Deemed a basketball phenom since middle school and arguably the top prospect in the country — regardless of age — for the past few years, Emoni Bates is no longer the No. 1 recruit in his class.
Rivals.com became the first national recruiting service to make the switch this week, sliding Bates — a 6-foot-8 small forward from Michigan — into the No. 2 spot in the 2022 rankings in favor of Jalen Duren, a five-star center from Philadelphia.
The decision to swap Duren and Bates at the top of the rankings wasn’t a huge surprise. Duren — a 6-10, 230-pound big man for national champion Montverde (Fla.) Academy — had long been the unanimous No. 2 player in the 2022 rankings and is coming off a stellar junior season.
Scouts and recruiting analysts have had ample opportunity to see both players over the course of the winter and spring. Duren and Bates played against each other on the grassroots circuit a few weeks and joined forces for Nike-affiliated Team Final this past weekend, making it easier to directly compare and contrast their games.
“We still think Emoni Bates is an elite basketball prospect. This should not be seen as a knock on him,” Rivals.com national analyst Rob Cassidy told the Herald-Leader shortly after the new rankings were released Wednesday. “And he might even have the higher NBA ceiling. But, at some point, as you get closer to the end of these rankings, you have to start evaluating who is the more developed, elite prospect right now, today. And I think right now, today, that’s Jalen.
“Things look a little bit forced for Emoni right now. And he’ll get that worked out, and I reserve the right to flip them again down the road, because there isn’t a lot to separate these guys. But the way that Jalen just sets himself apart, the way he commands double teams — his size and athletic combination is a rare thing. Not only in this class, but historically. A guy doesn’t come along like that every year. And the way he impacts the game when he’s not scoring — I think that’s another big thing. Even on his worst days, he still can control a game on the defensive end and on the glass. And that’s something that not a lot of guys in this class can do.”
Duren averaged 14.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per game in his first season with star-studded Montverde Academy, which played a national schedule that featured regular matchups with some of the best teams in the country. MaxPreps.com named him a First Team All-American — the only non-senior to earn that honor — and the national junior of the year.
Duren provided highlight plays on both ends of the court this past season, and while he’s always a handful for opposing defenses, it was his own defensive play that often stood out in some of Montverde’s biggest games.
“He’s a very elite shot blocker. There’s no doubt about it,” Cassidy said. “But, also, because of his size and the space he takes up, even the shots that he doesn’t get a hand on are altered. When he’s in the game, you have to game plan around him. No matter what. There aren’t very many rosters — even college rosters — that have a guy that can bang down low with him. So the way he impacts the game on the defensive end — even when he’s not blocking shots — is really something to behold.”
And, with most big men at this age, there’s still plenty of room for growth for Duren, who is continuing to refine his offensive skill set and become more comfortable against elite competition.
There were times during the season that Duren resembled an NBA center playing against high schoolers, and the type of domination he’s capable of has carried over to the grassroots circuit this spring. The frightening part for future opponents is what comes next.
“Guys at that age who are that big usually aren’t very comfortable in their body,” Cassidy said. “They definitely haven’t refined their low-post moves. And I don’t think he’s even done that. He’s starting to get there, from a skill perspective, but it’s not completely there yet, which is kind of a scary thing. Because, right now, when he takes the floor, he’s always a threat to go for a double-double. He’s almost always going to do it. And Jalen is not playing against high school competition. At Montverde, you’re not playing against some guy like me, who’s a decent high school basketball player but is going to be a frat guy in college. He’s playing against D-1 players every single day, and not a lot of players are tested like that. So it’s kind of nice to be able to see him do it against the guys he’ll have to do it against at the next level.”
Jalen Duren and Kentucky
Late last month, Duren released the first real list of his recruitment. And it was a long one, featuring nine colleges — Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Memphis, Miami, Michigan, Penn State, UCLA and hometown Villanova — as well as two professional options: the G League and the Australia-based NBL.
No national analysts have weighed in yet with Rivals.com Future Cast or 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions, but there’s obviously plenty of speculation over where Duren will end up. Most of it, for now, seems centered on the pros.
“It’s so hard with him, because the pro option does loom so large,” Cassidy said. “Everybody expects that’s going to be it. But, if he doesn’t, I would expect Michigan and Kentucky to be two of the schools that are very heavily in the mix. If he elects to go to college. Which seems like a very big ‘if’ right now.”
Duren was one of the first players from the 2022 class to land a confirmed scholarship offer from Kentucky, which has undergone a major coaching staff overhaul this spring, partly focused on revamping the program’s recruiting efforts, especially with the very top prospects in each class.
With Bates — a former Michigan State commitment — viewed as a lock to skip college in favor of the professional route, Duren is clearly the biggest name on the college basketball recruiting radar for the 2022 class.
His situation will be one of the earliest tests for Kentucky’s new staff of assistants — led by nationally renowned recruiter Orlando Antigua — as the Cats navigate a landscape that has seen major changes over the past few years with more and more five-star prospects choosing the pros and a higher emphasis on adding transfers in lieu of high school players.
In the past three recruiting cycles, a total of 13 top-35 recruits have chosen the pro route (with seven picking the G League in the past two years). Several more from the 2022 class are expected to join that list, including Bates and, perhaps, Duren.
As Duren continues to weigh his options, suitors like blue-blood Kentucky will surely hope that the NCAA finally changes its name, image and likeness guidelines to allow for players to make money in college (something that might help UK’s case with a player like Duren). Meanwhile, those five-star recruits in the class of 2022 will surely be watching what other blue-chip players did before them.
“It’ll be interesting to see what shakes out with the guys that went to the G League this year and how that plays in the draft,” Cassidy said. “And then how that plays in the NBA. He’s in a position where he can take some time to kind of see how the class before him — that has chosen the pro route — how it shakes out for them. So while I don’t know if that’s going to heavily affect the decision, I think it’s definitely something that he’ll keep an eye on.”