Sports

How Emoni Bates fits at Memphis, and when we’ll see him in the NBA

Emoni Bates announced his commitment to the University of Memphis on Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation about the on-court plans of the prep phenom and No. 3 recruit in ESPN’s Top 100 for 2021. Bates — who as a 15-year-old made headlines when he was compared by scouts to LeBron James and Kevin Durant — was not previously viewed as a sure thing for college basketball. In addition to Memphis, Oregon and a Michigan State program to which he once committed, Bates was considering the NBA’s G League Path. Instead, he’ll instantly become one of the faces of college hoops while playing for coach Penny Hardaway and a Tigers team that has become a serious national threat.

ESPN tackled the biggest questions surrounding Bates’ decision, including where he fits in a star-studded Tigers lineup, how long we might see the 17-year-old in college basketball, what skills NBA evaluators are hoping to see from Bates as he dons a Memphis uniform and what the best evaluation opportunities (and most thrilling games) will be for Bates during a much-anticipated 2021-22 college basketball season.


What does Bates’ decision mean for Memphis’ aspirations during the upcoming 2021-22 season? Is this a Final Four team?

It puts Memphis into the Final Four and national championship conversations. From a pure talent perspective, there aren’t many better starting 5s or rotations in college basketball. There were already three Memphis players ranked in the top 70 of ESPN’s 2022 draft rankings, and that doesn’t include Bates. Coach Penny Hardaway brings back three starters from a team that won the NIT Championship, adds three high-major transfers and four former ESPN 100 recruits.

Before Jalen Duren and Bates committed, Memphis was just outside the top 30 in ESPN’s Way Too Early rankings. Adding two elite prospects changes that equation. Duren gives the Tigers an anchor on the interior, someone who can make an immediate impact on the glass and on the defensive end, while also finishing around the rim. Bates steps in and provides a go-to scorer right off the bat, a player who can get his shot off against any defender and will be the focal point of defensive game plans — opening things up for Landers Nolley II, DeAndre Williams, Lester Quinones, Earl Timberlake, etc.

At the top of my 2021-22 preseason rankings, there’s a tier of teams that includes Gonzaga, Kansas, Villanova, UCLA, Texas and Purdue — I think Memphis belongs in that group. There are going to be questions entering the season, given the fact that Hardaway hasn’t brought the Tigers to the NCAA tournament in his first three seasons at the helm, but this team has too much talent not to be ranked inside the top 10 from the outset. — Jeff Borzello

How will Bates fit with the rest of the Tigers’ lineup?

Memphis’ five most talented players are going to be Bates, Nolley, Timberlake, Williams and Duren — and I think Hardaway can play all five together for long stretches. There’s not a pure point guard in the group, but Timberlake was his team’s primary ball handler at the high school level and can handle playmaking duties, and Bates is going to have the ball in his hands plenty when initiating offense (we’ll get to Bates’ abilities as a point guard in a bit). Williams, despite his size, is also a tremendous passer and racked up assists while playing as a small-ball 5 last season.

That five would be overwhelming defensively, given the players’ size — all five are at least 6-foot-6 — and length. The Tigers have also ranked inside the top five nationally — No. 1 last season — in adjusted defensive efficiency in each of the past two seasons. That group would be able to score on the interior with Duren and Williams, while Nolley and Bates can keep teams honest from the perimeter. Timberlake would make things happen going downhill off the dribble.

The big issue facing Memphis under Hardaway has been the Tigers’ propensity to turn it over and waste possessions. They ranked No. 10 in the AAC in turnover percentage in 2019, last in the league in 2020 and No. 11 last season. Going with a lineup that doesn’t include a pure point guard or experienced ball handler might continue that trend, but I think there’s enough playmaking to make up for it.

If Hardaway opts to go in a different direction, there are plenty of options. Quinones is arguably the team’s best shooter and has started nearly every game for the Tigers the past two seasons, while Alex Lomax was a consistent player for Memphis until a left ankle injury sidelined him down the stretch last season. Lomax would be the pure point guard Hardaway could turn to if the bigger lineup isn’t working. Iowa State transfer Tyler Harris, a 5-foot-9 point guard, started 11 games for the Cyclones last season, and Oregon transfer Chandler Lawson is a versatile frontcourt contributor. That doesn’t even get into the rest of the incoming freshmen not named Bates and Duren.

On paper, Memphis has everything: size, shooting, defense, playmakers. And now Bates gives the Tigers that X factor, that sort of go-to-guy who can take the ball in the final seconds of a game and go get a basket. It might take time for all the pieces to mesh and come together for Hardaway, but there are very few on-paper weaknesses for this team. — Jeff Borzello

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Top recruit in the 2022 class Emoni Bates takes on Bronny in an AAU tournament with LeBron James looking on.

So Bates is going to play point guard for Memphis?

Penny Hardaway sold Bates on the idea of playing a Penny Hardaway-type role, with Duren taking on the role of Shaquille O’Neal in attempting to recreate the 1994-95 Orlando Magic team that made the NBA Finals.

Bates played quite a bit of point guard for Bates Fundamentals in the Nike EYBL circuit this year and saw mixed results in the process. However, that was on a team with little talent and limited coaching.

When I saw Bates playing alongside Duren and Team Final AAU in May, he looked like a different player. He did a much better job of creating off a live dribble for teammates, especially in the open floor where he was spectacular.

Memphis says it will be a team with lineup versatility that plays point guard by committee — whoever grabs the defensive board will have the freedom to push off the glass and hopefully kick ahead to avoid getting bogged down in the half court. — Jonathan Givony


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Emoni Bates is the first sophomore to ever win the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year award. See why with his electrifying mixtape.

Bates’ performances since he burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old have been somewhat hit-or-miss. What aspects of Bates’ game will NBA decision-makers be focused on as they evaluate Bates’ play at Memphis?

Bates’ decision-making and overall scoring efficiency are the things NBA teams will want to see improve in college. While he scored 21 points in 28 minutes at the Nike EYBL this summer, he did it shooting just 43% from 2 and 28% for 3 with a near 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Bates had the freedom to take as many off-balance shots as he wanted in high school and AAU, which either led to poor performances when his step-backs weren’t falling or impressive moments when they were.

Memphis is deep, experienced and talented. Hardaway will surely ask him to play a very different role this season, likely leaning on his ability to get others involved, something that he can absolutely do. I watched him dish nine assists at the EYBL in a win over PSA Cardinals, as he impressed with the way he passed ahead and found teammates on the move out of pick and roll, even if he finished 4-of-15 from the field.

Where Memphis will help Bates improve is on defense. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them emerge as the best defensive team in college considering the size, experience, versatility and playmaking they have at every position. Bates’ effort level defensively was inconsistent as a prep player, especially off the ball. He’ll be pushed on defense and will be asked to be more physical and intense than ever before, which will be great for his development. He has long been considered a fiery competitor with a mean streak — that bodes well for his ability to become a competent defender when combined with his excellent instincts.

It will be interesting to see how Bates stacks up physically with his peers at the college level. Bates, 17, will face an uphill battle going up against players in their early 20s on a nightly basis, but he has added little bulk to his 183-pound frame since he emerged on the scene in 2018. NBA scouts who watched Bates at the EYBL were surprised at how he struggled to beat opponents off the dribble and finish around the basket. His lack of strength should improve, but how explosive he is and how capable he is to finish in traffic will be something scouts pay close attention to as well. — Jonathan Givony


Bates will not be eligible for the 2022 NBA draft as it stands right now. What are his current options for 2022-23, and where would you place the likelihood / advisability of Bates playing a second year of college basketball?

I’m told Bates hasn’t given up on the idea of being eligible for the 2022 NBA draft, as sources said he plans on petitioning the league for an exception that will allow him to enter despite being 29 days too young. According to the current rule, you must be 19-years old in the calendar year of the draft — Bates was born in late January.

I would be shocked if the NBA agreed to that, as it would create a snowball effect where every player born too late would attempt to do the same. The NBA owners and the players’ association have little interest in changing the age limit, and I’ve been told that this topic has moved to the bottom of the list of things that need to be negotiated by the league and union before the next collective bargaining agreement.

His 2022 options are: stay at Memphis, play in the G League, go overseas or transfer to another school. What route he takes will depend on how he does this season. There will likely be a learning curve for Bates in college, and the lack of shooting on Memphis’ roster won’t do much to mitigate his issues with scoring efficiency.

The NBA G League just recruited a player out of junior college (MarJon Beauchamp) to play for Ignite, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them stay in the mix for Bates, despite him being a year removed from graduating high school and therefore not exactly the profile of player Ignite typically recruits.

I think Bates returns to Memphis for his sophomore year to help cement him as a top-five pick in what’s shaping up as a fairly weak 2023 draft class. — Jonathan Givony


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Emoni Bates puts on a scoring clinic as he goes for 36 points vs. Chet Holmgren and Team Sizzle.

Which games/matchups project as the best NBA evaluation opportunities for Bates — and appointment viewing for fans — in 2021-22?

Memphis put together a fantastic non-conference schedule befitting its status as a top-five preseason team and potential Final Four candidate.

NBA executives will be out in droves for the NIT Season Tip-Off on Nov. 24 and 26 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Tigers will first play an experienced and well-coached Virginia Tech team that will likely be ranked in the top 25, and then either Iowa State or Xavier in the third-place or championship game.

The headliners of their schedule will come on Dec. 14 and 18, with a home game against Alabama followed by a road game against in-state rival Tennessee. Each team plays a very different style of basketball, but both have length, physical ability and experience to throw at Bates to provide a real test that should tell us where he stands.

I’ve also been told that Memphis could host a pro day for NBA teams in early October, similar to what it did two years ago for James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, which ended up being a success for both the Tigers and executives. Expect more than 100 NBA representatives in attendance for that.

As far as conference play goes, both games Memphis plays against the Houston Cougars will be must-watch basketball. Houston is usually one of the best defensive teams in the country and is coming off a Final Four run. It returns plenty of talent and has added more via the transfer portal to replace what it lost.

Wichita State, which went 11-2 in the AAC last year, and SMU, will also provide good conference tests in the American. — Jonathan Givony


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