Bates has fallen considerably over the past two years since he received those glowing accolades and projections. Perhaps his lowest point was last weekend, when he was arrested on weapon charges after a traffic stop and suspended from his college team at Eastern Michigan.
Bates was driving a borrowed car and the weapon, a firearm, didn’t belong to him, his lawyer claimed in a hearing the day after the arrest. A court date has been set for Oct. 6 and the situation will play out in the judicial system.
Bates could be found innocent and be able to return to basketball at EMU or, if found guilty, he might not even put on a jersey or play a single game this upcoming college season. For anyone lucky to see Bates play as a young prospect when he first hit the basketball scene, it’s hard to believe this is where he has ended up at 18 years old.
He has been on a road consisting of questionable decisions, on and off the basketball court, amid intense media glare. It could be argued that the hype was a contributor to Bates’ current state in basketball limbo.
In 2019, when Bates was 15, Sports Illustrated called him a “once-in-a-generation talent” and compared him to Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. As a sophomore, ESPN ranked him the best prospect in high school, regardless of class and compared him to Kevin Durant. That same year, Yahoo Sports and Rivals.com had high praise for Bates after he became the youngest boys basketball player to win the Gatorade Player of the Year award. During his junior year, The Athletic did a long-form feature on Bates and stated, “It’s not a question of if Emoni will be a top pick in the NBA Draft, but when.”
That’s a lot of pressure for any basketball player, especially someone as young as Bates.
Even at age 14, Bates turned heads with his long frame as a 6-foot-9 freshman in high school. He could score from anywhere on the court and dropped 43 points on Bronny James with LeBron coaching on the sideline. He had time to grow into his body and the sky appeared to be the limit for Bates. With his popularity soaring, his father, Elgin (EJ) Bates, created a high school and AAU team just for his son (Ypsi Prep Academy and Nike’s Bates Fundamental). Bates and his teammates were flown all around the country for games and Bates himself needed security getting to and from the gym. This was all happening before Bates turned 16.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Bates would work out with his dad in their backyard every day and rarely saw any five-on-five competition for several months. When the high school season resumed six months later, Bates had shown little to no development. He was forcing shots and getting bodied by stronger players. Ypsi Prep was regularly losing games on national television (one of the highest profile game being against future No. 2 NBA draft pick, Chet Holmgren). Nevertheless, he remained the top high school prospect in the junior class.
The summer before his senior year, Bates announced that he would reclassify up a year and join Penny Hardaway’s squad at Memphis, playing alongside fellow top high school player, Jalen Duren.
There was a lot of hype surrounding Duren and Bates when they came in as two of the top recruits in the nation. Hardaway had success landing top recruits like James Wiseman.
Bates kicked off his college career averaging 16 points in the first three games. His playing time and consistency took a dive soon after, and he temporarily left campus in late January, citing flared-up back pains. His body language on the bench and toward Hardaway was not positive and after the season, Bates entered the transfer portal.
“You could see glimpses of his potential on the court but being so young and playing at the college level, it was clear he still needed another year of development,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “I was really looking forward to this season, especially at a program where he would have to be ‘the guy’ and show leadership.”
Bates waited until Aug. 23 to announce his commitment to Eastern Michigan. His other college or pro options included Louisville and the G League Ignite, but he chose the school located in his hometown of Ypsilanti.
He missed summer workouts with the team and was a late addition to the program.
“There are always pros and cons to staying closer to home,” one Power Five assistant coach told Yahoo Sports. “The pros are obviously you have your family nearby and they’re there to support you. The cons is what we’re seeing with this Emoni situation now. People that shouldn’t be around and are a bad influence can put you in a position like this. It’s a really, really sad situation and you hate to see any kid go through it.”
Bates is only 18. There is still time for him to fulfill his dream and make the NBA. Prior to his arrest, Bates was a projected first-round pick in the 2023 draft. Depending on how things play out in court, that could change and NBA teams are going to watch this closely.
“When evaluating players for the NBA, it’s just as important how they conduct themselves on the court as it is off the court,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “There’s still time for him to learn from this and grow as a player, so I don’t think anyone is completely folding on Bates yet.”
This isn’t necessarily the end for Bates. When looking at last year’s draft class, Keegan Murray (No. 4 pick) was 22 years old, Jalen Williams (No. 12 pick) was 21 and Ochai Agbaji (No. 14 pick) was 22. So there’s still time to come out of this, but it is now a steep uphill climb for Bates, with his first test coming Oct. 6 in a courtroom.