Sports

Why Emoni Bates’ play has NBA evaluators worried, and what’s next for Bates

High school basketball phenom Emoni Bates, perceived within the industry as a strong candidate to become the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft, decommitted from Michigan State last week to raise questions about the future of the 17-year-old star. If Bates isn’t attending Michigan State in the fall of 2022, where is he headed? Will it be college basketball, the G League path or another route for Bates?

Beyond his next destination, Bates’ recent play has also elicited some questions about the particulars of his game. What elements of Bates’ play have NBA scouts and other evaluators worried? What parts of his game has he delivered on — or even doubled down on — since Bates burst onto the scene as a 14-year-old? Has the supporting cast Bates has played alongside since transferring from Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to Ypsi Prep — a school created by his father, Elgin — helped or harmed Bates’ growth? ESPN basketball reporters Jonathan Givony and Jeff Borzello honed in on these questions and others, including a road map for what the next year could look like for the Michigan native.


What elements of Emoni Bates’ game have impressed evaluators?

I spent the last weekend in April getting a thorough look at Bates at the Made Hoops Midwest Mania event in Indianapolis, where I saw him play live three times. Though Bates didn’t perform up to expectations, struggling to score efficiently while his team lost all three contests by an average margin of 20 points, there was no question in my mind that he’s a huge talent.

The most impressive aspect of Bates’ game is definitely his shot-making ability, especially when paired with his size — somewhere between 6-foot-8 and 6-9. He has incredible range on his jumper, and is extremely versatile and dynamic with the way he gets into it, showing the ability to pull up sharply from implausible vantage points, while dribbling full-speed with outstanding balance.

The footwork Bates shows getting into step backs as well as coming off screens in small doses is extremely impressive as well. You simply can’t give him any space on the perimeter. Synergy Sports Tech has 10 high school games logged this season where Bates made 38% of his 3-pointers, which is very impressive considering the extremely high degree of difficulty of many of his attempts — 78% of his shots have come off the dribble.

Bates also has a polished arsenal of ball-handling moves for a 17-year old. He loves to operate off double crossovers to create space to get into the lane and he has a really soft touch on his floaters. He’s a fluid athlete who can use or reject a ball screen skillfully and shows some glimpses of court vision and playmaking ability off a live dribble in very small doses.

Bates also plays the game with a major chip on his shoulder, as he’s an aggressive, emotional and competitive player who is wired to use his exceptional scoring instincts to their fullest for every minute he’s on the court.

— Jonathan Givony


What elements of Bates’ game have caused evaluators to worry? What skills does he most need to work on?

The first time I saw Bates was nearly three years ago at a USA Basketball camp. Then a 14-year-old, he put on a show against players much older than him and raised eyebrows not only with his incredible scoring instincts but also the fact that he measured 6-8½ in shoes, with a 168-pound frame.

Fast-forward nearly three years, it doesn’t appear that Bates has changed much physically. He’s now listed at 6-9 and a perhaps generous 190 pounds, while sporting a lean, narrow frame that may struggle to put on weight long-term and reminds me somewhat of Brandon Ingram at the same age. While Ingram has a 7-3 wingspan, Bates’ wingspan was measured at 6-9 at several events, which is a completely different ballpark. Another player with whom Bates draws comparisons, Jayson Tatum, weighed 206 pounds when he was 17 and measured a 6-11 wingspan.

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Emoni Bates, the No. 1 recruit for the Class of 2022 in the ESPN Top 100, flushes a dunk vs. Team Sizzle.

With his peers having caught up physically, Bates’ lack of strength was apparent all weekend long. He struggled to finish through contact in the lane and wasn’t physical enough looking to draw fouls and get to the free throw line. He shot just 4-of-15 inside the arc in his matchup with No. 2-ranked Jalen Duren and Team Final in the showcase game of the weekend in Indianapolis, not getting to the free throw line and posting just two assists compared with seven turnovers. Bates did shoot 6-of-16 from 3 (38%) in that game, though. Things looked fairly similar in the two other contests we took in last weekend as well.

Like Ingram, Bates is a good athlete, not an exceptional one, and he struggled to create space with his first step at times and often needed quite a few dribbles to get his shot off, usually a midrange pull-up or a difficult double-clutch floater. Team Final (and Each 1 Teach 1, which also did a good job of slowing him) took a similar approach to some of the best teams Bates’ high school faced this season, putting a tall, quick-footed defender on him on the perimeter, forcing him to shoot over length all game long and then crowding him with help on his drives and forcing him to beat them with his passing. At times, he had a double-team sent his way as soon as he crossed half court.

This is the area where Bates has the most room for growth, as he made questionable decisions all weekend in terms of shot selection and wild forays to the rim that resulted in a considerable number of turnovers. Going up against some of the best grassroots teams and players in the country, it’s important to note that Bates’ squad was considerably overmatched talentwise every time they stepped on the floor, forcing him to shoulder a very heavy offensive load that certainly contributed to his inefficiency. At times, his competitiveness and incredible self-belief worked against him.

Just how good is Bates’ feel for the game? How does his style of play project to contribute to winning down the road? Has he missed opportunities to develop his knowledge of the game due to the lack of high-level coaching he’s received thus far and the poor level of talent surrounding him? These are all fair questions being asked by evaluators. Becoming less predictable with his moves, developing counters when cut off, learning to simplify the game, read the floor better and not just settling for the first shot he can find will be major priorities for him moving forward to reach his sky-high potential.

Bates also has work to do on the defensive end, where his effort ranged from disappointing to downright dreadful at times. He mostly stands around off the ball, rarely getting into a stance or showing any type of fight getting over screens or back into plays after being beaten off the dribble. He’s not very physical getting on the defensive glass where his lack of length and bulk shows. It’s not rare for players this age to show little effort on the defensive end, but it’s certainly something he can address to become a more well-rounded player who contributes to winning when his tough jumpers aren’t falling.

— Jonathan Givony


Bates turned 17 on Jan. 28. How does he compare with other players you evaluated at the same stage? Is he still on track to be a No. 1 NBA draft pick?

Bates is ahead of or just as good as any wing player I’ve seen at this age, and I’ve yet to see a better long-term prospect than him in the 2022 class thus far, although there are several players I have yet to get fresh eyes on in a while due to the circumstances of the pandemic — for example Scoota Henderson, who is drawing rave reviews for his play.

It’s important to note that every top player I’ve watched since I started evaluating the draft in 2003 has gone through ebbs and flows in their development where people questioned the development path they are on, including Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Andrew Wiggins and others. That comes with the territory and was bound to happen for Bates as well. These type of feedback loops — where it’s not simply smooth sailing from start to finish — can actually be very positive if channeled the right way, as every young prospect has many things they can improve on.

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Emoni Bates is the first sophomore to ever win the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year award. See why with his electrifying mixtape.

It’s actually easier to be the type of prospect who “sneaks up” on people as their career unfolds — think Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Steph Curry, Joel Embiid, Brandon Ingram and others — as opposed to being anointed from an early age. In some ways, Bates is a victim of the extremely high bar he set for himself as a 14-year-old, generating accolades and expectations that were always going to be incredibly difficult to live up to and hinged partially on things he doesn’t control, like physical growth. I’m not sure any prospect has ever faced more scrutiny from an earlier stage than Bates has, and that’s an enormous amount of pressure to put on someone that age.

It’s also important to note that we’re coming off a very difficult year development wise for all high school prospects due to the lack of gym time and the fact that so many events were canceled. Every team Bates faced in Indianapolis was gunning for him and looked extremely prepared with their game plan for how to defend him.

If I were Bates, I would cut out the noise and focus every waking moment of the next 26 months before becoming NBA draft-eligible on executing a long-term development plan that is 100% focused on basketball, including strength and conditioning, nutrition, film study, ironing out the mental aspects and plenty of work on things beyond his incredibly advanced shot-making ability, including defense, passing and generating high-percentage offense. He’s probably not going to end up being the generational talent that some hoped he would become when he was 14, but I think he’s got a great chance to be the best player in his class still and an NBA All-Star if he can get his development back on track.

— Jonathan Givony


What is the latest with Bates’ college vs. pro decision? Are there any indicators for how that decision is trending?

Bates’ decommitment caught plenty of industry people by surprise. He announced his decision to attend Michigan State last summer. At the time, the Spartans were really the only school recruiting him. Tom Izzo was the only coach to call Bates on June 15, 2020, when colleges could contact high school sophomores directly, and he consistently went to Bates’ games when everyone else seemed to avoid his recruitment.

That’s no longer the case. Texas offered Bates almost immediately after reopening his recruitment, and several schools have followed. Tennessee offered him over the weekend, as did Memphis. That’s already more offers than he had before committing to Michigan State. Sources have indicated there’s at least some interest on Bates’ side of going to college.

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Jeff Borzello breaks down how Emoni Bates becoming the first sophomore to win the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year award is the next step in what should be a legendary basketball career.

In terms of a college vs. pro decision, it’s still very much a wait-and-see situation with Bates. One could point to his decommitment and say that he didn’t need to decommit from Michigan State just to turn pro or go to the G League. One could also cynically look at his decommitment and wonder whether it’s simply a move to get more coaches at his team’s games when the recruiting period opens back up.

His next decision is not as simple as it once appeared, though. Bates just turned 17 years old in January. The age limit for the NBA hasn’t changed, meaning Bates has to be one year removed from his high school graduating class and turn 19 in that calendar year in order to go into the draft. So he can’t just reclassify into 2021, spend a year in college or somewhere else, and then go pro. While the age limit for the G League is 18, the G League Ignite team is different, so there’s a chance he could go that route if he graduated high school this spring. But Bates would have to spend two years there due to the NBA draft’s age limit. The new Overtime League could be another option.

But it stands to reason that Bates will spend another year at Ypsi Prep, which is also in Ypsilanti, and then have a decision to make: go to college, go to the G League, take a year off to train or go play in the NBL or another international league.

— Jeff Borzello


Bates’ decision to switch high school programs made headlines. How has the switch benefited and/or harmed Bates’ development?

You can look at it a few ways, but most industry people think it hurt Bates’ development. That’s not entirely his fault, as part of the reason Bates is no longer head and shoulders above his peers is that they’ve caught up with him physically. Granted, there are very few players at his size who can shoot like he does, but he no longer towers over opposing perimeter players. The Kevin Durant comparisons weren’t his fault either, but he’s still a few inches in both height and wingspan — and about 20 pounds — from that sort of physical profile.

On both the high school and grassroots circuits, Bates isn’t surrounded by an overwhelming amount of talent. He already had a target on his back because of who he is, and there are very few players around him to remove some of that pressure. Had Bates gone to an Oak Hill Academy (Virginia) or a Montverde Academy (Florida) or an IMG Academy (Florida), he would likely have at least two or three other five-star caliber prospects on the floor with him. It’s really hard to consistently look good when five defenders are focused on you.

The move has also raised some questions among scouts, simply because they haven’t consistently seen Bates against top-tier competition in the last few years. Jonathan mentioned his eye-opening performance at USA Basketball three years ago; since then, he’s turned down invites to USA Basketball’s training camps. He wasn’t great at the Nike Elite 100 a couple years back. Some knock Bates for playing at the 15U level on the EYBL circuit in 2019 instead of playing up, but very few high school freshmen play at the 17U level and his entire team — created by his father — was also high school freshmen. It’s unlikely Nike would have put them at the 17U level regardless.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those decisions — plenty of players have skipped USA Basketball or played with their age group or stayed at a high school where they’re not surrounded by stars. But it just didn’t give Bates the chance to consistently go up against bigger and stronger players, and when he has in the last few months, he’s struggled a bit, as Jonathan pointed out earlier.

Not being a lock generational prospect doesn’t mean he’s not still an outstanding player, however. As one longtime grassroots scout pointed out, if the comparison is now Brandon Ingram instead of Kevin Durant — that’s still a player averaging 25 points, five boards, five assists and shooting 38% from 3 in the NBA. I think Bates would take that at the next level.

— Jeff Borzello


What will the next year look like for Bates? What events will give him a chance to silence doubters?

Bates was scheduled to play this past weekend at the Bill Hensley Memorial Run-N-Slam Tournament in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but did not make the trip along with his Bates Fundamentals team. His status for the remainder of the spring and summer is currently unknown.

Nike has yet to announce its schedule for an expanded Peach Jam tournament, a Nike EYBL “bubble” that will reportedly be held over the span of approximately two weeks in late June and July in Augusta, Georgia, but Bates Fundamentals will be one of the 32 or so 17U teams in attendance. Since he won’t be part of USA Basketball’s roster at the FIBA U19 World Championship, it would be surprising if Bates didn’t play in the EYBL, which would be a major test as well as a significant opportunity to make up any ground he’s lost.

My understanding is that the plan for Bates is to continue competing at the high school for Ypsi Prep next season, with the program intending to build a stronger and more balanced roster that better complements him than the somewhat disjointed team we saw this past season.

We’ve been hearing for months about a new league that Nike is looking to form this fall/winter involving a dozen or so of the top high school programs in America, and Ypsi Prep would likely be one if its centerpieces, along with schools like Montverde, Sunrise Christian, Oak Hill, La Lumiere and others. This would be an outstanding setup for Bates to showcase himself as the No. 1 player in the class in nationally televised games, as well as continue to develop his game against many of the best players in high school basketball.

Beyond that, he should have all-star events like the McDonald’s All-American game, the Jordan Brand Classic, the Iverson Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit (which he likely would be invited to due to not being part of USA Basketball since 2018).

— Jonathan Givony

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