Brennan: Emoni Bates' career is now at stake with transfer to Eastern Michigan

Brennan: Emoni Bates’ career is now at stake with transfer to Eastern Michigan

From little more than the title of a YouTube highlight compilation, you can get a very small sense of the circus-industrial complex that has always surrounded Emoni Bates, and that surrounds him still. You can get a taste of the essential strangeness of being him.

“Emoni Bates Is The #1 Transfer Target” is the video’s title and, well, yeah, stop right there. No, he’s not, not anymore. Bates played in 18 games as a freshman at Memphis last season. He averaged 9.7 points in 23.4 minutes. He left the Tigers midseason with a back injury, when the whole team appeared to be imploding, only for his former running mates to immediately excel in his absence. This spring, when the transfer portal was full and buzzing, Bates wasn’t even a top-10 player in C.J. Moore and Sam Vecenie’s transfer tracker. But because his name is Emoni Bates, because he has already spent a large chunk of his life being made into consumable forms of visual Internet entertainment under the “next big thing” heading, the YouTube compilation creators of the world still sell him as the top prospect, that next big thing. The hype machine churns on, algorithmically, unthinkingly, despite the cold reality that Bates, one of the most disappointing freshmen stars in years, is in many ways already fighting for his career.

That’s how bad it got last season for the once-adored prospect — and that is the weight that accompanies his choice this offseason, as Bates embarks on yet another chapter in his confounding basketball odyssey. Nothing less than the kid’s career is now at stake. And so it was, after months of extended transfer portal drama, waiting long after any other noteworthy player announced their destination, Bates revealed Wednesday via Instagram edit that — drum roll, please — he would be attending … hometown Eastern Michigan University, whose men’s basketball program ranked 316th in’s adjusted efficiency rankings last season.

Oh. OK then. With all due respect to Eastern Michigan and coach Stan Heath, it is not a decision that bodes well for Bates’ extended basketball future. It is, if anything, a testament to just how far off the rails this whole thing has gotten.

Eighteen years old is too early to call time on anybody’s basketballing potential, not least of which a kid who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 15 with “Magic, Michael, LeBron … And the 15-Year-Old Who’s Next in Line” in the subhead. Bates has been feted from the beginning, always destined to be great, and it’s been an awfully long time since a prospect of that caliber simply … wasn’t.

Bates, though, is a unique case. In a world in which young players are more visible, and possibly more understood, than ever before — in a world in which the old evaluative misses don’t happen nearly as often as they used to — the end of Bates’ prep career was uniquely enigmatic. He came into the grassroots consciousness as early as sixth grade, exploded onto the scene playing up an age bracket against top EYBL competition, and then, as a freshman, led his previously unstoried Michigan high school, Lincoln, to its first-ever state championship. He was crowned with all of the classic trappings of the childhood prodigy, and the attention that came with it. By his sophomore season, Lincoln was hiring security guards to stage otherwise unremarkable high school league games. Bates sneaked out of gym side doors to avoid the crush of autograph seekers.

So far, so good, in other words. Then, before his junior year, things got kind of weird. His family, fronted by father E.J. Bates, decided to pull Emoni out of Lincoln and put him into a newly established private academy, Ypsi Prep, created more or less to suit the player’s individual purposes. E.J. Bates recruited other top prep players to play alongside his son, but to the outside there were few illusions about what the purpose of the whole exercise was. As The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn discovered when he visited with E.J. Bates, the idea was ostensibly about taking authorship over his son’s career, and who got to have a piece of him, while he was still young and figuring things out. It was about protection and control. To many coaches and grassroots basketball folks, it was little more than a vanity project, and not a particularly wise decision for the kid’s development as a player to boot.

(It was around this time that Bates also, randomly, decided to commit to Michigan State, even though no one — including Michigan State — thought he would ever play at Michigan State, or even in college altogether. The entire announcement felt like a branding exercise with no tangible relationship to the rest of Bates’ career. Again: weird.)

However interesting the Ypsi Prep idea was — and it was interesting, if nothing else — it does not appear to have helped Bates in the near term. His junior season at Ypsi Prep saw him post the worst shooting numbers of his high school career. Playing in the pandemic, with a totally new set of teammates, likely didn’t help. His recruiting rankings, which had always been the functional equivalent of Bugs Bunny-style cartoon protruding heart eyes, noticeably slumped.

Then another twist: With two years to kill between his junior season of high school and his first eligible draft year, and with his development stalling, and also with NIL rights now allowing him to profit from his talent right away, Bates would reclassify into 2021 class and become a freshman at Memphis for the 2021-22 season.

This decision was an unmitigated individual disaster.

First came Memphis pro day, which revealed Bates’ physical measurements and got tongues wagging at the previously unknown negative wingspan (a big, gasp-worthy taboo in NBA Draft circles) and that-can’t-be-right 24-inch vertical leap. The first exposure to the quantified outside world post-Ypsi Prep was a detriment to Bates’ reputation. Not a good start.

Then, Memphis began the season as messily as any team in the country; by early December, Penny Hardaway was candidly torching his players, particularly his veterans, in postgame press conferences. Bates struggled profoundly. After some decent offensive performances against light competition early in the season – Hardaway’s pitch to Bates was to use him as a lengthy scoring point guard, a huge ask of a reclassified kid getting his first test of Division I college hoops — Bates soon looked totally lost. He struggled to make shots, he struggled even more to distribute and facilitate, and he was a complete mess on the defensive end, completely unable to stay remotely connected to the Tigers’ team defensive concepts. His offensive rating was 91.4 percent. He turned over the ball on a quarter of his possessions. He shot 44.2 percent from 2 and 32.9 percent from 3. In the 16 games Memphis had Bates in the rotation, the Tigers were a top-60-level team with a 9-7 record and losses to East Carolina, UCF, Ole Miss and Georgia. When Bates left the team for an extended period with a back injury in early February, the Tigers went on a roll — winning 10 of their 12 games, beating Houston twice, getting themselves into the NCAA Tournament and looking like one of the best teams in the country in the underlying per-possession data.

That wasn’t simply Bates’ fault, obviously. But even with that caveat in mind, it’s impossible to escape the fact that there was no player in college basketball last season whose stock as a future professional — let alone a kid people thought was a future perennial All-Star not all that long ago — was more damaged. If Emoni Bates was a stock, you would have sold it by now.

Except here’s the thing: He’s not a stock. He’s a kid. And there were — are? — reasons to think there was more to him than he was showing on the floor last season.

First of all, it is hard to play college basketball as a reclassified freshman; there are plenty of examples of players struggling. A year of figuring out the college game, taking your licks, and then coming back stronger in what should be your true freshman season is hardly out of the question. More than that, though, Bates was thrust into a difficult situation at Memphis. Hardaway got the most out of his team last season — he eventually quieted all the people who thought he was no more than a recruiter with that late push and the thrilling near-miss against Gonzaga in the second round — but his decision to make Bates a point guard, wherever that idea originated, was totally ill-conceived. Bates, at this stage of his career, is a dexterous wing shotmaker who can occasionally go get you a bucket. Asking him to run a college offense at age 17, no matter how talented, was … optimistic.

Emoni Bates shot to fame early in his basketball career, considered the top player in all of high school by the start of his sophomore season. ( Scott W. Grau / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This is, fundamentally, the story of the last two years of Emoni Bates’ basketball life: bad decisions. Or decisions which, even if made with the best and purest of intentions, did not benefit the player at all. Those decisions (and a few shaky measurements at a pro day) have taken a kid everyone thought was the future No. 1 draft pick a couple years ago and made him a distressed asset badly in need of rehabilitation. Another year like 2021-22 and his draft stock might cease to exist altogether. If ever there was an offseason when the only consideration should be whether Bates will improve and develop as a result, it is this one.

For a while there, it even seemed like Bates and his family agreed.

Back in the heady days of spring, it seemed likely that Bates’ eventual destination would be Louisville. This made a lot of sense! Louisville would have meant working with new head coach Kenny Payne, the former Kentucky right-hand man and New York Knicks assistant who has made an entire career out of working with hypertalented pro hopefuls like Bates — making them better, yes, but also shepherding them, moving them forward, getting them ready for the next level. By all accounts, Bates was always a shy kid, one whose hot-blooded internal drive only ever showed up on the basketball court, sometimes maybe too much so, and the cloistered existence and total safety of his final high school season couldn’t have helped him prepare for the eyes of the world to be on him. The crisis of confidence, the “what if I’m really not going to do this?” must be real. It must also be terrifying.

Payne, in theory, should have been able to help with that, while in return getting a talented player to mold in his first year of a rebuild. At Memphis, everything was about Memphis, about Hardaway, about figuring this team out, about proving the Tigers were on their way to the tournament. This could have been a more mutually beneficial arrangement.

Then again, plenty of top programs could have offered a similar setup. And yet, as time went on and the musical chairs kept moving, it became clearer and clearer that high-major interest in Bates was waning. It is one thing to be a talented player who struggled as a reclassified teenager in your first year on campus; that happens all the time. It is another to drag out these decisions. It is another thing to have a whole circus come to town with you. Coaches don’t mind challenging situations or demanding families if the talent is worth it on the floor. They’ll always take that deal. When it’s a reclamation project, though? When you’re starting from scratch? The combination of Bates’ brutal freshman season and the messy approach to this summer gave plenty of coaches pause. At what point is the whole thing just not worth it?

As Bates’ extended transfer decision process dragged on, it became clear that what had started as a Batesian preference for public-relations panache had become more like a scramble to find a home. Funny enough, Bates wound up literally at home. It feels like Ypsi Prep 2.0, a kid and his advisors retreating into the comfortable, forming a protective shell, warding off the outside. It would be more understandable if this idea had benefited the kid the first time around. Is this really the best possible place for him to develop?

Because there should be something there to develop. There was one thing that always impressed about him as a prep star before the Ypsi Prep debacle, and that even showed up with the Tigers last season: He cares. He tries. He played hard for Memphis more often than not, really did his best, even when he looked totally overwhelmed. Whatever happened off the floor (especially with that back injury, about which rumors always swirled), on the floor he looked engaged. He worked. There is something in there, something that can get him to the next level, if someone can unlock it, and if Bates and his family — who must now at least somewhat understand how Emoni’s prospectus reputation has changed — could find the right path for that process to take hold.

It’s impossible to know the future, to know whether that will happen. This kid’s NBA future is now 100 percent on the line. It sounds crazy, considering where he was just a couple of seasons ago, but that’s where things stood in the spring, when it looked like Bates was in line to join one of a handful of elite destinations. It is especially true now that he has ended up at Eastern Michigan. Bates now has a long way to go to prove that he’s a viable college player, let alone worth some NBA team drafting him in 2023, or the summer after that. He has to prove he can defend. He has to prove he can score efficiently. He has to prove that he can put the ball on the floor, use screens, make good decisions.

He has to prove that this strange offseason journey, and its even stranger destination, isn’t the death knell for his talent — that a once-promising, unthinkably hyped career isn’t sputtering quietly into nothingness. Even the YouTube mixtape creators will get the memo eventually.

(Top photo: Petre Thomas / USA Today)

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