NCAA Basketball

Emoni Bates is the feel-good story of college basketball after nearly hitting rock bottom

Emoni Bates is still only 18 years old, but his life in basketball already has enough chapters to fill a novel. At 15, Bates was hyped as a future NBA superstar, being compared to “a young Kevin Durant” by ESPN and saying he “often looks like a 6′ 9” Stephen Curry, in a Sports Illustrated cover story.

From that point on, interest waned: Bates’ tortuous high school career cooled off much of the hype, with scouts noting his negative wingspan, shaky defense and shoot-first-second-and-third mentality that made him difficult to fit into traditional team structures. Bates graduated early and committed to Memphis, entering his freshman year at 17, the youngest player in college basketball. After 18 uneventful games, he was sidelined for most of the rest of the season with a mysterious back injury.

Bates entered the transfer portal and bypassed major offers to return home to his home state to play for one of the worst teams in college hoops, the Eastern Michigan Eagles. As soon as he arrived on campus, he was arrested on weapons charges.

Just when it looked like Bates had hit rock bottom, he reminded everyone of his immense talent the moment he took the floor for Eastern Michigan. Bates dropped 30 points on Michigan in his debut for the Eagles, dropped 36 points on South Carolina a month later and continued to put up big scoring performances in between. On Tuesday night, Bates had his best game yet: 43 points on 9-of-14 shooting from three-point range, including 29 straight points in the first half. See the notable highlights here:

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-TGYFWTobs(/embed)

Bates’ shooting efficiency on the night was wild: he went 15-of-23 from the field and had just four trips to the foul line (making all four) the entire game. Despite every player on Toledo knowing that Bates was looking to score the ball, he continued to pace the offense nearly every possession with hard shot after hard shot.

At least Toledo beat Eastern Michigan, 84-79. The Eagles are 4-16 on the year and currently rank No. 333 out of 363 in DI this season, according to KenPom. They were no better last season without Bates, finishing 10-21 and ranked No. 316 in KenPom.

The Eagles may be terrible, but Bates has legitimately been a stellar scorer all year. Days away from his 19th birthday, he has rejuvenated his basketball career and can say he has at least regained some NBA interest. We had Bates as the 26th overall pick in our latest 2023 NBA mock draft.

Bates knew he wouldn’t single-handedly elevate Eastern Michigan to prominence — the program’s problems are far too deep for that — but he has injected real excitement around the program. The flashes of stardom he showed at such a young age are still all over the tape: He has so much versatility as a shooter, hitting step-backs off the dribble, running around screens and draining shots from beyond NBA range. He’s proven he can be a consistent scorer all year, even if he’s not the most efficient shooter (he entered the game shooting just under 35 percent from three). He is still one of the youngest sophomores in the country and he just keeps getting better.

Bates will finally be old enough to enter the NBA Draft this summer, and if he declares, he’ll have every opportunity to prove he can earn a spot in the league, whether he’s drafted or not. Regardless of his future, the way Bates has turned it around qualifies as one of the feel-good stories of the college basketball season.

A story with so many twists and turns can still very much have a happy ending.

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