Emoni Bates, who might be the best seventh-grade basketball player in the United States, is doing amazing things on the court, but he isn’t happy.
Bates lives in Ypsilanti and he attends Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor. He is ranked as the No. 1 player at his grade level by at least one website, he is 6-6, and he can do it all — while doing it all really, really well.
He handles the ball with both hands effortlessly. He can hit a shot from anywhere on the court. He has a smooth jumper. He can dunk.
And he’s only 13. In fact, just two days removed from his 13th birthday late last month, he put on an impressive display of his basketball prowess in a private workout for the Free Press at Parkridge Community Center in Ypsilanti.
But Bates is not happy.
His father and coach, Elgin, is running the workout. During one drill, Bates has to make several three-pointers from three spots on the court. He has been nearly flawless the entire workout, moving to his left, then to his right around some cones, switching the ball from one hand to the other before draining a 12-footer each time. He has dribbled balls simultaneously with both hands while racing up and down the court, crashing into the padded wall at each end every time.
But when Bates gets to the third spot on the three-point drill, from the left side of the arc, the ball suddenly stops going in.
“Dang!” Bates grunts.
“Want to do it over?” Elgin asks.
Bates nods his head and starts the drill from the beginning. He swishes nearly all his three-pointers until he gets to the same spot on the left side. Again the ball doesn’t go down. Bates grunts a little. His unhappiness is obvious, his intensity is palpable.
Bates makes one. Then another. And another.
“Yes, sir,” Elgin says.
He says this standing under the hoop while the ball is in midair. He knows it’s going in. They’re all going in now.
Elgin senses his son is done and bounces a high pass toward the basket. Bates takes off, grabs the ball at its apex and ends the whole thing with a hard dunk that seems to shake the bricks on the walls.
“If he doesn’t get it right, sometimes he might get upset, but he’ll keep going till he gets it exactly how he wants to do it,” Elgin says. “I’m actually a fan because at 12, well, 13 now, I probably would have kicked the ball, walked off and picked it up another day. But, nah, he’s stays with it.”
Bates sits next to his father and nods his head. He speaks so quietly that it’s hard to hear him.
“I don’t like slacking off at anything: school, basketball, anything,” he says.
It was around this time last year when things started to change for Bates. He had just begun to play on an Amateur Athletic Union team, the Toledo Wildcats. The team went 43-5 last season and won a big tournament in Chicago, where Bates became the talk of the gym after he averaged 28 points and about 12 rebounds. He officially was on the radar.
“And no one knew of him until then, but all these other kids (at the tournament) were ranked,” Elgin says. “So, within a year, boom! Now he’s at the top of the food chain.”
Praise from pundits started rolling in through polls and rankings. Most rankings have him as the No. 1 or No. 2 player — shuttling between those spots with Bryce Griggs, a 5-10 point guard from Houston — in the Class of 2022.
Future150.com ranks Bates as its top seventh-grade player. In October, coast2coastpreps.com ranked Bates No. 2 and wrote: “Bates is the best long-term prospect we have seen since Marvin Bagley III.” Bagley is a 6-11 high school junior from Phoenix who has offers from Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and UCLA.
Middleschoolhoops.com doesn’t offer a ranking, but wrote this: “Emoni Bates is one of the top prospects that the country has seen in the past 15 years. With his unique combination of size and skill, it’s easy to see why scouts around the country are raving about Emoni. The Class of 2022 prospect has a silky-smooth jumper, handles the ball very well and creates for teammates. Emoni Bates is the real deal, period.”
The most effusive praise has come from p2bball.com, a youth basketball blog for Prolific Performance Athletics and Apparel. The website noted Bates’ “ability to drop his hips and move laterally,” that he is “not afraid of contact” and “shows an edge and attitude that seems to be ingrained as part of his personality — a mean streak even.” Bates was lauded for his “jump shot, which has range, solid mechanics and hits with great frequency and consistency … his ability to create his own shot off the bounce” while being a “willing passer … team oriented” and possessing “great vision.”
The site summed up its analysis of Bates this way: “What we are saying is that Emoni Bates will be a top national player from this point forward, one that we believe, when it’s all said and done, will be in a draft-day conversation after occupying the top of every national ranking board at the high school level.”
First of all, if you think all of this gushing about Bates is premature or undeserved, you have to remember the life of an elite basketball player tends to be accelerated. It is possible that Bates could be playing professionally right out of high school in five years. He could be in the NBA in six years.
As for the rankings and hype that is just starting to pick up, you should know that the Bateses don’t want it to consume them. And in case you’re wondering, Bates has not received an offer from a college program, and he isn’t even sure which high school he will attend.
“I like it, but at the same, I don’t really even worry about it,” Bates says. “I don’t pay no attention to it. When I was ranked, I didn’t even have no clue about it. Somebody just told me. I didn’t know it. I didn’t pay no attention to it. I just kept working.”
Elgin isn’t even sure when the rankings first appeared with his son on them.
“We don’t really get caught up in rankings, because he could be ranked now but three years later no one can find you,” Elgin says. “So, we just try to stay focused on what we’re doing and continue to work hard. We don’t really get caught up in that. But I think he just found out about a month ago.”
Make no mistake, Bates wants to play in the NBA first and foremost. He speaks often about focus and work and has his sights locked in on getting to the NBA as soon as possible.
“I wish I could just go straight out of high school,” he says. “If I go to college for one year and just dominate, then there’s no fun in my playing. I’d like to go coming out of high school.”
If this sounds a little cocky, it is. But don’t forget that Bates is 13, and most boys his age are planning for a career as a pro sports superstar, with astronaut being their fallback career choice.
Elgin chuckles at the impatience of youth.
“He just wants to hurry up and get there,” Elgin says.
But getting there requires a lot. Elgin understands this more than most, and if Bates reaches the NBA, it will be mostly due to his father’s guidance.
Once upon a time, Elgin Bates was a great basketball player. He played at Milan High and then Ann Arbor Pioneer, where he earned Free Press all-state sixth-team honors as a senior in 1994.
He played college ball at Division II powerhouse Kentucky Wesleyan, then played six years of pro ball in Switzerland. He’s 6-3 1/2 and 40 years old, and still shoots the lights out of the gym. He knows basketball inside and out, and for the past two years has worked full-time running his own business: Bates Fundamentals Elite Basketball Training.
Elgin has crafted a very specific training regimen for his son. They work on basketball two to three times a week. They started strength training six months ago, mostly with bands, because Elgin isn’t a fan of weights. They started working on nutrition.
It’s a lot — the work, the sacrifice, the discipline — but Elgin sees it’s starting to coalesce.
“I feel like he just adopted that mentality that, OK, I’ve got to be in bed by a certain time,” Elgin says. “I can’t stay up too late. I can’t go swimming this weekend because I won’t have no legs. I’ll be dead tired on the floor. I’ve got to take care of my body. I’ve got to stretch. I’ve got to put the right food in me. So far, most of it’s been working.”
Love and basketball
Beyond Bates’ size and talent and accolades, beyond everything else, one thing is very clear. He loves basketball to its core. He always has.
When he was 2, Bates would dribble a little rubber ball around the house. The incessant noise would draw threats from his mother, Edith: “Hey,” Elgin remembers her saying, “I’m gonna pop it!”
“I just told her, ‘That’s his gift, I believe, because he’s gravitating toward it, and he does it countless hours over and over, the repetition throughout the day,’ ” Elgin says. “He still does it. He’s 6-6 in the basement playing on a 5-9, 6-foot Nerf rim, still dribbling the same rubber ball he’s had for years.”
It wasn’t just his mom, though. Dad wasn’t always thrilled with his son’s obsession, especially after a long day.
“So, I really saw it around 5 years old to where this is what he wants to do,” Elgin says. “There were times where I’m just dead tired laying down and, ‘Dad, I want to go to the gym.’ Ugh! OK. I can’t argue with that because I can see it in him. I mean, his drive, his determination. He’s always wanting to improve. …
“So, I love that about him. He takes care of his grades at school. He keeps his grades up. And you’ve got to feed that. When he wants it, hey, I’ve got to give it to him.”
There often comes a time, or a moment, when a star athlete reveals his potential to the world. For Bates, it happened when he was 6 and tagging along to watch his dad play in a rec-league game. Bates always tried to sneak onto the court every chance he got. During warm-ups, Bates got his hands on a ball and grabbed everyone’s attention.
“And he’s shooting,” Elgin says. “And I’m paying attention. He’s just knocking not like one shot, one three-pointer, down. Then the next thing I know he’s at five or six of them in a row. Then, I’m like, ‘Keep passing it to him. Keep shooting it.’
“And then he made like 17 straight threes. I’m like, ‘OK, this is getting serious.’ And this is in warm-ups. We’re supposed to be playing, but we’re watching him shoot. Like, ‘All right, just keep shooting it. He’s gonna miss the next one.’ Nope. Swish, swish, swish.”
It verified what Elgin had suspected for a while, that the basketball court is where his son belongs. When Elgin played in pro-ams, his young son would get on the court in front of paying fans to try to impress.
“Every opportunity, halftime, he was out there on the court shooting around, dribbling and everybody watching,” Elgin says. “He loves the attention. He always has. He always loved the lights, he loved the lights. Hey, I knew it then.”
It’s late afternoon on a gray winter’s day as Bates and his father sit on a bench and talk basketball and life on Parkridge Community Center’s court. The light filtering in through the high wood-framed windows is fading. It’s not quite day and not quite night. Emoni Bates occupies a similar interstitial space between boyhood and manhood.
“Basketball,” he says, “it’s really like a lifestyle, you know? It’s not just a game no more. It’s like my life. It’s Plan A. There ain’t no Plan B.”
Bates credits the game for giving him confidence and making him who he is. Elgin knows his son’s identity is in its nascent stages and wants him to remember his family is always there for him. Maybe the NBA will come. Maybe it won’t. But Elgin’s hope for his son is a simple but profound one.
“My hope for him is just to stay grounded,” Elgin says. “Like I always tell him, you can be whatever you want to be. But whatever that may be, be the best version of it. If you’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer, whatever you want to be, a therapist.”
Emoni, sitting next to his father, quietly shakes his head. Elgin laughs and looks at his son before he speaks the following.
“I know you want to do ball, but outside of that you can be anything you want to be, son,” Elgin says. “I know what you want to do, but whatever you choose to do, I know you’re going to be good at it because I know your mentality. I know you’re a perfectionist. So, whatever it is you want to do in life, you can do it, period.”
Bates listens to his father.
“Yes, sir,” he says quietly.