Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Column: Emoni Bates shouldn't be compared; so naturally, I compared him

July 28, 2020
<p>College GameDay&#x27;s Jay Williams shakes hands with men&#x27;s basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo during ESPN&#x27;s College GameDay on Feb. 2, 2019, at the Breslin Center. Nic Antaya/The State News</p>

College GameDay's Jay Williams shakes hands with men's basketball Head Coach Tom Izzo during ESPN's College GameDay on Feb. 2, 2019, at the Breslin Center. Nic Antaya/The State News

Photo by Nic Antaya | The State News

He is the No. 1-rated recruit in the class of 2022 and has been one of just seven high school athletes ever to earn a perfect rating from 247sports composite rankings. If you live in the sports world and don’t know a high school junior basketball player’s name, it usually means you’re living under a rock. This is one of those cases. 

He has drawn the national media attention and hype that no other high school athlete since current Los Angeles Laker and former St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high standout LeBron James has brought, but his game has been likened more to Brooklyn Nets Kevin Durant. Either comparison puts this hooper in elite company, and he’s only 16 years old.

His name is Emoni Bates, and he is committed to Michigan State University.

Bates shouldn’t be compared. He is a generational talent, and his game speaks for itself. At 15, he could’ve been a lottery pick, and when he does enter the NBA Draft, there may not be much question as to who goes No. 1. Emoni Bates does not need to be compared, and he shouldn’t be.

So naturally, we compare him.

The hype of the king

It’s easy to get worked up into the hype around No. 1 prospects and fantasize about the next generation’s G.O.A.T. talk, but it is very seldom they enter that tier. Hype is a rolling stone, and it seems each year someone grabs it, and it only builds. There’s the Zion Williamsons of recent and Magic Johnsons of the past, and every year excitement builds around a select few high school players about who could be the next greatest of all time.

Has there been as much hype around a player since James? Maybe not until now. It’s hard to top a teenager once christened as “The Chosen One,” but Bates may have that one covered.

In October 2019, at age 15 and not even able to drive yet, Bates landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated (SI). James was 17 when he graced the front page of SI, which may make Bates smile considering he has kept a close eye on James vs. Bates talks.

In a behind-the-scenes video of his SI cover shoot, Bates said he asked his dad what James' stats were as a freshman in high school. He knew that James has been highly considered the best freshman of all-time and wanted to beat them.

“Last year I asked my dad to look his stats up,” Bates said in the video. “Because I know he was one of the greatest freshmen, so I tried to beat his stats and that’s what I did.”

To put that in perspective, James averaged 18 points per game, 6.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists. As for Bates? 28.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists: closer to James' senior year statistics than anything.

The hype that engulfed James from magazines and VHS mixtapes followed Bates in similar fashions. He has been at the center of attention in his home of Ypsilanti, Michigan, with such a big crowd at his high school gym his freshman season that Lincoln played several of their home games at Eastern Michigan this year.

When he committed to Michigan State, he filled national media outlet discussions for days, proving how college-basketball-altering his decision was.

"Is Emoni Bates the best prospect since LeBron James?" filled TV screens.

Bates has filled highlight reels, hoop mixtapes and gained the virality that wasn’t as easily accessed in the early 2000’s, in large part because of videographer ericgetsbuckets, who has covered Bates more closely than most.

But it doesn’t take highlight reels to elevate Bates’ game — he does that on his own. Many have dubbed themselves as generational talents over the years of high school athlete hype, especially with high school sports gaining more and more exposure, but Bates is it, much like James was.

His game is just a little different.

The game of Durant

While Bates has the hype of the king, his game resembles more of the slim reaper.

“Slender, but is 6-foot-8 and has long arms," Director of Basketball Recruiting Evan Daniels said when he evaluated Bates last fall. "He’s a good athlete that bounces off the ground with ease."

It’s not hard to see where the comparison to Durant comes from.

“His skill set and offensive package is advanced for his age," Daniels said in the evaluation. "He handles the ball well, uses hesitations and jab moves to create space and is a gifted three-level scorer. He shoots it well on the move and off the bounce, and despite lacking strength finishes well at the rim. He also has a strong motor, is a gifted passer and a willing rebounder. Next step is adding strength, but there’s plenty of time for that. Bates was arguably the best freshman prospect since ... James.”

For his size, Bates shoots incredibly well from range, another similarity he shares with Durant. He finishes with power and can work off the dribble, adding ball-handling to his exceptional talents.

As Daniels said, Bates is a three-level scorer and while running on an offensive motor, still gets the job done off the board and as a facilitator. Daniels had Bates penned as a Top 10 pick midway through his sophomore year, which is no surprise considering the numbers he posted.

As he filled up enough hoop mixtapes for a 30 for 30, Bates' stats from his sophomore campaign were 32.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.1 steals.

The comparisons to Durant checkout. From frame to gifted scoring ability, the similarities are prevalent, but even Durant wasn’t this talked about at Bates’ age.

The legend in the making

It’s unclear whether Bates will ever step foot in East Lansing as a player for various reasons. There’s the potential that if he entered the draft now, as a 16-year-old preparing for his junior season of high school that a team would take a chance on him at No. 1 and no question that he would land somewhere in the Top 10. No question.

But the option isn’t there, and by the time he leaves Ypsi Prep as a part of either the class of 2022 or 2021, the NBA could still be a few years away from reinstalling an athlete's ability to transition from high school to the league. 

That doesn’t limit Bates' options. If he wished to play overseas, there isn’t a team that wouldn’t take him and, as we have seen with an increasing number of top prospects, the G-League is an appealing option.

When he announced his commitment on ESPN in front of a national audience, he said he wasn’t sure what the future may hold, but right now he is heading to MSU. With Bates transferring to Ypsi Prep, an academy founded this year by his father and new home to many of Michigan and the nation’s top prospects, there is a high chance that he moves into the 2021 class to join Michigan’s No. 1 prospect Pierre Brooks II and Illinois-native No. 1 shooting guard in the country Max Christie.

If Bates makes the move to 2021, college basketball could have a real problem on their hands. Whenever, if ever, Bates steps on a college basketball floor and not for a high school game, the NCAA won’t be the same.

Wherever Bates ends up, he will write another chapter in the story of his legend. He has already solidified his place in high school basketball folklore being the first Gatorade Boys’ National Player of the Year as a sophomore and only has ground to build on. The question shouldn’t be if he lives up to the hype, but rather what is next for him because he is up for the task.

This kid has the hype of the king, the game of Durant and the chance to write his own legend; Emoni Bates is just getting started.


Writer’s Note: This is the final column in a set of three looking at the first three commits of Tom Izzo and Michigan State basketball’s potential 2021 recruiting class (baring a reclassification from Bates) and arguably the best recruiting run of Izzo’s career including Brooks II, Christie and finally Bates.

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