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Niyo: Can ‘relentless’ freshman Emoni Bates jump straight to NBA?

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lincoln High School freshman Emoni Bates drives to the hoop past Saline High School's Logan Evans, bottom, and Griffin Yaklich, right, to pop in two of his game-high 28 points for the Railsplitters in their 70-39 win over Saline, Dec. 7 at Saline High School.

Ypsilanti — It’s easy to get lost thinking about the future.

But watching Emoni Bates now, it’s hard to imagine this 14-year-old kid won’t end up where he wants to be someday. And likely sooner rather than later.

Bates is one of the top high school basketball players in the country, a freshman at Ypsilanti Lincoln, and on this early Sunday evening, he’s still here in the gym with his father and a few other hoop dreamers, getting in some extra work more than an hour after his team’s practice has ended.

In fact, his coach, Jesse Davis, already has locked the doors, and along with Bates’ father, E.J., he’s decided it’s time to go. Dinner at home already is getting cold, Davis laughs, rattling the keys. But so has the freshman phenom, finishing up a three-point shooting drill on a nearby court, where his brother, 23-year-old Elgin Jr., is busy rebounding for him.

“Watch this,” his father says, out of earshot, just as Bates misfires once more from the baseline corner, smacking his hands in disgust and calling for the ball again. “He’s gonna start over. Just watch.”

Sure enough, Bates, the lanky, 6-foot-8 forward, is starting the drill over, tired legs and all. And after another shot rattles out, he finally finds his groove again and starts snapping the net. One, two, three in a row. Davis laughs again, recalling the time he watched Emoni hit 22 threes in a row as a third-grader.

So this is nothing, really. Yet it’s something the youngster has to have before he moves on, finally calling it a night and then punctuating his workout by lining up his 6-foot sibling near the basket and then leaping over him for a one-handed dunk.

“It’s because he’s relentless up here,” E.J. Bates explains, tapping the side of his head and smiling. “And when he sets his mind to something, he accomplishes it.”

Might as well start there, then, as Bates settles into a folding chair in the coaches’ office. He’s only four games into his high school career, but everyone always wants to know where he’s headed next. To a prep school out of state? To college? Or maybe even straight to the NBA from high school?

Bates answers it all with a customary shrug. He’s a teenager, remember. And the immediate goal is to get home and scarf down some pizza, he says. (He's 6-foot-8, but only about 170 pounds right now.) After that, it’s “to win a state championship.”

“It would mean a lot to me,” adds Bates, who is averaging 29.2 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in the Railsplitters’ 5-0 start to the season. “Because, you know, this is my hometown, where I’m from. And not too many people get a state championship.”

Still, far fewer get the kind of attention Bates is getting at the moment, following another summer playing above the rim — and above his age group — as the star of his dad’s Bates Fundamentals squad in Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League. Then there was a trip to USA Basketball’s Junior National Team minicamp in the fall, where Bates cemented his status as the No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 2022.

If it seems like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, well, that's the game. College coaches scout Bates’ games regularly, but so do NBA teams now, as the league and its players’ union appear poised to remove the age restriction on players declaring for the draft.

The ball zips past Lincoln High School freshman Emoni Bates, center, who was cruising in for what looked like another dunk in the fourth quarter.

Currently, prospects must be 19 and a year removed from high school to be eligible. But an NCAA reform commission last spring recommended ending the so-called “one-and-done” era in college basketball, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver reportedly is targeting the 2022 NBA draft to implement those changes. And that just happens to be the year Bates is scheduled to graduate from high school.

 “So it’s something we have to keep in perspective,” his father said. “Because I know he’s capable of doing whatever it is he wants to do.”

Like his father, Bates doesn’t bother hiding his ambitions about becoming the first player to jump straight from high school to the pros since the NBA changed its rules in 2005, ending a 10-year run that saw several of the game’s biggest stars — Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them — make the leap.

“It really is a goal,” said Bates, who’ll turn 15 next month. “Because I’ve seen (players) come in as rookie straight out of high school and make a big impact. So, you know, that is one dream of mine.”

It’s not exactly a pipe dream, either.

“It’s very early — he has barely played high school basketball,” said Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “But I think his father has already made it pretty clear that that’s something they’re going to strongly consider. They’ve made no bones about it: They’re gonna pursue it and look at it. And they should, if he’s that level talent when that time comes. He’d be the type of player that should look into that route.”

Lincoln High School freshman Emoni Bates, drives past Saline High School's Griffin Yaklich during the second quarter of Lincoln's 70-39 win over Saline.

There will be others, certainly. After all, 10 of the 14 lottery picks in the 2018 NBA draft were true freshmen in college last season, and of the four who weren’t, one was a 19-year-old European prodigy and another was Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, who surprised many — including his own head coach, Tom Izzo — by coming back for his sophomore year.

So while everyone obsesses about college recruiting decisions now, NBA teams already are shifting their focus, prepping for the day one-and-done goes back to being none-and-gone.

“Frankly, the high school evaluations are going to become the most important evaluations for NBA teams, because those are the future lottery picks,” Daniels said. “They’re going to have to put time, resources and effort into evaluating those players. Because those are gonna be the players that can change a franchise.”

For now, though, Bates is a player helping change a high school program’s fortunes. Settling on Ypsilanti Lincoln over one of the Ann Arbor high schools — Bates attended Ann Arbor’s Clague Middle School, where he averaged 46 points a game as a seventh-grader — or a private school like Detroit Country Day or U-D Jesuit was a family decision for Emoni and his parents. (His mother, Edith, works as a logistics supervisor for UPS in addition to her duties with the American Red Cross.)

Lincoln’s coach, Jesse Davis, has known Bates’ father for more than 20 years, since the two were teammates at Grand Rapids Community College.

E.J. Bates, father of Emoni Bates, talks about Emoni's work ethic and his future after basketball practice at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti on Sunday.

“And what I told Emoni was, ‘Would you rather play for somebody that likes you or would you rather play for somebody that loves you and has your best interests at heart -- no ulterior motives whatsoever,” said E.J. Bates, who went on to play at Division II Kentucky Wesleyan and then spent six years playing professionally in Europe. “We’re family. We’re tight-knit. That’s huge.”

So is the addition of Bates to a senior-laden team that went 11-10 a year ago. Thursday night, the student section at Pinckney was jeering early in the first quarter after Bates missed a pair of free throws. "Over-rated!" they chanted. Moments later, he took a pass in transition, crossed over a defender and threw down a two-handed dunk in response. Lincoln won by 22. Bates led all scorers with 33. So, yes, he's fitting in just fine with his teammates. 

“The attention on him, they’re kind of used to it now,” said Davis, in his fourth year as Lincoln’s head coach. “Even before he got here, they saw the YouTube clips, they saw the attention he was getting with the media. I just think it’s becoming normal for us, knowing he’s a special talent and he’s attracting a lot of people. My job is to make it about the team, to keep them together and make them realize how much they need each other.”

And for Bates, specifically, “it’s just about keeping things normal — that’s what he needs more than anything.”

That’s easier said than done, obviously. Bates has more than 45,000 followers on an Instagram account that features but a single post. A highlight video that was posted on YouTube in July 2016 — when Bates was only 12 — has nearly 1.7 million views to date. 

But the freshman credits his parents for helping him stay grounded. Case in point: There’s no basketball until homework gets done. And Bates, who is carrying a 3.95 GPA as a freshman, knows there’s none at all if the grades falter.

Lincoln High School freshman Emoni Bates handles the ball in the second quarter of Lincoln's 70-39 win over Saline.

Still, there’s nothing normal about his basketball talent, molded by his father — and grandfather — ever since he was a toddler, sleeping with a miniature basketball cradled under his arm and driving his mother crazy dribbling it around the house.

 “He’s a different type of kid,” Davis said. “And he’s always had that drive. And (his father) has worked with him for so long under the radar, preparing him for what was to come.”

What’s to come is anyone’s guess at this point. Bates already has scholarship offers from DePaul and Florida State, and he and his father say there’s a short list of programs he favors — Michigan State, Michigan, Kentucky and Duke for now — if he opts to go that route.

But Daniels, who broke his own personal rule against scouting eighth-graders this summer, says he’ll have his pick when the time comes. Bates didn’t play particularly well when Daniels  first saw him in the EYBL, though the natural talent was undeniable. Then he saw him again at the USA Basketball camp.

“And I was blown away who he is as a player and prospect,” said Daniels, who. “He’s just so impressive at his age. All the physical tools are there — size, length, athleticism. The mobility, the skill to be able to step out on the floor and make shots and drive it off the bounce. He’s as good of a freshman as I’ve ever evaluated. … You could move him into the 2021 class and he would be the best prospect in that class, too.”

Best in class? That’s not really the goal. 

“There’s a difference between wanting to be known as the No. 1 player and wanting to be the No. 1 player,” Davis said. “He just wants to be the No. 1 player, period. …

“And somebody asked me recently, ‘Does he have a ceiling?’ I wouldn’t put a ceiling on him because he’s so young and his mentality is just to be great. How great? I don’t know, because there’s no stopping him right now.”

Lincoln High School freshman Emoni Bates, left, shows a little attitude after throwing down a windmill dunk in the fourth quarter.