d get serious looks, but he’s only 21.1% from long range on the year. I’m excited to watch these teams clash!