WESTFIELD, Ind. — There was an unmistakable, full-circle feel to what transpired here on Court 8 of the Pacers Athletic Center on Saturday afternoon.
LeBron James was in the building to see his 14-year-old son, Bronny, play in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League tournament. King James’ theatrical presence was the sideshow; 15-year-old Emoni Bates was the real show.
Bronny’s team won the game but Bates was the revelation, looking like a young Kevin Durant/Penny Hardaway hybrid. Afterward, when LeBron slipped his hand between reporters to congratulate the 6-foot-9 wisp from Michigan on his 43-point, serve-notice performance, he might as well have been passing a baton. Or at least connecting two distinct periods in basketball history.
James, the single greatest product of the preps-to-pros era of the 1990s and early 2000s, was paying respect to the kid who could be the face of the second preps-to-pros era.
Bates is the best player in the Class of 2022, to say the very least. Some say he’s the best prospect since LeBron came roaring out of the Class of 2003. Bates has been a precocious presence on the AAU circuit since he was 13, and his budding fame grew some more when he led Ypsilanti Lincoln High School to the Michigan state title as a freshman.
The grassroots basketball machinery quickly kicked into high gear. In the feverish competition to buy the loyalty of the Next Big Thing, Nike did what sneaker companies do these days — it bestowed upon the Bates family its own AAU team, Bates Fundamentals. When Nike matched up that team against Bronny James’ Striving For Greatness powerhouse Saturday — with LeBron in the gym — it provided Bates a national launching pad.
And boy did he launch. Swished 3-pointers, fearless drives, dunks, blocked shots, aggressive rebounding and an impressive handle were all part of the package.
“He’s the best freshman I’ve ever seen,” said Rivals.com recruiting analyst Eric Bossi. “The skill, the size, the control — everyone can see that. But the motor he plays with and the passion is what really stands out. He’s a competitor.
“I think he’s the best prospect in high school, regardless of class.”
Bates’ game is fabulous and his timing is fortuitous.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver reiterated last week that he believes 2022 will be the likely year for the league to lower its minimum-age requirement for the draft from 19 to 18. Thus, the flow from high school to the NBA can start again, after being shut off in 2006. We are three years away from replacing one-and-done with a return to none-and-done.
A lot can change in three years, especially three teenage years. But as of now Bates figures to be the guy leading that next generation.
He said he’s considering Michigan State, Michigan and Kentucky if he plays college ball. But when asked about bypassing college for the NBA, this is his answer: “That’s the goal.”
“That’s the goal,” echoed his father, Elgin — almost as if they knew the question would be coming and had formulated a consistent answer. “Not only getting there, but making an impact when you do get there. Right now, it’s close but still far away.”
That’s the truth, and that’s also the downside to displaying overwhelming talent at a young age. The outside world isn’t willing to wait before making projections and setting expectations. Last year at this time, Emoni Bates was in middle school; this year people are asking him about going straight to the NBA at age 18.
A track, swimming or gymnastics phenom is ticketed for the Olympics shortly after puberty. A football, baseball or basketball star is talked about in professional terms before even acquiring a driver’s license.
It can warp a kid’s worldview. Which is one reason LeBron pulled Bates aside last month after seeing him tear up an AAU event in Atlanta.
“He got the same publicity as me,” Bates said of their conversation. “So I’ve just got to keep my head on straight and keep working.”
If Bates maintains his current development arc, college recruiters will be looking elsewhere. I spoke with four college coaches this weekend who are preparing themselves for a return to the LeBron Era of recruiting — trying to figure out who actually wants to go to college and who is going pro.
Back then, the NBA scouts showed up at the major AAU events. And the college coaches didn’t even bother going to the courts where guys like LeBron, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler were playing.
“Combine [the lower age limit] with transfer free agency and it could be a whole new model,” one coach said.
“It will be imperative to determine early both the potential and plans of an elite prospect, so as not to waste time,” said another.
A third coach brought up a potential wrinkle that didn’t exist 15 years ago — prospects could sign with a college, then put their name into the draft and go through the combine before deciding whether to actually attend school or go pro before ever setting foot on campus.
“Many times I believe you will know what a top-20 kid is going to do based on the feedback from the people around him,” the coach said.
It’s early with Emoni Bates. Very early. But everyone who watches him sees a player on track to be the face of the second none-and-done era of American basketball.
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