Emoni Bates is fighting his way back from the abyss

No matter what happens in Monday’s Summer League championship, he is an offseason winner

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Emoni Bates in 2022, as an Eastern Michigan standout.
Emoni Bates in 2022, as an Eastern Michigan standout.
Photo: AP

It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Emoni Bates was the nation’s No. 1 middle schooler in the country. Three years ago, Bates was imagined as the type of ethereal prospect who would have viewed the summer league as a formality. By the time he arrived in Memphis during the fall of 2021, the shine had begun to rub off.

He’s light years away from being the first sophomore named Gatorade’s Boys High School Basketball Player of the Year. Bates’ fall was so precipitous in part because of his own early success. Instead of being viewed as a disappointing work-in-progress, he was summarily dismissed as an NBA talent.

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After a tumultuous few years in which he bounced between multiple high schools, Memphis, and Eastern Michigan, Bates lasted until the 49th pick in the draft. Bates’ selection is primarily due to his reputation as a high school phenom. At 19, the 6-foot-9 forward’s draft stock plummeted during an underwhelming two-year collegiate career due in part to high-volume shooting that produced awful efficiency per possession.

In summer league play, Bates has his game clicking at just the right time, and has propelled Cleveland into the Vegas Summer League Championship against Houston. The bulk of his regular season contributions will still come in the G League after he signed a two-way deal with the Cavaliers, but Bates’ will have a little more rope than it did two weeks ago.

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Ironically, the spell Bates initially had over talent evaluators began to wear off at the 2021 EYBL following his decommitment from Michigan State, and reclassification that launched him into college ball a year early.

There were spurts of his upper-echelon pedigree on display between Memphis and Eastern Michigan, such as when he scored 29 consecutive points in a loss to Toledo. But empty numbers by Bates in losses to inferior mid-major programs have been a theme for Bates. His father, Elgin, built an entire AAU program around Emoni and established Ypsi Prep as a vehicle to showcase the nation’s top prospect. Instead, that basketball silo hindered his development and folded him into a one-dimensional player.

At Memphis, he shot an intolerable 38 percent from the field and was eventually benched by Penny Hardaway while the Tigers floundered. Once the dust settled, Bates was the Tigers’ fifth-leading scorer while taking the team’s second-most field goal attempts. While Bates missed time due to injury, the Tigers’ ship seemed to course correct without him mucking up the offense, and they wound up in the NCAA Tournament.

Following his freshman campaign, Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan, where he doubled his output, but stroked 40 percent from the field, and 64 percent from the charity stripe. Those struggles were partially written off as a product of youth. However, his sub-40 percent shooting at Eastern Michigan is more polarizing. After being forced out of his comfort zone, he’s thriving, which is what makes his summer league ascension so refreshing.

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Bates still has to showcase more resilience and a diversified portfolio in the G League against improved competition before he can be called a success story. When his shot goes cold, he retracts into a shell. Bates lacks a scoring toolkit diverse enough for a franchise cornerstone, especially in combination with his wiry frame, average vertical leap, and negative wingspan.

In 48 games against Division I competition, he amassed 65 assists and 118 turnovers. Not much has changed on that front in the G League where Bates is averaging half an assist and 2.2 turnovers per outing. Bates’ abysmal assist rate is a trait he shares with his peer Cam Whitmore in Monday’s summer league finale. Whitmore’s assist-to-turnover ratio during his lone season at Villanova contributed to his tumble from top prospect to draft day afterthought. In summer league he’s achieved an equilibrium, recording a pair of assists, and a matching pair of turnovers every night.

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Whitmore might be able to work through his playmaking issues as a mid-first rounder, but that tunnel fleshing out his game beyond the heliocentric bucket lord he’s been raised to be won’t cut it for a physically overmatched second-rounder who’s on a prove-it deal. If Bates had gone to Michigan State, Tom Izzo would have spent the last two years showing him the benefits of doing the dirty work well, and fleshed out his game.

Part of being an otherworldly prospect whose strength is scoring is having the basketball IQ to know which shots to take. Too often, Bates settles for bad shots until the bartender has to make an executive decision to cut him off. At 190 pounds soaking wet, Bates relies on heaving it from outside, while projecting as a league-average 3-point marksman.

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Only 22 percent of Bates’ shots came at the rim during his sophomore year. To put that into perspective, Whitmore finished at the rim 26 percent of the time and made 66 percent of those attempts.

When Bates gets going, he’s a potentially lethal microwave scorer, but proving he can fill up the cup is just the beginning. Bates’ shot-making ability is tantalizing, but he’s far from the sure thing. Right now, Bates is stroking it in, but in the G League, the grander test will be how he contributes to the lineup once he cools down. That adjustment will be the difference between Bates being an NBA summer league flash in the pan or him sticking around in an NBA rotation.

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Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex