Ypsilanti Lincoln sophomore sensation Emoni Bates got a surprise call from NBA All-Star Jayson Tatum on Tuesday morning, telling him he earned the honor of being named Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
That would be an accomplishment for any high school player across the country, and no one knew that more than Tatum, who won the award in 2016 as a senior.
But Bates became the first sophomore and the youngest player at age 16 to win the award, which has been annually handed out since J.R. Reid won the honor in its inaugural year of 1985-86.
Bates, a 6-foot-9 wing, led Lincoln to its first state championship as a freshman, joining a team that was 11-10 the previous season, and averaged 28.5 points and 10.2 rebounds to earn a spot on The News Dream Team.
Bates was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated this past fall at age 15, earlier than LeBron James and Michael Jordan. He went on to average 31 points and 10 rebounds this past season to help Lincoln to a 19-3 record and No. 8 ranking in The Detroit News Super 20 before the season came to an abrupt end due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the heartbreak of not having the opportunity to help Lincoln defend its title hit Bates hard, the video call and news from Tatum was a sweet surprise.
“I didn’t really expect it, but I seen Jayson Tatum call and I tried to put two and two together because I know that an NBA player, that they usually announce the award when you get it," Bates said during a phone press conference with media members. "But I was just shocked. I wasn’t expecting it.
“It was real fun. I knew Jayson before the call, but it was real fun, and it was real exciting for me to hear the words come out of his mouth about the Gatorade Player of the Year. I’m extremely blessed to receive this award. It feels real good, especially being the youngest out of all of them, showing that hard work in the gym, being dedicated to the gym every day is real good.”
Bates, who turned 16 this past January, won the prestigious title over senior guard Cade Cunningham of Florida's Montverde Academy and senior center Evan Mobley of California's Rancho Christian.
Jabari Parker was the previous non-senior to win the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year award after leading Chicago Simeon Academy to its third straight Class 4A state championship his junior year at age 17 in 2011-12.
LeBron James (2001-02, 2002-03), Greg Oden (2004-05, 2005-06) and Brandon Knight (2008-09, 2009-10) are the lone two-time winners. Parker was beat out his senior year in 2013 by Andrew Wiggins, who went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and was named the league's rookie of the year in 2015.
Again, it’s a tremendous accomplishment to be named Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year. But for Bates to win a state championship, be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and then win the honor all in a 13-month span?
“It’s real good, just basically hard work and just dedicating myself,” Bates said. “I work hard every day. I’m always in the gym and just staying focused throughout all of this and not letting everything get to my head. It’s really like showing me that I’m dedicated. I’m humble so I’m always going to be humble and I’m always going to keep working and be myself.”
So, where does this rate for Bates on his list of accomplishments?
“This is No. 1, especially since it’s a big, big award. This is No. 1,” said Bates, who received the trophy, which has all the past winners engraved in it, from his parents Tuesday.
“Seeing those players and then seeing my name, it’s like I deserve it and blessed to get it. It’s really good, especially being the youngest, that’s an honor.”
And it should be No. 1, according to Tatum.
“This is a really big deal, especially being a sophomore and winning Gatorade National Player of the Year," Tatum said. "It’s the biggest award you can win in high school, not just for your talent, but what you do off the court and in the classroom. So for him to be the first sophomore to ever win is something to be proud of.
“When Gatorade asked me to do it I was excited because I remember when I won my senior year I was surprised at school by Penny Hardaway. So just to give him some type of surprise during this time when we all have to be away from each other, to make it somewhat special and memorable for him I was happy to do that.
“I just told him how big of a deal this was to win as a sophomore and that he was definitely on the right track and the right pace to ultimately get to where he wants. Just keep working, don’t get complacent, and obviously be happy and be proud of this accomplishment, but continue to strive to get better.”
Tatum, who received the nickname "The Problem" from James after scoring 41 in a 114-112 loss to the Lakers on Feb. 23, knows that it was special to get the news from Hardaway. But it was even more special to see his name on the trophy with all the great players who won the honor before him.
“I think the part that stands out most is once you receive that trophy and you see your name on there and you see all the previous winners of this award," Tatum said. "That really puts you in a special group and I think that was the best part for myself."
While Bates is most compared to NBA superstar Kevin Durant due to his size and skills, Bates was heartbroken in January when his idol Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash.
After a state semifinal win his freshman year, Bates said in the postgame press conference that Bryant was the player who he emulated his game the most after, saying: “Kobe Bryant, that is who I watch all the time.”
Bates, in a tribute to Bryant, wore a No. 24 jersey instead of his normal No. 21 in a game against Jackson and tossed in 42 in a one-sided win for Lincoln.
Bryant won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award in 1995-96.
Kelvin Torbert of Flint Northwestern (2000-01) was the last winner from Michigan to win the award, with LaVell Blanchard (Ann Arbor Pioneer, 1998-99) and Chris Webber (Detroit Country Day, 1990-91) also past winners from Michigan.
Bates scored 40 or more points five times as a sophomore, including a 63-point, 21-rebound effort in a 108-102 double-OT win over Chelsea, and 48 points in a 78-49 rout of No. 13 Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the regular-season finale.
Having the season cut short was painful for Bates.
“It was hurtful because I feel like me and my team could have been back to the Breslin and try to compete for another (state title),” Bates said. “We definitely had the talent and we were starting to click right at the end.”
So, what is Bates’ future? Will he stay at Lincoln? Will he reclassify and play as a senior next year and then play a year of college basketball? He has multiple offers, including Michigan State, Michigan, Florida State and DePaul.
“The reclassifying is up in the air. Ultimately it’s his decision,” said EJ Bates, Emoni’s father and head of Bates Fundamentals, the AAU team Emoni plays on. “No matter what he decides we’re going to support it.
“I’m overjoyed to see his hard work and dedication be acknowledged he deserves it. I want him to relish in his moment and take it all in. Of course there’s more work ahead but today belongs to him.”
When asked if Bates will play at Lincoln next year, EJ replied: “I have to talk to him and figure out what he thinks will be best for him and his overall development. His overall goal is different than most players. As of right now there’s no changes.”
ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins said back in February that Bates is good enough right now to be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
While Tatum knows Bates is an elite talent and well ahead of high school players, including premier seniors, the NBA is another story.
“For as tall he is, 6-9, 6-10, he has the capabilities to do everything. He’s athletic, he’s lengthy, he can dribble and shoot and score from anywhere, and he plays hard with a high motor,” Tatum said. “He’s just overall a really, really good player, especially being as young (as he is), and he’s going to get better.
“He’s definitely talented enough, I guess, to make that leap now. I think what people have to understand is how physical the game is in the NBA because there are grown men out there. They have kids and have played in the league 14, 15 years, so the physical part is just as important which he’ll get, so once he gets that he’ll be ready for it.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is considering eliminating its one-and-done rule that currently requires players to be age 19 or one year removed from high school before they can enter the NBA Draft.
If Bates returns to Lincoln, it will be a threat to win the state championship with four starters back in Bates, forward DeCorian Temple, and guards Braelon Green and Simon Wheeler.