Sixteen-year-old basketball marvel Emoni Bates, whose 17th birthday won’t arrive until 2021, is almost universally regarded by scouts as a transcendent talent.
If you’ve never seen Bates play or are mostly unfamiliar with his file, that lead sentence might seem platitudinous. It is not. Allow me to assure you that very few humans in the history of the planet have ever been as good at basketball, at 16.5 years old, as Bates is right now.
It’s true that every No. 1-rated recruit is annually tossed into an inevitable hype cycle long before they get to college. “The best since … ” is a common prelude from pundits when they build up these teenagers, as if each passing year has to bring more reasons to justify upping the hype ante from the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that.
With Bates, those frontiers were mostly crossed when he was 15. His talent may ultimately warrant the hype and hyperbole, but it remains to be seen (and I’m talking: we’re going to need at least five years here) if Bates being referred to in the same breath as LeBron James is certifiable lunacy. To be clear, Bates isn’t the next LeBron — rather, LeBron signifies the start of the timeline. The last time a basketball prospect was this seemingly/automatically bound to be great and identified as such at 16, well that was when the King came out of Akron, Ohio.
Bates’ high school season in Michigan was cut short due to the coronavirus, yet he won Gatorade’s Boys National Player of the Year honor as a sophomore after averaging 32.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.1 steals. He’s the only sophomore to win the award. Not even LeBron did it.
On Monday — to the surprise of almost everybody — Bates made both Tom Izzo’s offseason and a little bit of history. With little advanced warning, Bates appeared on ESPN with his family and soft-committed to play at Michigan State.
“I’m not sure what the future may hold, but as I do know of right now, I will be committing to Michigan State University,” he said.
That’s a multi-million-dollar caveat, but still, for the second straight Monday we had a No. 1-ranked prospect announce intentions to play college basketball after scuttlebutt preceding it speculated the opposite would occur.
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Bates is in the Class of 2022, meaning his pledge to the Spartans (should it hold true) comes well over two years (29 months) before he would play a game in the Breslin Center. Reclassifying to 2021 is also an option, should the Bates family choose to pursue that.
“That is to be determined,” Bates’ father, Elgin, told CBS Sports. “We have no clue right now. We don’t even know if there’s going to be high school sports next year. … He could be in position to graduate early. He’s not going to reclassify to try to bump up to the 2021 class. … I understand some people have to do what they have to do, but we’re not in no rush. When the time comes, let’s see what happens. He’s a 2022 kid, let him be a 2022 kid. We don’t know what the landscape is going to be.”
Nevertheless, let’s stick with 2022 for now and go back to that little bit of history I mentioned. A cursory scan at past commitments of top-ranked prospects didn’t turn up any verbal pledges prior to the start of their junior year of high school. Bates’ move came in conjunction with the news he will be leaving Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to play for his father’s prep academy (also in Ypsilanti; it’s called Ypsi Prep Academy and is affiliated with Aim High Academy, a long-standing prep school in Michigan), which is a progressive if not unprecedented move. We have the parent of a top-rated talent looking to certify his own satellite academic institution and in doing so is bringing in other five-star talents from inside and outside Michigan.
Only seven high school recruits have earned a 1.000 rating by 247Sports since it began evaluating players in 2003.
|2022||Emoni Bates||Committed to Michigan State|
|2006||Greg Oden||Ohio State|
|2004||Dwight Howard||NBA Draft|
|2003||Lebron James||NBA Draft|
What’s also intriguing is the way this all happened. No big buildup. No mentions on social media days or weeks in advance about any announcement. With less than an hour before Bates put a Spartans hat on his head, only then did most realize what might even be happening. The Bates family was determined to not leak any announcement or post anything to social media channels for fear of even a slight chance of word on this leaking out.
So here is the greatest high school player in America, and he just zagged on an entire industry trend of commitments. Almost nobody commits to a college before their junior year. The best player in America just beat most of the 2021 class to the table. Top-rated recruits normally don’t give their eventual coaches even 29 weeks, let alone 29 months, to prepare for their arrival. But Bates did it like this because his recruitment is unique. There has never been a player recruited — or, more accurately, not recruited — like him. Never before in the one-and-done era has there been someone so talented who was so thinly courted by the blue bloods and power programs.
“For him to see guys of lesser talent have 20, 30 offers — and he has four? What are we doing here that is backward?” Elgin Bates said. “I mean, I get it. ‘We know he’s not going to college.’ If that’s your thought process, then he doesn’t even need to play for you anyway. But is he deserving of that 30-second recruiting call? Absolutely. Kids are kids, kids have feelings. That’s the part that teed me off.”
This is ground I covered last July, when I was embedded with Bates and his grassroots team, Bates Fundamentals. At that time, when the wide inference was Bates would probably just turn pro out of high school, his father declared that “a wrongful assumption.” He maintains that stance today.
Michigan State never assumed anything. With East Lansing sitting a shade over an hour northwest from Ypsilanti, Izzo and his staff have faithfully and patiently recruited Bates and played it straight the entire way.
“Why not go to Michigan State?” Elgin Bates said. “No one else has given that maximum effort.”
All that paid off Monday — and paid off months if not a year ahead of schedule. Earlier this month, when coaches were allowed to finally call 2022 prospects, Izzo called at 12:01 a.m. MSU was the only school to reach out on June 15 until Michigan in the late afternoon, Elgin Bates said.
“How much longer is he supposed to wait before people get on board with his recruitment?” Bates said. “I don’t want my son to just be a business partner. I want it to be genuine interest and caring. Come on now, at the end of the day, he’s a 16-year-old kid. Why do most high school kids play sports? The next step is what? The next phase is what? College.”
But the speculation on Bates and if he really will ever play in college isn’t disappearing. It seems fairly unlikely the NBA will change its age-minimum rule prior to 2022, so the chances of Bates going right from high school to the NBA are low. As for the G League, Bates told ESPN.com in an embargoed interview prior to his announcement that he prefers college basketball over the G League.
“It’s good for certain players,” Bates said. “That’s a lot of money. I don’t really plan on, I don’t think I’ll do it. It’s good for some people, but I don’t think I’ll head that route.”
Unless a major factor alters Bates’ situation and allows him to get right to the NBA, it sure seems like he will play for MSU. That means the Spartans just landed the most important prospect in program history. It means college basketball could wind up having a star as big as Zion Williamson, which is something that seemed borderline impossible as recently as a few months ago.
Yes, Bates has that Zion-type ceiling, particularly when it comes to marketing. And when you consider how important and influential the name, image and likeness legislation will be when it is expected to be voted through in January 2021, you get an even clearer picture of why this can happen and should happen for Bates, MSU, college basketball and the NCAA. He is the ideal player at a forthcoming inflection point for the sport.
“NIL for us, it’s not about the social media, it’s not about the YouTube followers, it’s not about money,” Elgin Bates said. “It’s about the game. Perfect the craft, focus in between the lines and everything else will fall into place. We’re not worried about that right now.”
To be fair, the Bateses don’t have to worry about it because multi-generational wealth is coming, it’s just a question of whether it’s two or three years away.
The young man has made an initial decision. Michigan State has done its part. It’s now on the NCAA to take this opportunity and make sure it doesn’t screw it up. It needs to not only bring in NIL legislation, but needs to commit to bold bylaws that empower real earning potential for headlining athletes, so that players in 2023, 2024 and decades to come see fair-market-value opportunity. College basketball has someone earnestly described as a generational talent willing to swat away G League offers in exchange for the college experience.
Emoni Bates is a multi-million-dollar gift to college sports. The NCAA would be wise to realize what hangs in the balance and do all it can to help ensure the decision he made Monday doesn’t change in the next 12-to-29 months.