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Let’s talk about Emoni Bates

It’s time.

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Easr Carolina v Memphis Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Emoni Bates has not officially committed to Louisville, but the number of crystal ball predictions and claims of a “done deal” from sources of varying degrees of legitimacy all seem to indicate that this has become more of a matter of when than if.

The reaction from within the Cardinal fan base to this news has been, it seems to me at least, mostly optimistic. There are some who view it as inviting disaster over for dinner, some who view it as Louisville getting a can’t-miss NBA lottery pick, but the largest contingent of U of L fans is the group who simply believes this is a risk worth taking for a program that isn’t in the position it’s accustomed to being in and the one it hopes to return to in the next two or three years.

With so many varying (and strong) opinions, it’s worth diving fully into just who Emoni Bates is and why his potential arrival in The Ville would receive so much attention both locally and nationally.

Background

There’s no question that Bates is one of the most discussed teenage basketball players of the last two decades. As you may have guessed, there’s a good and a bad to that.

Bates first burst onto the basketball scene when he was a 13-year-old 8th grader and became one of the extremely few non-high schoolers who was permitted to “play up” on the Nike EYBL circuit. His highlights quickly made their way to YouTube where they immediately garnered millions of views. The standard, and perpetually unfair, claims of being the “best recruit since LeBron” and “the next Durant” soon followed.

LeBron himself had no issue with occasionally popping in and adding to the hype.

Initially, Bates had little issue living up to the immense fanfare and pressure that came along with his newfound fame.

As a freshman at Lincoln High School in 2018-19, he averaged 28.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game and led Lincoln to its first ever state championship in Michigan’s largest division. The school had previously never advanced to the quarterfinal round of the state tournament. Bates quickly became the consensus No. 1 player in the class of 2022, and there was a gap as wide as Rick Pitino’s book of hyperbolic quotes between him and whoever was No. 2.

In October of 2019, as Bates prepared for his sophomore season of high school basketball, he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the caption of “Magic, Michael, LeBron ... and the 15-year-old who’s next in line.”

If the even larger increase in attention had any affect on Bates, he didn’t show it on the court. With lines of people stretching across blocks outside of every gym he was about to play in, Bates averaged 32.3 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game for Lincoln in 2019-20. After the season, he became the first sophomore ever to be named Gatorade’s National High School Player of the Year.

Then, a global pandemic.

While Bates’ seemingly unstoppable progression didn’t come to a screeching halt like the rest of the world in the spring of 2020, it did begin to hit some bumps.

Despite being a 5-star recruit since the time anyone had been able to assign a number of stars to his name, Bates had received only four scholarship offers by the time the summer of 2020 rolled around. The reason was that virtually no one believed he’d be playing college basketball. At the time it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the NBA would soon be getting rid of its age restriction to enter the draft, and even if that didn’t happen, a brief stint overseas or with the G League Overtime Elite squad seemed more plausible than a run in March Madness.

To the shock of everyone, Bates announced his commitment to Michigan State live on SportsCenter on the morning of June 29, 2020. To the confusion of everyone, he did so while wearing a shirt with the words “Ypsi Prep Academy” across the chest. The confusion was understandable: This was the first time anyone was hearing about the existence of an Ypsi Prep Academy.

As it turns out, Bates and his family had decided after his sophomore season that the safest way to kill time between the present and when he’d be able to sign an NBA deal was to go the prep school route. Since Bates and his family both wanted Emoni to stay close to home, his father, E.J., decided the simplest way to handle this was to create a school.

And so Ypsi Prep, a school with an enrollment of 12 students — all basketball players — was formed. It received backing from Nike, Gatorade, and multiple high-profile Michigan businesses.

Like every other basketball program, team, franchise, etc., Ypsi Prep’s 2020-21 season was hampered dramatically by COVID-19. Dreams of a national schedule featuring nationally televised contests against the likes of Oak Hill Academy and IMG Academy fell by the wayside. In November, the team did play a nationally televised game against Team Sizzle, a grassroots team which featured top-rated 2021 prospect Chet Holmgren. With the basketball world watching, Holmgren looked like the player who was far closer to being the “next in line” than Bates did. This proved to be a sign of things to come.

Multiple players left Ypsi Prep during the 2020-21 school year, feeling that there had been promises made that were not being kept. In December, the school/team “parted ways” with fellow Michigan State commit Jaden Akins after a widely-reported scuffle between Akins and Bates which apparently began with Akins calling out Bates for not playing hard enough.

After playing a limited schedule, Ypsi Prep finished its first and only season with a 9-4 record. Bates led the team in scoring at 23.0 ppg, but his overall game had taken a noticeable downturn. He shot just 35.9 percent from the field, and his three-point shooting percentage — long thought to be the best part of his game — dipped to a woeful 24.5 percent. Talk of both his effort level and overall progression hitting a wall became rampant and led to him dropping out of the top spot in most class of 2022 rankings.

On May 1, 2021, Bates decommitted from Michigan State, announcing that he was keeping all of his options open, “both college and pro.” To virtually everyone, this was the expected affirmation that the young man was never going to put on a college jersey.

The issue for Bates, whose birthday is Jan. 28, 2004, was that he was only 17 at the time. This meant that he would not be eligible for the NBA draft until after he turned 19 in 2023, and that he also did not meet the G League’s current minimum age requirement of 18.

In August, Bates announced that he was reclassifying into the 2021 class, making him eligible for competition in the 2021-22 college basketball season. He made public his four options of Memphis, Oregon, Michigan State or the freshly-formed Overtime Elite G League Squad. Three weeks later, he committed to Penny Hardaway and the Tigers as the No. 5 overall player in the 2021 class according to both Rivals and 247 Sports.

You probably know a little bit about how his freshman season went.

After a fairly strong start for both he and his team, Bates and Memphis stumbled to a 10-8 record, an embarrassing mark for a team that had begin the year ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll. Then, Bates stopped playing. Both his father and Hardaway claimed that Bates was dealing with a “lower back injury” and that he had returned home to Michigan in search of a second opinion.

Whatever the reason for the lengthy departure from the court, Memphis began to soar without the player who was supposed to be their star. The Tigers ripped off 12 wins in 13 games, going from a team that was squarely outside of the NCAA tournament picture to one which safely made it into the field of 68 as a 9-seed.

To the surprise of everyone, Bates played in both of Memphis’ NCAA tournament games, his first action since Jan. 27. In the team’s win over Boise State, he played three minutes and buried his only field goal attempt, a three. He was less effective two days later in a narrow loss to No. 1 seed Gonzaga, playing 12 minutes but going just 2-for-7 from the field and 1-of-5 from three. He finished his freshman season with averages of 9.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.3 turnovers per game. He shot 38.6 percent from the field, 32.9 percent from three, and 64.6 percent from the free-throw line.

On April 16, Bates confirmed what most had already assumed: His first season as a Memphis Tiger would be his only season as a Memphis Tiger. Still not old enough to enter his name into the NBA Draft, Bates would now be tasked with making his second college commitment in less than a year.

Assuming for the moment that said commitment is, in fact, going to be to Louisville, let’s look at the pros and the cons here.

The Downside of Taking Emoni Bates

There is a “circus coming to town” element to all of this that can’t be denied. Bates’ father and others around him have drawn criticism both out in the open and in more shadowy basketball circles. It’s a situation that absolutely has the potential to become a distraction, which is where having a head coach with experience in exactly these types of scenarios has to be your ace in the hole.

To answer a follow-up question that has been tossed around liberally in recent days: No, there doesn’t seem to be any aspect of Bates’ recruitment that could be any sort of issue for Louisville or Bates with the NCAA. He has nothing to do with the lengthy violations being levied against Memphis, and the only potential red flag with his recruitment was a text message from EYBL manager Jamal James to both Carlton DeBose, the EYBL director, and Nike’s recruiting coordinator John Stovall about “the money we’re now going to do for the (redacted name of minor) kid in Michigan.”

The higher focus in all of this should be the actual play on the court.

To put it bluntly: Bates did not appear ready for big time college basketball last season. That’s more understandable when you take into account the fact that he was supposed to be a senior in high school at the time.

Bates averaged a full turnover more than he averaged in assists (more on that in a bit), was a streaky shooter at best with highly questionable shot selection, and he consistently appeared to be lost on defense. Perhaps of greater concern was his inability to be quick or athletic enough to create quality looks for himself with any degree of consistency.

While some of these issues are fixable and easily attributable to the fact that he was playing most of these games as a 17-year-old, the overall concerns about his athleticism aren’t without merit.

Check out Bates’ numbers from Memphis’ Pro Day last year:

Even at 17, those aren’t the numbers you expect to see from a surefire future NBA star.

While there are plenty of reasons to believe Bates is about to show much, much more than he did during his one season at Memphis, there are also some signs that maybe everyone was just really, really wrong about him when he was 15.

The Pros of Taking Emoni Bates

Let’s start with the most obvious positive here: Taking Emoni Bates would/will generate an extreme amount of attention for a Louisville basketball program that is trying to start a new era on the strongest foot possible. Emoni Bates is still a name that demands a high degree of attention in the basketball world, and a high degree of attention will be paid to Kenny Payne and U of L if/when Bates announces that his next move is to suit up for the Cardinals.

For Payne, this almost feels like a can’t lose situation.

If Bates is phenomenal at Louisville, Payne will get a significant chunk of the credit and his first season as a head coach will (likely) have been a smashing success. Penny Hardaway — a man Payne will likely be going head-to-head with at some point on the recruiting trail — looking bad as a byproduct will be an added bonus.

If Bates isn’t phenomenal or if off-the-court distractions dominate the relationship, the blame for the failure will almost certainly be shouldered more by the kid and those around him than by Payne and U of L.

And there are reasons to believe Bates can be more at Louisville than he was at Memphis (outside of just Louisville being Louisville and Memphis being Memphis).

Bates’ high turnover rate last season can be largely attributed to Hardaway playing him out of position at the point to begin the year. While Bates is a tremendous passer who handles the ball very well for someone who stands 6’9, he is not a natural point guard, at least not yet. With El Ellis and (hopefully Tyrese Hunter) on next year’s roster, Bates won’t need to worry about being U of L’s primary ballhandler.

The biggest reason I have optimism about this marriage stems from this portion of Brendan Quinn’s terrific profile of Bates from July of 2021:

“I was around top-level athletes at U of M all the time, but I’ve never seen anything like how Emoni works out,” Mahmoud Issa says. “He doesn’t stop. He’d miss one shot, get pissed, and have to make the next 20 to be satisfied.”

(Among all the coaches and sources interviewed for this story, this notion — that it’s Emoni, not EJ, with the hyper-intense neurotic work ethic — was a constant. One former coach who worked directly with Emoni, speaking on the condition of anonymity, puts it like this: “I don’t think Emoni is totally comfortable in his own skin and that feeds his obsession with basketball. I think he’s comfortable as Emoni Bates the basketball player and he plays into that. On the court he’s an incredible worker and he demands everyone else match him. Outside the basketball world he’s a shy kid.”)

If this is in fact the case, Louisville seems like the perfect place at the perfect time for Emoni Bates.

We still have no idea how Kenny Payne is going to be as a head coach. What we do know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, is how he is at forming relationships with players and getting them to trust him.

If part of the problem with Bates in recent years has been that he’s only comfortable with himself as a basketball player and not as a human being, Kenny Payne can help with that. If Bates is feeling distracted or pressured by adult sycophants around him hoping to make some lazy coin, Kenny Payne can help with that. If Bates is still struggling with his work-life balance and how to maintain his temperament when things aren’t going well on the court, Kenny Payne can help with that.

Essentially, if there’s still a lottery pick somewhere inside Emoni Bates that has been overshadowed by the superfluous weight that has buried many a potential prodigy in a variety of fields, Kenny Payne should be able to help that superstar re-emerge and conquer the noise.

Final Thought

There’s no wrong opinion here. You are free to believe whatever you want to believe about Louisville (presumably) adding Emoni Bates for the 2022-23 season. We’re all guessing.

For me, I think given where Louisville is at the moment as a program, the potential reward outweighs the potential risk when it comes to taking Bates.

If he comes here and kills it, awesome. It will be one of the biggest storylines of the college basketball season and the first major success story of the new chapter of Cardinal basketball.

If he doesn’t or if some off-the-court stuff becomes a major distraction ... shrug ... it was worth a shot. You couldn’t make that statement if the program was rolling along without a care in the world, but you can when it’s coming off a 13-19 campaign and has NCAA uncertainty still looming over its head.

No one can possibly know how the Emoni Bates experience is going to work out for Louisville, but I’m eager to find out. And for now, I’ll take that eagerness and ambiguity over whatever the hell the last two years were.