It's not too early to start thinking about the future. The Front Office on LaMelo Ball's rise as a prospect, an introduction to Cade Cunningham and why the 2021 draft will be stacked.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — In most cases it’s either difficult, irresponsible or both to say anything definitive about the future of any 15-year-old, basketball player or otherwise. In the case of Emoni Bates, decidedly the next anointed high school star, whose past several months of play have left the hoops industry buzzing, those tenets still ought to apply. Yet Bates and his undeniable gifts for scoring the ball have found a way to transcend caution in the minds of many who know better, and the more you sit and watch him, the more it feels like you’re watching something. He’s certainly earned the top spot in the high school class of 2022, and in a couple years, when the NBA has re-opened its doors to a new preps-to-pros generation, Bates may well be the face of it.
His early trials have been well-publicized by college recruiting sites and breathlessly quoted in anonymity by awestruck scouts, but for the unindoctrinated, Bates, a 6’8” guard from Ypsilanti, Mich., has been crowned by many as the best NBA prospect since LeBron James (or Kevin Durant, depending how you feel). He faced arguably the stiffest test of his fledgling career last week at the Nike Skills Academy in Thousand Oaks. Bates was the youngest player and only rising sophomore in attendance at the prestigious camp, which brings together the most promising prospects from the sneaker giant’s youth circuit and throws them into drills and scrimmages for NBA scouts to evaluate and pick apart. After playing in his own 15-under age group all summer, Bates held his own in a key proving ground against older players and stronger bodies, though not without some ups and downs. And while you can hedge and qualify everything while trying to guess at the future, it’s now impossible to deny the fact that Bates is on the way.
Rarely has there been so obvious a candidate for a No. 1 selection in a given draft this far out than Bates, who turns 16 in January and is already expected to be the first pick in the 2022 NBA draft—which league sources continue to indicate should be the first to let 18-year-olds back into the league out of high school (thus likely to include players from the current 2021 and 2022 classes). The impetus for that change continues to come from the commissioner’s office above all else. The industry expects it to change when push becomes shove in negotiations with the players’ association. Top college programs with the notable exception of Michigan State have largely refrained from getting involved with Bates, who in all likelihood may never play a college game. Nike picked up the Bates Fundamentals AAU program, coached by Bates’s father, who played Division II ball and spent time as a pro in Europe. A documentary crew has already begun following Emoni’s every step. His was far from the biggest circus on the grassroots circuit—that designation applied more cleanly to Bronny James (a different story entirely)—but it surely won’t be long before Bates is a household name in one way or another.
Make no mistake: there are always pitfalls with this type of early stardom, nowadays expressed in retweets and likes and free gear and not-as-free gear that can warp the mind of anyone at any age in any walk of life. But it has been the confluence of hype from all over the industry, from recruiting experts and NBA insiders alike, that’s made it so difficult to pump the brakes. Scouts I’ve polled have likened his body type and pull-up game to Durant, compared his advanced handle and guard skills to Penny Hardaway, and generally struggled to exercise restraint. In a conversation earlier this year, one Western Conference executive I spoke with compared him to Kobe Bryant. (“Obviously he has to fill out, and the mentality is what makes Kobe Kobe.”) For the most part, everyone acknowledges how much can change over the course of the next few years.
Still, from an objective standpoint, after repeat viewings, it’s all quite legitimate. At Nike Skills, it wasn’t so much how often Bates scored as it was the way he does it that turned heads on the sidelines. He’s remarkably clinical for a player so young, and possesses a translatable scoring skill package that not even the most gifted of the other, older prospects in attendance could truly match. Bates can hit pull-up threes from NBA range off a half-stop, spins into jumpers and floaters with an innate sense of balance, and uses angles to finish creatively around the rim. Bates’s tendencies are entirely scoring oriented at the moment, leading to some notable frustration when the ball didn’t find him in gameflow or when forced to battle with older defenders, but his natural ability to get to his jumper and keep defenders off balance while handling can be breathtaking. There were moments when he looked 15, and made shots where he might as well have been 25. “He’s got shake, and he can already shoot over you.” one Eastern Conference executive explained. “That translates.” The exciting part is less the possibility Bates could evolve into a great perimeter and more the fact that he’s already a quite good one. He stands apart, even within a group of high school prospects from the 2020 and 2021 classes that already have NBA teams looking past the upcoming draft and on to the future.
That Bates can score the way he does at such a high level already despite a lack of immense wingspan or much semblance of adult muscle on his body, is what points to the superstar ceiling. His upper body and legs have yet to mature, and there are plenty of instances where a prospect’s slender body type never fills out in a way that fully augments prodigious talent. “It all really depends on how much he grows,” says one Western Conference executive. “I also want to see his playmaking gene.” To that point, it’s still tricky to assess how good of a passer and defender Bates is and can be. Certainly, there’s a chance he can become so efficient a scorer that it won’t matter. One Eastern Conference scout expressed some concern over Bates’s demeanor, noting an understated anger to the way he plays. The killer instinct appears to be present, but to what end is a fair question, if a pointless one for someone with so much of his life ahead of him. For every LeBron James, there are myriad Renardo Sidneys, and circumstances unforeseen.
While Bates is not the surest thing in high school basketball—that title rightfully belongs to Cade Cunningham, a rising high school senior whose combination of size, skill and brilliant on-court intellect could make him an American answer to Luka Doncic—he has become prep basketball’s premier long-term curiosity, so gifted that discussing his “potential” might be underselling how good he already is at what he does, and at such an early age. We can be as rational as we want here, but it’s hard not to watch Bates and understand the why behind it. That alone, at least for now, would seem to justify the hype. At any rate, as soon as NBA scouts can return to high school gymnasiums on a regular basis, Ypsilanti will become a popular destination in short order. June 2022 is closer than you think, and the early optimism is nothing short of overwhelming.