There were no bold predictions. Nothing about winning a national championship or how many points he wanted to score.
Emoni Bates, Memphis’ prized 17-year-old freshman, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 15 and was once considered the best basketball prospect since Kevin Durant, has simple goals for this season. He wants fans, media members and NBA personnel to come away with one impression of him.
“I’m a good person, good teammate, I want to see everyone win,” the 6-foot-9 guard told The Post. “It’s just not just about myself, as people would try to make it seem. I’m trying to do whatever it takes to help my team win.”
Much has changed for Bates in the past two years, since the SI cover story that was accompanied by the bold-faced headline: “Born For This.” Underneath, it read: “Magic, Michael, LeBron … And the 15-year-old who’s next in line.”
Bates was the youngest player ever to win the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year award, following his sophomore year. The Ypsilanti, Mich., native was dubbed a hoops prodigy, a can’t-miss prospect who would be at the top of whatever draft he entered.
It was an immense amount of pressure that no teenage basketball player has ever faced — not Durant, not LeBron James, not Michael Jordan — since Bates’ rise coincided with the social media era. When he didn’t progress as some experts had predicted, criticism began to come his way: He didn’t put on enough weight; his jump shot didn’t improve enough; he had poor shot selection. Some used the “O” word — overrated.
“I was really leaning towards not wanting to play no more,” Bates said.
While this was going on, Bates lost two people close to him. His close friend, Nareon Grier, was shot and killed last Sept. 11. His great-grandmother also died. Bates said the people by his side during his rise weren’t there in difficult times. At times, it felt personal to him.
“It’s a gift and curse,” his father, Elgin, said. “As far as the scrutiny goes, I don’t think it’s fair for any child to endure such scrutiny. As they say, heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
He leaned on his parents, Elgin and Edith. He rededicated himself to the sport he loved. He added muscle by hitting the weight room. And, in somewhat of a surprise, Bates opted for college rather than his senior year of high school or playing professionally until he was old enough for the NBA.
Bates liked the idea of going to college to have fun and still be a kid. The advent of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights for college players was a factor too, though Bates has yet to agree to any deals. After initially committing to Michigan State in June 2020, he wound up signing with Memphis, teaming up with close friend and AAU teammate Jalen Duren, a five-star recruit like him.
Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, the former NBA star, figured prominently in Bates’ decision. A four-time NBA All-Star and point guard, Hardaway has experienced most of what Bates is going through, and where he wants to go.
“Me and him are kind of one and the same,” said Bates, who isn’t eligible for the NBA draft until 2023. “He’ll tell me I remind him of [himself].”
In picking a school, Bates made it clear he wanted to handle the ball more to expand his game as a playmaker and not solely a scorer. He’s looking forward to showcasing his passing ability this season and displaying his leadership qualities, shedding the narratives that he has worried about himself first.
In preparation for the new position, Bates has poured through film of point guards, in particular Hardaway and Grizzlies star Ja Morant, who has become a mentor of his. Morant, the second pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, attended Memphis’ recent exhibition game and is helping Bates learn the finer points of running a team.
“He wanted to accept a new challenge, so people can also see how versatile of a player he actually is,” Elgin said. “How he can see the floor, how he can make the right reads, how he can pass, how he can score, how he can be a great teammate and get his teammates involved. He wants everybody to see the full package.”
Eric Bossi, the national basketball director for recruiting website 247Sports.com, remembered Bates as the most advanced freshman he ever saw. Like others, Bossi noted shortcomings in the ensuing years, but also believes Bates’ ceiling remains limitless. His site ranked Bates fourth in the 2021 class — behind Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Duke’s Paolo Banchero and the G-League’s Jaden Hardy. Those three, it should be noted, are at least a year older than Bates.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to be one of the best freshmen in the country,” Bossi said. “I think maybe the expectations for, say, Paolo Banchero of Duke and Emoni Bates at Memphis need to be a little bit different.”
An NBA scout familiar with Bates felt the bar was set so high for him at such a young age that it was unrealistic for him to meet the unfair expectations. Bates hasn’t regressed, the evaluator believed, but he hasn’t progressed as some projected. Either way, he has the chance to create new opinions based on his play in college.
“I’m curious to see him in a new setting with better coaching and better overall talent around him,” the scout said.
Ultimately, more criticism is bound to come Bates’ way if Memphis doesn’t reach its high expectations. He still has the big name. His games will be nationally televised. Elgin brought up Memphis’ Pro Day in early October, when his son’s measurables and vertical leap were picked apart.
Bates feels ready for what’s to come, now that he’s older. He also has a strong support system in place — from Hardaway and his parents, to Spurs guard and friend Dejounte Murray, to Morant — to help him navigate this next step.
“I don’t have anything to prove to anybody,” Bates said, “but I just want to show people that a 17-year-old kid can play on this level.”