CLEVELAND, Ohio — A few days before the 2023 NBA Draft, Emoni Bates walked off the Cleveland Clinic Courts — the Cavs’ spacious Independence-based practice facility — with a beaming smile on his face.
The 19-year-old kid, once dubbed Kevin Durant Jr., plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “Born for This” and billed as a surefire future No. 1 pick, felt like he’d just put on a show . for Cavs decision makers.
Bates was right.
On June 22, Cleveland selected him 49th overall, giving Bates the opportunity to fulfill a dream that began when he was just three years old – a dream that once felt lost.
That same smile beamed through the same gym Monday afternoon as Bates talked about his circuitous journey — from teenage phenom to overhyped prep star to college failure to NBA hopeful to Cleveland Cavalier.
“I just wanted an opportunity,” Bates said after Monday’s summer league practice. “I got the chance. I’ve been the happiest I’ve ever been. It’s definitely like a blessing for me.”
It wasn’t always like that. A few years ago, Bates’ joy temporarily disappeared – and the characteristic smile had been replaced by a look of fear, anger, pain, frustration, sadness and anger.
Getting to the NBA should be a foregone conclusion. A quick stop at Memphis with fellow AAU Jalen Duren and then straight to the lottery.
The expectations were too high. The spotlight was too bright. The target on the back was too much. His life began to spiral as the NBA dream seemed to fade.
“It just wasn’t fun for me for a moment,” Bates admitted.
The prodigy, who filled gyms and looked destined for stardom, averaged a paltry 9.7 points in 23 minutes as a freshman, while scouts and managers became concerned about his poor body language. Then came a mysterious back injury that sidelined the youngster for the last two months before returning for a few unremarkable tournament games.
Forget the NBA. Forget Memphis. Bates needed a fresh start. With his draft stock at an all-time low and countless questions surrounding him, Bates entered the transfer portal and opted to play his sophomore season close to home in Eastern Michigan.
Only it was another turbulent start.
Shortly before the season began, Bates was pulled over and arrested on weapons charges. He was later sentenced to 18 months of probation after pleading guilty to a weapons offense charge. If he completes clean probation, this charge will be dismissed.
In his lone season at Eastern Michigan, Bates averaged 19.2 points (third in the Mid-American Conference), 5.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists on 40.5% from the field and 33.0% from 3-point range range. He poured in 43 points during a matchup against Toledo, including 29 straight, showing his prolific scoring potential and giving a glimpse of why there was once so much hype.
An All-MAC Conference third-team selection, Bates recorded four double-doubles, had four 30-point games and finished fourth in the conference in 3-pointers – an area of weakness for Cleveland this past season.
Despite repairing his image – on and off the field – Bates had to wait more than four hours to get the expected phone call at night.
“It was a blessing and humbling,” Bates said when asked about falling to the late second round. “A lot of kids don’t get this opportunity, and for me to get a chance to come here, it’s really life. It was a lot of tears. Emotions were everywhere.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was young. It’s been my dream for a long time. For me to be here, it still feels unreal. Some days it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m in the NBA.’ It’s still shocking . But I feel like as I keep going through the process, I’ll get more comfortable. I’m trying not to think too far ahead. I’m in the present moment right now and my main thing is just getting better with each day. One step at a time. I don’t want to think too far, you know what I mean? I have to get better every day. It’s every step. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
For Bates, that restoration process technically started years ago and then continued this summer with his pre-draft preparation. He feels that he matures during two years of college. He has learned how to block out the noise and ignore the outside pressure. He has not set any high goals. He’s just another player getting his first taste of the NBA in Las Vegas with this summer’s Cavs.
Given where he was drafted and the likelihood of him signing a two-way contract, Bates isn’t even sure if he’ll be in the NBA come October. The majority of his rookie year could be spent with the Charge – Cleveland’s G League affiliate.
“Whatever they want me to do, that’s what I’m going to do,” Bates said.
A score-first wing known for his feathery shooting stroke and easy range, Bates’ focus the first few days has been on defense — a prerequisite in Cleveland. He is also working on gaining weight and adding strength. Bates said he currently weighs 182 pounds but would like to get up to 195. After Tuesday’s practice and an individual shooting session, Bates went straight to the weight room for a short lift.
“Everybody on the staff, they all want to see you do better. They all want to see you grow, and they pour into you every day — good and bad,” Bates said. “They don’t just teach you well. They will tell you what you are doing well and what you are doing poorly. For me, that is a good thing.”
The Cavs have no delusions that Bates will be a franchise changer or the star he was once predicted to be. They already have them. Donovan Mitchell. Darius Garland. Maybe Evan Mobley. And Bates is eager to learn from all of them, especially Mitchell, who sent out a tweet welcoming Bates to Cleveland shortly after he was selected.
The two have known each other for about two years and share a basketball coach, Chris Brickley.
“It seems to me [Mitchell] training and just getting my information from him and advice, it means a lot,” Bates said. “I already had a bond with him before I got here, so I know when he gets here, I know I’m going to learn a lot and just be under his wing.”
Mitchell feels the same way.
“Excited to have him. He’s going to be a big part of what we do here and I’m excited to see him get going,” Mitchell said June 24 during a celebrity softball game hosted by for Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II at Classic Park in Eastlake.
It is unclear what the future holds for Bates. Maybe he’ll make it. Maybe he doesn’t. History works against him. But he has arrived in Cleveland with a fresh perspective and a clean slate. He also has a new reality — out of the limelight and relieved of the grandiose expectations that nearly cost him his dream.
“I definitely found my joy back,” Bates said. “I love this. Just a long journey really. A lot of people have known me since I was 12. No expectations. I’m with talented players. I can learn from everybody. I don’t have to go out there and do this or that. Just go out there and have fun playing basketball.”