If you’ve ever seen Emoni Bates fake his body forward only to take a behind-the-back dribble before draining a step-back 3 over a now-out-of-black defender, you’d think, “Now that’s an NBA player .”
If you’ve ever seen Emoni Bates do all that, but instead of getting up and shooting, dip his shoulder back toward the basket, cross the defender up with his left hand and drive to the rim before using a soft flick of church music. wrist to put it in, you’d say, “Now that’s a great NBA player.”
At 6-9 and uncommonly talented, there’s a reason Bates was the top-ranked recruit in his class entering junior high.
There’s a reason his father was able to create his own high school team in Ypsilanti, Michigan — complete with shoe deals and ESPN appearances. There’s a reason no one really blinked when he was called “the next LeBron James.” There’s a reason he was on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” at the age of 15.
“Born For This,” read the cover.
The thing is, if you watched Emoni Bates do almost anything but the above the past few years — as his career spiraled off course — you’d also understand why the former no-miss lottery pick fell all the way to 49th overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Regardless of draft order, the prodigy is now a pro, and everything that got him here — the good, the bad and the ugly — is behind him. No more obstacles. No more excuses. No more waiting time. It’s up to him now. In fact, it always has been.
Whether Bates, now 19, is ready to seize the opportunity in front of him remains to be seen. He says all the right things. He conveys all the right messages. However, it has always been that way.
Words mean nothing now. Actions do.
Bates has been too busy for too long. Now he has to be patient. He needs to focus on the little things, making an up-and-coming team that didn’t need much but could use the kind of scoring he has proven capable of delivering.
Bates’ story has been told. Child star. Great expectations. Led Ypsilanti Lincoln to its first state title as a freshman and likely would have done it again as a sophomore if not for COVID and the cancellation of the tournament.
As a junior, his father started his own team, Ypsi Prep, which played only 10 games on a national schedule. Emoni finished top five for Naismith Prep Player of the Year anyway.
He quickly reclassified as a senior to accelerate his ascension to the NBA. He chose to play at the University of Memphis and learn under Penny Hardaway, himself a lanky, talented point guard.
Penny was a worker though. For Emoni, nothing worked. On the field. Off the pitch. There were problems with family, friends and trust. There was competition for playing time. There were injuries. There was immaturity. It all condemned him to only 18 games and 9.7 points per game.
The NBA wasn’t an option, so he moved to his hometown of Eastern Michigan in an attempt to restart the process. Before the season began, he was arrested on a weapons charge, which was pleaded out.
At Eastern it was mixed. In an early season game against Michigan, he scored 30 and was the most talented player on a field that included the Wolverines’ Jett Howard (11th overall selection Thursday) and Kobe Bufkin (15th overall).
Of course, “talented” is not necessarily “best.”
That has always been a problem for Bates. He scored 43 points — including 29 straight for EMU — in a game against Toledo last year. His team lost anyway. His 19.2 points per game looked impressive. EMU’s 8-23 record did not.
As the season progressed, well-coached opponents learned to force him out of his comfort zone and into shootouts. In two games against Akron, for example, he was held to 4-of-25 shooting (and 1-of-14 from 3).
The result was not the NBA Draft night he once envisioned — green rooms and hugs from commissioner Adam Silver. Bates was an afterthought, a second-round gamble by a Cavaliers team that didn’t even have a first-round pick.
The thing is, none of that matters now. The draft doesn’t mean anything anymore, not in a league currently dominated by two-time MVP and NBA champion Nikola Jokic, the 41st overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft.
If you can play, you can play. If you can prove it, you can stay. Now is the time for Bates to show not only who he is, but what he wants to be.
No more distractions. No more family or friends to please (hopefully). It’s just him and the one NBA team that believed in him, that still saw something in him, that were willing to give him a chance to come in and work.
Bates has been pulled in so many directions, taken down so many paths, asked to serve as a profit center based on his potential for so long that it can be refreshing. Just play.
He can do things that few can. If he can do the other things, the little things, the team things, the selfless things, the mature things, the things that ask a kid to be a man and a prospect to be a pro, then his journey will be quite an inspiring story. If not, then don’t.
“Born for this,” Sports Illustrated once declared. The magazine was not wrong.
It’s just time for Emoni Bates to prove it.