How Emoni Bates became the best freshman basketball player in the country

Photo: Timothy Arrick/For the Livingston Daily

Emoni Bates made his debut on this planet on Jan. 18, 2004, at 6 pounds, 7 ounces and 21 inches long.

The weight and length are unspectacular numbers for newborns, but there is little unspectacular about him 15 years later and it began with his second visit to the pediatrician.

“His second visit, as far as his length, he was off the chart,” said E.J. Bates, Emoni’s father. “From that point on, every visit after that he was off the chart and we never asked for a prediction for what he would top out at as far as height.”

No pediatrician could have accurately predicted anything about Lincoln (Ypsilanti, Mich.) High School’s 6-feet-9 phenom, who is ranked the No. 1 freshman in the country according to most recruiting services.

As we head into the home stretch of the regular season, Bates is averaging 31.1 points and 9.9 rebounds for a Lincoln team that hopes to be a factor in the Division 1 state tournament.

Those aren’t numbers freshmen are supposed to register, but this is not your typical freshman.

Standing above the crowd

Bates doesn’t play like or act like a freshman. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion on the court except when he points to the bench after he registers an assist.

When you speak with him, he is the least surprised person at his success.

He talks matter-of-factly about an early-season game when he scored 43 points against arch rival Ypsilanti when he was still only 14-years-old.

But to him, it was as if he expected to play that well.

“To be honest, after I’ve put so many hours in the gym working on my game every day, yeah,” he said. “I just came out and played how I play every game. I just had a good game.”

He had a terrific game and no one knows that better than Ypsilanti coach Steve Brooks.

“He was six of 11 from the 3 on us and I swear to you they were NBA 3s,” Brooks said. “And the five that he missed rattled and came out.”

Yes, he hit six 3-point shots. At 6-9, Bates is anything but a post player.

Oh, he can score in the post — really, he can score from anywhere — but he is more of a perimeter player than anything.

It isn’t fair to a youngster to compare a freshman in high school to an NBA player, but Bates repeatedly hears the whispers from people who have seen him play.

“They said I remind them of Kevin Durant,” he said. “I like him. He’s a good player. I like his skill set, his frame. He’s able to score at will.”

Bates is very much a high school version of Durant — a good ball handler, comfortable on the perimeter. It is difficult to stop him when he drives and pulls up for a jump shot in the key.

Middle school students crowd around to take a selfie with 7th-grader Emoni Bates. (Photo: Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press)

Starting ’em young

His father remembers that even at an early age his son always seemed to have a ball in his hands.

That is when dad took over.

“Luckily he had a father that played,” said E.J., who played at Milan and Ann Arbor Pioneer before Kentucky Wesleyan and playing in Switzerland for six years. “When I saw that he would be tall and he really wanted to play the game, I saw he always stayed focused and the determination that he had. It was like: ‘OK, it’s time to start doing little things like agility.’”

Instead of just shooting around, Bates began playing catch with tennis balls, dribbling around cones and running ladders.

He also played soccer for a time and was a scoring phenom.

“I used to like it,” Emoni said. “That’s why I have good footwork now. I played soccer all through elementary school. I didn’t really know the positions. I just knew how to put the ball in the goal.”

The same is true in basketball. As a 5-9 fourth grader, he played in a Saline rec league. He played against seniors in high school and more than held his own.

“They all knew me,” Emoni said. “I’ve always been playing up; against older guys.”

But these were much older guys, who were bigger and stronger and capable of bouncing Bates around when battling for rebounds.

“The physicality was challenging for him, but as far as the skill set — handling the ball, not turning it over and knocking down open shots — that wasn’t a problem,” E.J. said. “All it did was ignite a fire in him as far as wanting to compete.”

More than wanting to compete, Bates wanted to dominate.

He has a shooting drill in which he takes five 3-pointers from five spots on the court. If he makes fewer than 20 shots, he repeats the drill.

That may seem a reach for a high school player, but in the fourth grade his father recalls watching him hit 25 straight from beyond the arc.

“He’s a perfectionist,” his father said. “Some people would say it’s kind of insane, but to me I get it. All the guys that want to be great and be the best, they strive for perfection, especially when you know you’re capable of doing it.”

In the fifth grade, Bates was 5-11 and grew to 6-3 during the next school year, which led to his first dunk. It came at an AAU practice in Toledo after several unsuccessful attempts.

“I always got over the rim, but I’d miss the dunk,” he said. “So I tried it again and made it. I was excited. I just kept dunking after that.”

He hasn’t stopped.

Every Lincoln game features a few Bates dunks, which seem so effortless.

Oct 6, 2018; Colorado Springs, CO, USA; USA Men’s Junior National Team participant Emoni Bates (63) and Richard Isaacs Jr. (34) and Will Jeffress (89) during minicamp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

But there is much more to Bates’ game than dunking. Each Lincoln practice is followed by a workout with his father and they are designed to make him a complete player.

“I work on everything to help my ability to get better at each spot, each position,” he said. “After practice I get a lot of shots up and work on my ball handling, my post moves. I’ll lift weights with my dad.”

With a large number of seniors leaving the state to finish their careers at prep schools, it seems logical that Bates would be plotting his course to jump ship and head for as high-profile prep school.

But Bates doesn’t need the exposure or the extra gym time someone gets at a prep school.

“I want to stay home,” he insisted. “A lot of people go to prep schools. I feel I can put on for the people out here and just be able to get the same love as people look to get at prep schools.”

He is getting plenty of love as it is. More than 1,000 people were turned away from the game at Ypsilanti and Friday’s rematch has been moved to Eastern Michigan’s Convocation Center.

“I’m the opposing coach and I’m glad to play against him,” Brooks said. “A kid like him comes along once in a generation so you have to embrace him.”

College, or the pros?

College coaches would like to embrace Bates and sign him … right now.

But the catch is he may never spend a day in college.

When asked if all of the college coaches are wasting their time recruiting his son, Bates’ father smirked and said: “Yeah.”

There is speculation that the NBA will change the rule and allow players to enter the NBA out of high school.

A target year for the change could be 2022, when Bates graduates from high school.

“Hopefully, that will happen,” Emoni said. “But in my mind, I don’t put it like that because you never know what can happen so I’ll keep everybody in mind.”

Read the full article at the Detroit Free Press.

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