With all the words that you are about to read in the next couple of minutes, please remember one thing: We are talking about a 16-year-old athlete here. Not your everyday 16-year-old, I‘ll give you that. We are talking about a teenager who was named the best high school player in the entire nation, a kid who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 15 years of age and a young man that some people consider one of the best prospects the sport has ever seen.
Still, he is only 16 years old, which makes everything he does not only more impressive, it also puts a perspective on all the things that he already did and the ones that he might be able to do in the future. Luckily for the Michigan State Spartans, he will most likely do them for at least a year in East Lansing, where he will immediately be the most exciting player to ever don the green and white since a guy called Magic. A little too much hyperbole? I‘m with you, I hate the modern way of blowing everything out of proportion without any regard for the past, most importantly the greatness of yesterday before Youtube, Twitter and Instagram. But in Emoni Bates‘ case everyone you talk to refers to him as a generational talent, one of the very few who can put his own stamp on the sport and who will be remembered one day in a very very special way. With that said, let‘s dive into what makes him great and where he might have to work a little on his craft…
Emoni Bates was born on January 28 in 2004 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and from his earliest age had a passion about basketball. Supposedly a ball was his favorite toy and he kept it underneath his arm even when he went to bed. His father Elgin, nicknamed E.J., played basketball himself, first at Division II Kentucky Wesleyan and then for five years as a pro in Germany and Switzerland. He is a skills trainer for basketball and runs “Bates Fundamentals“ in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He introduced his son to the game early on and continued later to supervise his career as his AAU coach among other things. Most recently he started his own prep school named Ypsi Prep Academy.
From an early age Emoni Bates has dealt with plenty of hype around himself. He signed his first autograph in sebenth grade, people were waiting in lines around numerous blocks to see him play as a freshman and his highlight tapes on Youtube have been clicked millions of times. His parents, especially his father, have made a big effort to keep negative influences away from their son. His father has always been very strict, very hands on and operated with a clear plan. Unlike other parents who closely followed their kids‘ basketball careers, Bates seems to always have the best intentions. “The main thing for me is being a parent and protecting my child,” E.J. says, adding that he wants to “keep away the snakes” and that they “are not for sale.” From everything you can tell, this approach seems to have kept Emoni as humble as he could be in his position. Asked about the hype surrounding him he once said: “I don‘t really pay attention to it because if I do pay attention to it it‘s just going to get to my head. And I don‘t want it to get to my head. I just want to play basketball.”
School always had a very important role in the Bates household. Even when it was clear that their son was about to become a national phenom, Emoni‘s parents made sure that he would not touch a basketball before he finished his homework. According to reports, he is a very good and determined student. Off the court he describes himself as goofy and is pretty soft spoken. It‘s clear though that he understands what is going on around him and thus carries quiet confidence inside himself.
What others have to say about him
“He‘s very young and has a lot of maturing to do physically but in my 20 years in this business he was as good as anybody I‘ve ever seen as a freshman.”
-Eric Bossi, Rivals recruiting analyst
“There is a kid, he is 15 years old, by the name of Emoni Bates. If he wants to he could enter the NBA Draft this summer and be a lottery pick. That‘s how good he is.”
-Kendrick Perkins, ESPN analyst and former NBA player/NBA champion
“The kid is the ultra competitor, he has that nasty to him. Couple that with the skills he possesses and he has the makings of a special level prospect. He‘s the best freshman I‘ve ever seen.”
-Evan Daniels, 247Sports Director of basketball recruiting
“He has the capability to do everything. He‘s athletic, he‘s lanky, he can dribble, he can shoot and score from anywhere. He plays hard, with a high motor. He‘s just an overall really good player, especially to be this young. And he‘s going to get better. That‘s what I look forward to because of how good he is now. He can do it all.”
-Jayson Tatum, NBA All-Star from the Boston Celtics
High school and AAU basketball
During his freshman year, Bates led Ypsilanti Lincoln to the state championship, keying a tremendous fourth quarter comeback in the final against UD Jesuit (Cassius Winston‘s alma mater) at the Breslin Center. He averaged 28.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. His sophomore year he put up 32.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three point range. He has featured in a lot of highly anticipated games and participated in numerous USA Basketball events. Two of his most famous performances were an AAU game against LeBron James‘ son Bronny and his team in which Bates dropped 43 points, and a double overtime win against Chelsea his sophomore year in which he had 63 points and 21 rebounds. For his efforts he has been named Gatorade Michigan Player Of The Year twice and was the first sophomore to ever win the Gatorade Boys National Player Of The Year Award.
The moment you see Bates on the court you can sense that he has a certain aura about him. It goes way beyond the fact that at currently 6-foot-9 (with a long lanky frame and a 7-foot wingspan) he usually is one of the taller players on the court in high school. When he touches the ball everything else around him seems to stop for a split second and the pace of the game slows down, at least for him. He moves at a different speed, he sees a different game and can explode into his moves at every split second.
There aren‘t many things that Emoni Bates can‘t do on a basketball court. He is a natural scorer and an advanced shooter even at an early age. There are a few kinks here or there in his shooting form that might be cleaned up over time, but the results speak for themselves already. Due to his height, his good elevation and a quick motion Bates basically can get his shot off from anywhere on the court, a quality that all the great players had or have. His range is already almost limitless. While most of his movements are very fluid he certainly has another gear when he has to fight through contact, the game gets close toward the end or when is starting to feel it. He has a very natural, quick handle, keeps the ball tight to his body and he can change directions immediately. He loves to go behind his back not only to set up a jumper, but also to blow by a defender who he just had on his heels with a strong drive. Sometimes he turns his shoulders a bit too much and he can get a little drive happy to his right but considering his youth those are minor issues. His handle allows him to bring the ball up the court or take over as the primary ball handler at all times. Naturally he is a scoring wing yet he is already showing decent passing instincts and good court vision. Especially his passes ahead in transition or against approaching double teams are a thing of beauty. He has to learn how to expect those doubles a bit earlier but that should come over time.
When attacking the basket Bates usually shows off his special talent by just taking his intensity level up a notch and almost exploding into the lane. He takes one or two long steps without losing speed and all of the sudden it‘s either a dunk or a foul. His inner drive to the basket is second to none and he possesses a special kind of will to shove the ball down your throat. Even at his skinny frame he does not shy away from contact at all which is most visible when he is fighting for rebounds. With his long arms he is a terrific and aggressive offensive rebounder. On defense he could use a stronger base to hold off opponents and at times he gets caught ball watching. His college coach might be the right one to teach that out of him I suppose. The same thing can be said for his defensive approach where he also isn‘t always 100 percent into the game. Make no mistake though, the talent is definitely there and whenever he dials it up Emoni becomes a ferocious defender. Often you can see him get in his stance immediately after a big bucket and feel the energy that is going through his body. He moves his feet well then, gets very aggressive on the ball and uses his length to disrupt passing and driving lanes. He is a solid shot blocker, even as a perimeter player, but usually had to be careful about not picking up too many fouls since he was so important to his teams whenever they took the floor.
While Bates isn‘t a plus plus athlete, I would say he‘s at least a plus and a half plus jump and run specimen. He has good speed to his game, can change angles very quickly and he can get up into the air near the basket. Especially in transition he can be very explosive and due to his long reach it is very hard to separate the ball from him when attacking the basket. Physically of course he has ways to go. His lanky and thin frame is one of the biggest reasons why he is compared to Kevin Durant (alongside the guard skills at his length) as he possesses the same body type right now and might never be able to put on a tremendous amount of muscle. That doesn‘t mean that he is not strong enough, he already packs plenty of punch behind his movements and with every year of maturing he will only get stronger. For a player as young as he is, it is absolutely remarkable of how well he is accustomed to his body already. He grew seven inches since sixth grade and usually it takes young kids a long time to get used to their new height. With Bates it seems like it was a seamless transition. His footwork is extremely advanced in all phases of the game and it gives him an advantage above most of his classmates (as if he needed another one).
Now what probably really sets Emoni Bates apart from many other elite prospects is his will to win. He is an absolute predator on the court; he is staring every challenge directly into the eyes and doesn‘t back down from anything or anyone. He wants to rip his opponent‘s heart out whenever he steps on the court. It is that rare mentality, that absolute special demeanor and attitude you have seen from greats like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Just like them Bates is ultra competitive and very confident in his own abilities, always backing that up though through his actions. He also gets very fired up for his teammates, raising three fingers whenever they take a shot from downtown, cheering them when they make a big play or immediately encouraging them if they have a negative play. He himself is a very emotional player who can get a bit demonstrative here and there. He also had a few altercations (even resulting in a suspension), which usually comes from opponents fouling him too hard. There have been a few very dangerous plays over the course of his high school career and while he has every right to stick up for himself, he probably has to learn how to react a bit differently going forward. Nonetheless, mentally he has all the makings of a pure team leader, a dangerous assassin and a premier, top level player who knows how to perform in the clutch. On top of all that is a very hard worker, determined, willing to learn and extremely coachable.
Again, everything you just read is describing the game of a 16-year-old teenager. Physically he isn‘t even close to being a finished product, let alone in terms of his basketball skills as advanced as they already are. He could easily grow a few more inches in the next few years, he will most certainly get stronger and more comfortable in his own skin. You can never know what happens in the future and many great prospects have lost their way over the decades, never realizing their tremendous potential. Emoni Bates though seems different. He seems as can‘t miss as they come and barring injury there don‘t seem to be many things that could keep him away from greatness and from fulfilling his destiny.
His year in East Lansing will certainly only add to that...