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After an all-time bad freshman campaign, where does Emoni Bates go from here?


Bates' first season at Memphis has been one that he would like to forget

Image: Getty (Getty Images)

Jalen Duren and Chet Homgren’s matchup in the Round of 32 provided a preview of two future lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft. Holmgren and Duren didn’t exactly light it up, but they gave scouts a glimpse of two future franchise cornerstones.

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Meanwhile, Memphis forward Emoni Bates was head and shoulders above five-star recruits two years older than him as a prospect. He was the first sophomore named the men’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year and he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 15. The last time Emoni Bates and Chet Holmgren played one another was in 2020 when they were the top prospects in their respective classes. Holmgren scored 31 points and blocked six shots. Bates ended with a game-high 36 points on 11-of-22 shooting.

Originally, Bates was committed to Michigan State’s 2022 recruiting class, then he decommitted last April and decided to join Memphis instead. Almost immediately, the legend of Emoni Bates began to waver. Bates measured in at Memphis’ prep day at 6-foot-9 with a 6-foot-7.25 wingspan. Most disconcerting was his 24.5 inch vertical.

At the 2021 NBA Combine, his vertical leap would have been next-to-last and his approach vertical of 31.5 inches would have been fourth from last. Holmgren checked in with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, a foot longer than Bates, and a 37-inch vertical.

Because he reclassified and won’t turn 19 until next January, Bates is ineligible to enter the 2022 NBA Draft. However, his 2022 season was such a colossal disaster that his projections for 2023 have cratered. Bates’ fellow 2023 prospect Scoot Henderson opted to play in the G-League outside the critical eye of fans and scribes like myself, and has flourished.

Bates may just be the classic example of a five-star who bumped his head on his ceiling far earlier than his peers. Henderson’s stock has boomed in the G-League, where he’s prospered against more mature competition. Bates, meanwhile, averaged 9.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and led the Tigers in turnovers.

The first two months of Bates’ freshman campaign were a colossal failure for Memphis. They were 11-8 and Penny Hardaway was captaining a sinking ship. Five-star recruits have faltered before for a variety of reasons. Some have failed to stay eligible, and others have been reprobates off the court, but the gulf between the prospect Bates was thought to have been and the one that arrived on campus is wider than any we’ve ever seen.

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Bates has been an anchor around Memphis’ upside when he’s been available to play. Bates barely shot 30 percent from midrange and accrued one of the highest turnover percentages of any high-major freshman in the country while rarely creating scoring opportunities for teammates. When he’s not scoring, Bates hasn’t shown the capacity to impact the game.

There’s no direct comparison for a player perceived to be a generational talent falling this far this fast. A degenerative knee derailed Harry Giles’ lone season at Duke. Kentucky welcomed the Harrison twins, believing they’d be offensive pillars and future lottery selections. Both stayed for an extra season and wound up bouncing between the G-League and leagues abroad.

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Skal Labissière was projected to replicate Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, or Nerlens Noel’s one-and-done campaigns at Kentucky. Instead, his 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game averages were the catalysts for him falling from the NBA’s number one prospect to the bottom of the first round at 28. Labissiere’s freshman season is the closest thing to Bates.

While Bates was out nursing a back injury for all of February, Memphis began rolling through the American Athletic Conference. In Bates’ absence, they won 10 of 12 and cruised into the NCAA Tournament. Between Feb. 1 and the NCAA Tournament, Memphis ranked as a top-10 offense and top-10 defense.

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Bates played only three minutes in Memphis’ opening-round win over Boise State. In 12 minutes against Gonzaga, Bates scored five points on 2-of-7 from the field and 1-for-5 at the free-throw line, in a game that would be decided by only four points. He grabbed only one rebound in that contest and left the rest of his stat sheet blank. Bates pulled off the remarkable feat of being inefficient in a low-volume role.

Bates has said all the right things and handled this season’s setbacks in stride, but barring a leap during the offseason, Memphis has to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t going to develop into a future star that will lead them to a Final Four as a sophomore. Can he become a good college player? That’s the plateau he has to cross before recovering his plummeting potential. Memphis’ 2022 class features five-star point guard Skyy Clark and Devin Ree, a four-star forward. If Bates looks less impressive by Rees, a transfer wouldn’t be off the table.

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Bates was supposed to be an uber-talented wing, who needed some refining, but it’s clear his game needs an overhaul this offseason, or else Bates will fall entirely off the NBA radar.

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