Will Emoni Bates ever play in Memphis again?

Four years ago, 14-year-old Emoni Bates was projected as the next great basketball player. He was to be a generational talent and was hailed as “the next Kevin Durant”.

Between his eighth and ninth grades, Bates scored 43 points on Bronny James’ team with LeBron James looking aside more than impressed. In his sophomore season, he became the youngest player to win the Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year award. Bates also received praise from dwyane WadeTrae Young, Draymond Green and Jayson Tatum.

“He has all the tools to be a great player,” Tatum told Yahoo Sports. “He’s tall, long, can score from anywhere on the pitch and has a good sense of the game. He’s the real deal.

Bates’ high school career was far from normal. He started at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and put up incredible numbers in his first and second seasons, including 63 points and 21 rebounds in a win late in his sophomore year. After his popularity reached global status, Nike introduced Bates Fundamental, a league Elgin (EJ) Bates, Emoni’s father, started when Emoni was 4 years old, and gave them prime-time games in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League.

During the summer before his freshman year, Bates announced that he would be playing college basketball at Michigan State. It was a commitment that seemed to come out of left field, and many doubted he would end up playing for Tom Izzo. (He opted out before the end of his junior season.)

‘Control the Narrative’: Emoni Bates’ twisty high school journey

At the end of the nationally televised engagement, EJ Bates announced that he was forming Ypsi Prep Academy where Emoni would play high school basketball. The school operated alongside an unaffiliated charter school in an unmarked rented building in Ypsilanti.

“I want to control the narrative at all times,” EJ Bates told The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn. “As long as I can shield him and protect him from everything I can right now, that’s what me and his mom are going to do.”

Ypsi Prep loaded its schedule with matches across the country and faced some of the best players and teams on national television. Grassroots basketball scouts and analysts began to doubt Bates’ star status after he clashed with Chet Holmgren, who is currently a top prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Ever since he was 15, Bates had been billed as the next. But on the national stage, Holmgren shone as the best prospect. The 7-footer finished with 31 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks in the win.

“Because of COVID and everything, this was the first time many of us had seen Emoni against high-level competition,” an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “I came out of that game more impressed with Holmgren as a future prospect than with Bates.”

There was still a ton of fanfare around Bates when he reclassified a year and signed on to play for Penny Hardaway in Memphis alongside fellow top prospect Jalen Duren. Even LeBron called Bates and Hardaway a “perfect match”, add, “[Hardaway] can relate to [Bates] at all levels and [is going to] let him loose.”

Memphis’ Jalen Duren, left, and Emoni Bates took very different paths in their first season. (Joe Murphy/Getty Pictures)

Memphis mystery: Will Bates finish the first season?

There are always growing pains for freshmen when they begin their college career. The pace is faster, every player is stronger and more athletic, and it takes a few games for young players to get their feet under them. There was even more grace period for Bates and Duren, who technically should both be seniors in high school this season.

Duren began to adapt well; Bates did not.

It all came to a halt at the end of January when Bates played three consecutive games scoring in single digits and averaging just 23 minutes per game. His body language on the bench showed how frustrated the former No. 1 high school prospect was.

Four days later, Bates was back home in Michigan and listed as “doubtful” for Memphis’ game at Cincinnati. Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported “[Bates’] the future with the program suddenly came into question,” and EJ Bates told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, “He has an appointment to see a specialist at his house about his back. He’s been in pain for three weeks, and we’ll find out what’s going on.” The injury was never reported by the coaches or medical staff.

While Bates was out, Memphis went 10-1 and revived its NCAA tournament hopes.

There is a slim chance that Bates will return to the field for Memphis this season. He’s back with the team and getting shot during the pregame. Hardaway called it “day to day” and added, “Doing 1 on zero is different from building yourself [to] receive a real bump and then hit the ground.”

Possible next steps for Bates

Where does Bates go from here?

Whether or not he makes the playoffs, his future in Memphis looks murky.

Because he turned 18 on Jan. 28, Bates does not qualify for the 2022 NBA draft and must still play a year before being eligible for the league. Prior to committing to Memphis, he had a final roster from G League Ignite, Overtime Elite, Australian National Basketball League, Michigan State, Oregon, Baylor and Miami.

“After the tough year Emoni has had, I could see him turning pro next year,” a Power Five assistant coach told Yahoo Sports. “There are a lot of options now for young players, and at just 18 he still has a lot of upside in his game.”

Bates has time to develop. He’s already an elite defender with his 6-foot-9 frame, has a decent grip for his size, and can get a good shot with a hand to the face due to his high release. He needs to work on his shot selection after shooting 38% from the field and 33% from 3-pointers this season.

The hype around Bates cooled considerably during his lone season in Memphis. The fictional drafts from early 2023 still have him as a first-round pick, but that’s a far cry from where he was expected to be in 2018.

Bates is an ultra-competitor and whatever the future holds, he will have plenty of motivation and something to prove. Maybe this is exactly the year he needed after being under the microscope and trying to deal with the immense pressure of being the next Kevin Durant or LeBron James, instead of fair Emoni Bates.

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