He Was Billed as the Next LeBron. But Will Emoni Bates Make It at All?

YPSILANTI, Mich. — From time to time, Emoni Bates shows flashes of the player he was supposed to be. Like the moment in a recent game when he received the ball near the 3-point arc and took a couple of hard dribbles toward the basket, a 6-foot-10 bundle of kinetic energy, his spindly arms and legs flailing in rhythm with his bobbing, bundled-up braids.

With his defender scrambling toward the basket, Bates stopped, bounced back, pulled his front knee up above his waist, à la Dirk Nowitzki, and from the top of the key lofted a high-arcing shot that settled in the net.

“You know you’ve got to live with certain shots,” Ra’Heim Moss, the sophomore guard for the University of Toledo who was guarding Bates, said later that night. “He’s what, 6-10? I’m 6-3 or 6-4. Him hitting that shot — hats off to him.”

But that moment of brilliance, which left fans slack-jawed and pro scouts considering the possibilities, told only a part of the story. There is always context for Bates, and often it looks a lot like baggage.

It was a little more than three years ago when his baby-faced portrait filled the cover of Sports Illustrated under the words “Magic, Michael, LeBron … and the 15-Year-Old Who’s Next in Line.” His height and lithe frame made comparisons to Kevin Durant inevitable. But now, the plan — which included his father’s creating a high school for him to play at; leaving for college a year early, at 17; and aiming to be the first pick in the N.B.A. draft — has taken a detour.

After a calamitous season at the University of Memphis, he returned home, sleeping in his own bed and playing far, far down market at Eastern Michigan. Even that wasn’t assured until mid-October, when, facing a felony gun charge, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that included a sentence of 18 months of probation.

Bates gets along with his teammates and gets his shots, and once this season he scored his team’s final 29 points in the first half. But against Toledo, he played in a mostly empty arena, as he has many times this season, and he has experienced winning only sporadically. The Eagles are 8-22 and need a win in their final regular-season game Friday at Northern Illinois — and lots of help — just to qualify for next week’s Mid-American Conference tournament, whose winner garners an automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament.

When the N.B.A. draft arrives in June, Bates won’t be selected anywhere near the top — if he is selected at all. Instead, his path to a pro career is likely to start somewhere between the end of an N.B.A. bench and the basketball back roads.

“What do I feel?” said Tom Izzo, the coach at Michigan State, where Bates had pledged to play as a sophomore in high school but later rescinded his commitment. “Sad. … I feel sad.”

Izzo, who first met Bates when he was in the sixth grade, added: “It’s a shame. He’s a good kid. Once we quit recruiting him, I wasn’t as involved, but I did follow him. Just the way he got pushed around and handled, this school and that school. I have no idea what happened at Memphis, but I feel he’s a product of the bad side of what’s happening to a lot of these kids.”

The basketball archives are dotted with tales of anointed ones who didn’t make it — Raymond Lewis, Earl Manigault, Schea Cotton and Lenny Cooke, and on and on. It’s too early to say Bates is a washout; he turned 19 in January. But he has come of age at a time when reputations are amplified (or even crafted) on social media, beginning about the time athletes become teenagers.

And so LeBron James and Ja Morant shout out Bates’s circus shots and scoring blitzes, obscuring a development curve that has flattened and questions about whether Bates is ready for the demands of pro basketball.

He looked less like the second coming than a broken child when video of his arrest was released in October, showing him, handcuffed, calling his mother from the back of a police car, sobbing, “Mama, I’m going to jail.”

Bates was a few blocks from home when the police pulled him over for going through a stop sign. An officer recognized him and told Bates he smelled pot. Bates told the officers there was a gun in the car, which led to his arrest.

Bates’s lawyer, Steve Haney, said Bates was returning from getting his hair cut for a photo shoot the next day, and the car he borrowed had a gun in it. “He’s learned to be more aware of decisions that he makes,” Haney said.

It was one of many examples in which the more than 20 people who were interviewed for this article — coaches, teammates, opponents, scouts, N.B.A. executives and agents — explained away Bates’s weight (a fast metabolism), his on-court temperament (he’s learning), his shot selection (better suited to the pro game), his immaturity (he’s like most 19-year-olds) and other clues why Bates is trending toward a cautionary tale.

They may not be wrong.

Still, Bates did not end up here by chance. His father, Elvin James Bates, an Ypsilanti kid himself, has stage-managed every element of his youngest son’s career.

When Emoni Bates was playing for the Lincoln High Railsplitters, a public school team with an otherwise unremarkable basketball history, the team’s run to the Division I state title in his freshman season drew packed houses, which included the state’s basketball glitterati — Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard and James Edwards.

“He’s a light to our city,” said Lincoln’s coach, Jesse Davis, who had Bates’s father as an assistant for the two years Emoni Bates played there. “I don’t want to talk bad about Emoni. We all have flaws. It’s just a protection thing. We’re trying to preserve that light that we have. We don’t want to see it go out. We want it to get brighter and brighter.”

After Bates’s sophomore year, his father, who goes by E.J., started a high school, Ypsi Prep Academy, which contracted online classes and rented two homes to house the school’s 12 students — all members of the basketball team. (He had been running a travel ball program, Bates Fundamentals, for years.) Nike and Gatorade invested seed money for a “school” that was conceived so its team could play televised games in big arenas against other top prep schools.

If there was any question about where Emoni fit in all this, a sketch of him dribbling two basketballs served as the logo on Ypsi Prep’s center court. E.J. Bates trained and coached Emoni until he went off to college a year early.

E.J. Bates, who sat courtside at Eastern Michigan home games across from the Eagles’ bench, declined an interview request for this article, as did Emoni, who has not spoken with reporters this season. But two years ago, E.J. Bates explained his parenting objectives to The Athletic: “I want control of the narrative at all times. I want to tune out as much noise as possible because once the time arises — once it hits — it’s going to be full throttle. As long as I can protect him and shield him from as much as I can right now, that’s what me and his mom are going to do.”

At times, Emoni Bates has appeared as much a commodity as a prospect.

He was referred to in the 2019 extortion trial of the celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti. Text messages among Nike executives in 2017 discussed cultivating relationships with future pros, doing “whatever was needed” to pay two prominent high school players, Zion Williamson and Romeo Langford, as well as giving $15,000 to the family of Bates, who was 13 at the time. (Bates was not named in the exchange, but Haney confirmed the texts were about him.)

What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable in the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

Haney said the N.C.A.A. required extensive financial records from the Bates family before he was cleared to play at Memphis last year, something that has not previously been reported. The N.C.A.A. and Memphis declined to comment on the inquiry.

By many accounts, Bates has an admirable work ethic, is capable in the classroom, has a goofy sense of humor and, like many his age, has some growing up to do.

And yet questions linger about what might have happened had he remained at Lincoln High School. Or if he had not been in such a hurry to go to college. Or if he had kept his commitment to Michigan State. Or just been allowed to develop at his own pace, on and off the court.

He doesn’t have to declare for the N.B.A. draft after this season, but he almost certainly will.

“There’s no parenting playbook on what to do when you have a basketball savant,” said Mike Garland, who retired last summer as an assistant at Michigan State and has known E.J. Bates since he was in high school.

“Did E.J. make some mistakes? Yeah,” Garland said. “But until you raise a child, how do you know? How do you get a kid to be a superstar? There was a lot coming at E.J. Did he orchestrate some things? Yeah, but there were a lot of people putting things in his head. The idea of having his own prep school — that had to be funded, right?”

After Bates left Ypsi Prep, he and his father relocated to Memphis. Bates’s arrival along with Jalen Duren, another touted freshman who skipped his final high school season, heralded Final Four aspirations.

Instead, it became apparent, especially to the team’s many upperclassmen, that Bates could not handle the physicality of college basketball or not having the ball in his hands. It did not help the freshman’s standing with his teammates that E.J. was at games and practices, helping Emoni stretch and even chauffeuring him because he did not yet have his driver’s license. Eventually, Memphis Coach Penny Hardaway acknowledged publicly that a rift existed between the younger players and the older ones.

Ultimately, Emoni was benched, injured and relegated to bit player last year when the Tigers reached the N.C.A.A tournament. After the season, he entered the transfer portal.

Stan Heath, who coached Kent State to a regional final in 2002, had just finished his first year at Eastern Michigan, his alma mater, last spring. He called E.J. Bates to “just throw a line in the ocean, ‘Hey, if he wants to come home. …’”

To Heath’s surprise, E.J. Bates was open to the idea. It helped that his son knew much of the Eastern Michigan roster, guys he knew from around the state or from the travel ball circuit.

“Who he played with was a big deal,” Heath said. “Sometimes the chemistry isn’t there and the only one way you know you’re going to have good chemistry is if you go somewhere and you know the guys. One of the things he wants to do is have an experience where he can be insulated a little bit and play basketball.”

There were hopes at the start of the season that Bates would be a basketball beacon for Eastern Michigan, which hadn’t been to the N.C.A.A. tournament in 25 years.

In his first game, Bates electrified Little Caesars Arena, the home of the Detroit Pistons, in a narrow loss to Michigan, scoring 30 points, including an audacious 3-pointer from near midcourt, after which he pointed to the court with both index fingers and shouted, “This is my city.” That served as his best game until late December, when Bates dropped 36 in a loss at South Carolina.

“It’s no secret Emoni loves the big games,” said Orlando Lovejoy, a freshman guard from Detroit who first played with Bates in the eighth grade. And it was no coincidence, he added, that both opponents featured star freshmen in Bates’s graduating high school class — Michigan’s Jett Howard, the son of Juwan Howard, and South Carolina’s G.G. Jackson — who are expected to be lottery picks in June.

“Me, personally, I look at it as we’re playing Michigan,” Lovejoy explained. “Emoni looks at it like he’s playing Jett Howard. He takes those matchups personally. I think Emoni gave him 40 every time they’d played and this is him showing Jett nothing has changed.”

Basketball, though, is more than a forum for settling grievances. It is a team game that requires sublimating a personal agenda to the goal of winning. In Bates’s case, questions linger about what he does to make his team better.

He is not an efficient scorer — he takes 33 percent of his team’s shots, the 16th-highest ratio in the nation, according to KenPom statistics, and has made just 41 percent of them. When his shot is not falling, he keeps bombing rather than working for better shots, getting to the free-throw line or using the attention he divines to set up a teammate.

He is, according to Heath, learning to channel his emotions. Bates is occasionally agitated by a referee’s whistle, a missed shot or taunts from opposing crowds, the worst of which came in an early-season game at Bradley.

“One guy on the baseline said, ‘You would be playing better if you were still in the yard,’” Lovejoy said, referring to prison. “That’s not cool.”

Then there is social media.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a player his age that’s had the scrutiny Emoni’s had,” said Haney, who has served as Bates’s criminal lawyer and business adviser and who will be his agent when he turns pro. “LeBron didn’t, Kobe Bryant didn’t, Michael Jordan didn’t.” He added that they never got a direct message “from a Michigan State fan saying I hope you kill yourself or memes of themselves in an orange jumpsuit.”

Haney, who is also representing Scoot Henderson, who is expected to be the second overall pick in the draft, said Bates was an outlier in another sense. Haney could not recall another prospect ever having such a wide range of where he might be drafted, saying N.B.A. scouts and general managers have told him anywhere from the 20s to the high 40s. 

“I know some people who are infatuated by him, and I know some people in the N.B.A. who have no interest at all,” said a scout from an Eastern Conference team, speaking on condition of anonymity because employees are prohibited from speaking publicly about draft prospects.

Bates will have a chance to make a better case if he is invited to the N.B.A.’s predraft camp in Chicago. In the meantime, his games against Toledo may be worth remembering. One was the best of his college career, when he scored 43 points. The rematch ended with the Eagles losing again. But it unfolded far differently for Bates.

He tipped in a missed shot in the game’s opening minutes, but did not make another basket until the step-back, knee-raising, rainbow jumper midway through the second half. It was the most difficult shot he attempted.

He finished the night with 4 points, making 2 of 17 shots — dropping one seductive hint about the bounds of his talent, and many premonitory ones about the difficulty of fulfilling it.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research. Kevin Draper contributed reporting.

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