The news wasn’t expected in the moment, but that in itself is no surprise, really. Because Emoni Bates isn’t like the others.
And we’ve known that for a while now, as the local hoops phenom became a national celebrity, his on-court exploits feeding his off-court profile. Bates, a wiry and intense competitor with rare skills, started turning heads as a middle-schooler, lit up the AAU circuit, led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a Division 1 state title as a freshman, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and became the first sophomore ever to earn Gatorade National Player of the Year honors this spring.
Yet after all the dominant performances he’d dropped as a precocious teenager, this one resonates the loudest here in his home state. In a live ESPN SportsCenter broadcast on Monday afternoon, Bates announced he intends to play college basketball for Tom Izzo and the Spartans.
"I'm not sure what the future may hold,” Bates said, flanked by his parents, his older brother and his high school coach, “but I do know as of right now I will be committing to Michigan State University.”
The caveats were clear, and the commitment will remain couched until Bates actually sets foot on campus as a college freshman in 2022. Or more likely in ’21 if he opts to reclassify in the coming months, as expected. But that won't quell the optimism for Michigan State fans, cautious or otherwise. Nor should it, quite frankly.
Not solid green
Whether he plays for the Spartans or not, this was a coup for the program. And in these uncertain times, it's also another glimpse of the future of college sports.
Sure, the Spartans were always the front-runners to land Bates among the elite Division I basketball programs, in part because Izzo and his staff — especially longtime assistant Mike Garland — were the only ones bothering to enter the race.
Bates and his father had made it clear early on that the sweet-shooting 6-foot-9 guard had set his sights on becoming the first player to jump straight from high school to the NBA since it changed its early-entry draft rules in 2005.
“It really is a goal,” Bates told me at the start of his freshman season at Ypsilanti Lincoln. “That is one dream of mine.”
But even if it’s a pipe dream, this idea that he’ll ever put on a Michigan State uniform, it’s one Izzo & Co. continued to believe in. Or at least they sure acted like they did, which is what Bates was referring to when he thanked Izzo and the “OG” — as Garland is known in and around the MSU program — “for staying with me since I was a youngin’ and just being there through the process.”
“They've been showing love to me since I was in seventh grade and they’ve been recruiting me hard since then,” added Bates, a two-time Detroit News Dream team selection who averaged 31 points and 10 rebounds as a sophomore. “I just know they’re showing that their love is genuine and they’ve just been here for a long time, so … I’m big on loyalty and they showed me all loyalty so, you know, I gotta show ‘em love back.”
As for the others who didn’t?
“I was upset at first,” Bates’ father, E.J., admitted, “but the one (school) that he really wanted to go to was recruiting him heavy. So as long as he got the offer he wanted … I’m happy.”
Not nearly as happy as Izzo and his staff are right now. Bates’ made-for-TV announcement may have caught the Spartans’ staff a bit off-guard Monday, but as surprises go, they don’t get more welcomed than this.
Beyond the announcement itself, there's also the timing of it, giving the Spartans — and Bates, if he wants — ample opportunity to recruit others to join him in East Lansing.
Bates is a generational talent, a player that draws easy comparisons to the likes of Kevin Durant — Evan Daniels, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, calls Bates the best prep prospect since LeBron James — and a potential No. 1 overall pick whenever he’s eligible for the NBA draft.
That remains the great unknown in all of this, obviously. But talk of the NBA altering its early-entry rules and age limit in time for Bates’ to make that leap is just that — talk — until it actually happens. Same goes for the speculation Bates will join the trend of elite high school players like Jalen Green — the top player in the class of 2021 — and one-time Michigan commit Isaiah Todd in bypassing college for lucrative, six-figure contracts to play in the G League on the way to the NBA.
“It’s good for some people,” Bates told ESPN, “but I don’t think I’ll head that route.”
That could change, certainly. All of this could, and probably will, as Bates keeps his options open. But it’s worth noting that Bates and his family seem intent on charting their own course, as they have up to this point.
Rather than joining a powerhouse program for high school, Bates chose to stay close to home at Ypsilanti Lincoln, where his addition to a senior-led roster transformed a .500 team into a state champ in 2019. And after eschewing the idea of leaving for an out-of-state prep academy this past season, Bates' camp is now building one from scratch around the rising junior, practically in his own backyard.
That Ypsi Prep Academy shirt he was wearing Monday was no accident. It’s a de facto advertisement for the newly-created satellite campus for Aim High Academy that already has commitments from several of the nation’s top players, including top-50 recruits Dillon Hunter (Atlanta) and Shawn Phillips (Dayton, Ohio) and local stars Javaughn Hannah (Mount Clemens) and Jaden Akins (Farmington).
"I just think it’s time to be in the situation where he can continue to grow and develop,” E.J. Bates said. “And also be around like-minded individuals who aspire to play on a higher level, that’s committed in the gym and that can also challenge him every day in practice.”
The prep-school route offers other perks, too, from the shoe-company sponsor to the unrestricted national schedule — which brings more TV exposure against top-flight competition while playing in college and pro venues — that all helps build the Bates brand, something fans of college sports better get used to hearing. Remember, those new name, image and likeness (NIL) laws should be passed by the time Bates arrives on campus, possibly with his own eight-figure shoe-endorsement deal in tow.
“It’s been in the making for quite some time, trying to do something unprecedented in the state of Michigan,” the elder Bates’ told WXYZ-TV in an interview that aired following Monday’s announcement.
And in these unprecedented — and uncertain — times in the sports world, that’s just one more shock wave, I suppose. But safe to say, it’s one they’re feeling pretty good about in East Lansing.