Emoni Bates' tumultuous road to the NBA: 'I just want to show that I belong'

It's been a long, chaotic road toward the NBA for Emoni Bates. At just 14 years old, he was already being touted as the next one up and was being compared to Kevin Durant by many high school recruiting analysts and reporters.

"I was ranked No. 1 in the country starting in sixth grade all the way up to my senior year in high school," Bates told Yahoo Sports. "It was a lot at times, but for me, it was just all about getting better each and every year and obviously the opinions and narratives changed from that time."

The amount of media attention and coverage Bates got would be difficult for any player to deal with, let along a teenager. In 2020, Bates became the first sophomore ever to win the Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year award. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns are all past winners.

The summer before that, he was being escorted into a packed gym by security for an AAU game against Bronny James. LeBron was watching from the sideline and eventually made his way to the bench to help coach. Bates dropped 43 points in a close loss and more than impressed the Los Angeles Lakers star.

“We didn’t get a chance to talk afterwards, but I would see LeBron during the game just nodding his head at me. I think he liked what he saw. I was working that game,” Bates said, with a laugh. "I text 'Bron now here and there, along with a few other NBA guys, and they all just tell me to stay focused and all they want to see me do is keep working and get where they’re at."

Since 2020 and coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bates' trajectory as a surefire, next-one-up prospect has changed. Bates was originally committed to Michigan State before de-committing, reclassifying up a grade and joining a young Memphis squad with fellow top high school recruit Jalen Duren. Duren, who the Detroit Pistons selected with the No. 13 pick in last year's draft, and Bates have known each other since sixth grade and played together for Team Final on Nike's EYBL circuit in 2021.

"That's my guy," Bates said of Duren. "I talk to him almost every day and he's just been encouraging me throughout this process. He just tells me all the time, ‘You have to remind them who you are,’ and that’s what I’m trying to do."

Bates' freshman season at Memphis was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Midway through the season, Bates had three straight games scoring in single digits and averaged just 23 minutes per game. His body language on the bench showed how frustrated the former No. 1 high school prospect was. Then there was the mysterious back injury, sidelining Bates for the remainder of the season. He returned for two postseason games, logging a total of 15 minutes and scoring eight points.

The 6-foot-9 wing entered the transfer portal and decided to play his sophomore season for his hometown school Eastern Michigan. Prior to the season, Bates was pulled over and arrested on felony gun charges. He later was sentenced to 18 months of probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge. The conviction will be removed from Bates' record if he completes probation successfully.

"Just with everything I've gone through, I've learned a lot," Bates said. "I’ve definitely matured over the past two years. I went to college early and was just a kid and I feel like college has helped me mature as a young man."

The Eagles went 8-23 and were ninth in the Mid-American Conference as Bates averaged 19.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. NBA scouts still made Bates a priority and there were several scouts in attendance when Bates squared off with potential first-round pick G.G. Jackson at South Carolina. Bates went off for 36 points, including eight 3-pointers, and Jackson led the Gamecocks with 24 points in the 74-64 win.

Shortly after the season, Bates declared for the NBA Draft and is a projected second-round pick. In four short years, Bates has gone from the biggest prospect in high school basketball to a player having to prove he belongs on an NBA roster.

"For me, I’m at peace," Bates said. "Now I just get to work and focus on getting better and I don’t have to worry about expectations. It doesn’t matter where I go. I’m just trying to get through the door and get a chance at this point."

In May, Bates entered Wintrust Arena in Chicago and warmed up for his second scrimmage at the NBA Draft Combine, playing in front of over 100 NBA scouts and executives. Everyone in the arena knew Bates' name and was curious to see how he matched up with the other talent. During drills, he shot the ball well, finishing first in the shooting off the dribble drill (83%, 25-30), second in the 3-point star drill (76%, 20-25) and fourth overall in the spot-up drill (68%, 17-25). He played well during 5-on-5 action and showed more of his playmaking ability.

"I’m trying to show other skills other than scoring," Bates said after the scrimmage. "Defensive-wise, I feel like I was more engaged and I’m just trying to showcase more of an all-around game and really that I’m a good teammate and get other players involved."

Prior to the NBA Draft Combine, Bates worked out for the Dallas Mavericks and Charlotte Hornets. He met with the Portland Trail Blazers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers during the combine and had already scheduled workouts with the Pistons, Cavaliers, Suns, Thunder, Trail Blazers and Nets leading up to the draft.

"The feedback I’ve gotten from teams is just to work on my body and just get stronger," Bates said. "Throughout this entire pre-draft process, I’ve gained 10 pounds and I’ve really just focused on my body. Just meeting with teams, I’m just trying to change the narrative and show them I’m a good kid on and off the court. My main thing right now is just showing everybody the real side of me."

Bates is just 19 years old after reclassifying up at such a young age. He has been under the microscope for so long and seems to finally be turning a corner maturity wise.

"Clearly you know the predictions for me coming out of high school have changed, but I know who I am," Bates added. "I just have to stay in the gym and just keep getting better. My attitude has changed in the last couple of years in just being able to accept criticism and be more open to feedback. It’s really helped me a lot just being able to watch film and get better each and every day, that’s what it’s about. I was very young-minded and now I’m just learning to listen and take feedback."

Through all the ups and downs, Bates still possesses intangibles a lot of NBA teams look for in young prospects. He has size and length, shoots the ball well from deep range and his handle has improved in the last two college seasons. The off-the-court issues will give some teams pause, but Bates is ready to put the work in with whatever NBA organization picks him.

"It doesn’t matter where I go," Bates said. "I’m just trying to get through the door and get a chance at this point. I just want to go into my rookie year and show that I belong. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so for me, I’m just going to continue to stay in the gym and work and not worry about any noise or expectations people have for me anymore."