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College Basketball

Emoni Bates Keeps Shooting

Emoni Bates hits a free throw
Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It feels like Emoni Bates has lived an entire basketball career before he's turned 19. In middle school, he was rated as one of the best players for his age by people who paid attention to such things, and by the time he was a high school freshman in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he was pegged to be a superstar. The Detroit Free Press called him the best freshman ever to play in the state. Sports Illustrated put him on their cover at age 15, labeling him "next in line" after "Magic, Michael, LeBron." The awards he won through his transcendent offensive abilities kept backing up the hype.

From that point on, however, Bates's story became significantly more complicated. Ahead of his junior year, Bates committed to Michigan State and left his public high school to play at a brand new prep academy created by his father, a former D-II player who had a brief pro career in Europe. Following that season, which was a little less remarkable than the ones before it, Bates de-committed from MSU, reclassified to skip his senior year, and then went to play at Memphis, where he was the youngest player in all of college basketball. As a 17-year-old, dealing with multiple injuries, he looked well short of a one-and-done lottery pick, averaging 9.7 points, 3.3 boards, and 1.3 assists. In Memphis's two tournament games, he scored just eight points across 15 minutes, and by the end of his time there he was vastly overshadowed by his fellow young standout Jalen Duren.

Bates responded to this disappointment by going home, transferring for his sophomore year to Eastern Michigan. He was briefly suspended by his new team in the preseason before taking a plea deal on a gun charge, and now, a few times a week, he steps onto the court in front of a small audience to take a ton of shots for one of the worst teams in college basketball. Eastern is just 3-16 this year against D-I opponents, with a 1-6 record so far in the MAC, and their poor-shooting, poor-rebounding offense exposes an unorganized defense that's allowing 81.6 points per game—fourth-worst in all of D-I. But Bates is working hard to make up all those baskets himself, playing all but a few minutes of EMU's non-blowouts and relentlessly taking shot after shot from all over the court.

On Tuesday night, Bates's approach reached apotheosis. In an 84-79 road loss to a good Toledo team, Bates played the entire game and scored more than half of EMU's points. He went six-of-nine from inside the arc, made all four of his free throws, and shot a ridiculous 9-of-14 from long range. (He had one assist, too.) That stat line of 43 total points actually undersells a particular stretch of dominance he enjoyed in the first half. From the 13:18 mark until the break, Bates scored every single one of EMU's 29 points, keeping pace with the Rockets until the score was 36-35 at half. Mostly this was accomplished by being red-hot from three, with some shots that just defy explanation.

This was without a doubt the greatest performance of his college career, and while one game doesn't erase the several where he couldn't find his rhythm, a guy this athletic, who can shoot this smoothly, should be able to find a role somewhere in the NBA. Though it probably won't be as the next Magic, Michael, LeBron.

His ceiling is still pretty dang high. It's easy, because of his hyped past and the awkward path he's taken to EMU, to classify Bates as some kind of fixer-upper or redemption project. But this is still a kid who's three days away from turning 19. He's at an age where most players are only starting to get seriously noticed and are still developing their skills. It's funny when I find myself watching his Eastern clips and feeling the same weird nostalgia I get seeing 50-year-old Jaromír Jágr scoring goals in the Czech league. But really, despite the long road he's already traveled, Emoni Bates's career has barely begun.

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