It was October 2018 during USA Basketball’s annual minicamp, an event that brought together the nation’s top high school basketball prospects each fall.
There was a particular buzz in the air on Friday night, the very first session of the weekend. The players were split between two different gyms and halfway through, as the text messages and social media started buzzing, most of the accredited media and guests all started heading to that second gym.
I was among them.
“Have you seen this kid? I was asked on entering.
This kid was Emoni Bates. He already had a reputation on social media and on the internet, as many talented young people do these days.
But he was unlike any young player I had seen before.
He was only 14 years old and would have been 6ft 7.5in without shoes. He already had a great shot, a super-polished arsenal of pull-ups, a smoothness in his game and a demeanor that exuded confidence.
Bates didn’t just stand out among the underclassmen that weekend, he did so against everyone in camp, including the 18-year-old seniors, who were all considered among the best. from the country.
Six months later, in the most anticipated 15-and-under game I’ve ever seen, he and his Bates Fundamental team played Bronny James and Strive for Greatness at an EYBL event in Indianapolis as Nike weighed in on the hype of their two youngest stars. Strive for Greatness won the match, but Emoni went for 43 points as Lebron looked on.
In July at the Nike Peach Jam, Bates lived up to the hype and more, averaging over 32 points per game with 10 rebounds and 4 assists, while shooting over 54% from the floor and exploding for a particularly strong 44-. dot game.
After the summer, an ESPN feature summed up everything that had been said in recent months. The comparisons ranged from Kevin Durant for Penny Hardaway for james lebron. Many people, including myself, have been quoted.
Things progressed in the same direction the following school year. Bates, who had led Lincoln High School in Michigan to a state championship as a rookie averaging more than 32 points per game, took them back to the District 18 state finals, before that not be canceled due to the pandemic. After the season, he became the first sophomore to be named Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Of course, by then the pandemic was already here and grassroots basketball was essentially cancelled. Whether by coincidence or by chance, these months were an obvious obstacle to the evolution of Bates. Everything before was on an almost unprecedented fast trajectory. Everything since then has been diminishing returns.
Along the way, Bates has become one of the most polarizing basketball prospects in the world, with many takes loaded with cognitive biases back and forth.
For my part, I stand by what I said three years ago – he was, and still is, the best 15-year-old I have ever seen. But, I also stand by what I said in that first ESPN feature – it’s a huge burden to put on such a young person, and so you just hope he has and maintains the work ethic, the maturity and humility to maximize his incredible potential.
What I regret is being complicit in creating this burden, especially when it comes to terms like generational talent.
Whatever the reasons, Bates’ development hasn’t been as rapid over the past 18-24 months as anyone had originally hoped.
But, likewise, he was one of the youngest players in all of college basketball this year, rightfully should have been a high school student, and still possesses undeniable talent.
While it’s naïve to think that Bates will ever be freed from that incredible magnifying glass that was the consequence of his early attention, ideally this next leg of his journey – Louisville is emerging as a potential frontrunner – will offer a relatively blank slate.
If that’s the case and no one is tied to the 15-year-old’s expectations, what is his game like right now?
Ranked No. 1 in transfer portal 247Sports rankings, Bates still has a potentially deadly combination of perimeter size, athleticism and shooting ability. It is true that it lacks a lot of length, but I do not remember that a matter of inches was scrutinized so much. More glaring is the fact that he has yet to build his body and as a result may still struggle to play through contact. In fact, whether it was this year in Memphis or even last spring and summer on the grassroots circuit, Bates had a much easier time getting to his spots than he held them after the inevitable bump. , and this was true at both ends of the floor.
Offensively, he is a goalscoring winger. The playmaker’s narrative that was spinning when he initially signed on to Memphis was not based on reality. That’s not to say he’s not a capable or willing passer, but those abilities don’t have to be mutually exclusive to be a perimeter scorer. The numbers are pretty obvious here too – 1.3 assists for 2.3 turnovers last year at Memphis.
However, efficiency must be a priority. He shot 38.6% from the floor last year, 32.9% from the bow and 64.6% from the boards. These figures must improve at all levels. Part of that will correlate to his physical progression and his consequent ability to get points in the paint and get to the free throw line.
The other major consideration is his decision making and shot selection. He has played with complete attacking freedom for the vast majority of his career to date and has rarely had to mix his individual abilities within the context of the larger system. He has the tools to be a very versatile scorer, but that means reading the game and taking what the defense gives you – which is the antithesis of trying to make hard shots on most possessions. In short, the common denominator of almost all great goalscorers is that they sometimes make it look easy. Right now when Bates scores, especially in the half court, he does it by making hard shots.
Mechanically, his technique actually suffered a bit too as his habit of settling for quick punches meant he had to try to speed up his release, sometimes at the expense of extending or completely finishing his shooting motion. I maintain that he is a better natural shooter than the numbers reflected last year, and will get back to that once he starts getting higher quality looks more consistently that don’t require him to alter his natural shooting motion.
The defensive end of the floor is a problem right now. He’s actually better on the ball than off and has also shown a willingness to put in the effort. Off the ball though, his awareness and understanding of covers needs to improve. It might not be the kind of stuff that shows up in a stat sheet, but it dictates playing time, especially when you’re not showing the expected offensive numbers. Being in the right place at the right time is also all the more important when you are unable to get back into position.
All of those necessary upgrades – building up your body, playing offensively to your strengths, picking your points, improving your weak side defense – are also learnable skills. What isn’t learnable is his over 6-foot-8 frame, his athleticism, his natural skills, his quick-twitch ability to create space on demand, and his way of moving.
So no, Emoni Bates isn’t a generational talent, but he’s still one of the most talented 18-year-olds playing college basketball next year with the vast majority of his basketball career ahead of him. There are many reasons to be optimistic about one’s future, but the task of maximizing it will be directly linked to letting go of past expectations.