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Introducing Emoni Bates: Meet the likely face of the next generation of preps-to-pros

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This story on Emoni Bates was originally published on July 11th, 2019.

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Any veteran of the Peach Jam knows that the event is a circus, one complete with packed gyms, fire codes and a cadre of extremely large security guards that are there to keep reporters and autograph-seekers from overwhelming the players and the standing room-only crowds from overtaking the court.

Typically, these crowds are at their biggest when the best soon-to-be seniors square off. When Harry Giles squared off with Ben Simmons at the 2014 Peach Jam, the doors for the gym were closed by halftime of the game before it. When Julius Randle and Andrew Wiggins faced off two years before that, the crowd on the track above the courts stood five deep.

That’s normal.

What isn’t normal is for a 15U game taking place 16 hours before coaches are even allowed in the gym to become the main event, but that is precisely what happens Bronny James and his Strive For Greatness program roll into town. The gym is at capacity before Bronny’s shoes are even tied. By the time the game tips off, there is a line of a hundred people waiting to get in, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the son of the best high school player anyone has ever seen.

It’s fitting, then, that after Bronny’s first game at the Peach Jam on a Wednesday afternoon, as the crowds there to see the most hyped high school basketball player ever follow him out the door, the best prospect since LeBron strolls into the gym, laces up his shoes and shows the suddenly-sparse crowd why he, Emoni Bates, is on track to be the face of the new preps-to-pros era.

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The comparisons to Kevin Durant are as unfair as they are inevitable.

There is a certain caliber of basketball player that simply cannot fairly be put in the same sentence a 15-year old. Kevin Durant, when his achilles are intact, may very well be the best basketball player on the planet today. At the very least, he is the best scorer in the game, a wispy, 7-foot sniper with the skills of a shooting guard.

“He’s very young and has a lot of maturing to do physically, but in my 20 years in this business he was as good as anybody I have ever seen as a freshman,” said Rivals recruiting analyst Eric Bossi of Emoni Bates. “His skill level, athleticism and ability to create a shot are way beyond his years and he plays with a fire and alpha mentality you don’t usually see in a 15 year old.”

Does that remind you of anyone?

I won’t be the one to put their names in the same sentence.

Or even the same paragraph.

But Bates, who is now 6-foot-9 after growing seven inches since sixth grade, has that same slender build, that same ability to knife through defenses, that same ease with which he buries 25-foot threes off the bounce. Perhaps most importantly, on the floor, the soft-spoken Bates is as an uber-competitive asshole in all of the best ways.

“That’s what you call the alter-ego,” his father, Elgin, said with a laugh.

Elgin’s presence is important to this story. He is a former Kentucky Wesleyan guard that spent time playing professionally overseas. He’s also a skills trainer. Bates Fundamentals is not only the name of his basketball training business in Ypsilanti, Michigan, but it is also the name of the grassroots team that he runs on Nike’s EYBL circuit. There’s a reason for that. Elgin wants to keep Emoni close. He knows what being a high school basketball phenom can do to a psyche of a child in a man’s body. He might be the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, but as of today, he cannot even get a driver’s license.

“For him, it’s about being a kid,” Elgin said.

Emoni might have won a state title in Michigan as a freshman, but he still gets punished when he doesn’t do his homework.

“Don’t let this go to his head or bother him due to the fact that it can get overwhelming and crazy,” Elgin said. “Sometimes it’s trying when you try to get out of the gym and everyone is grabbing his arm, and as a parent, I have to notice that. I have to pay attention to his body language. If he’s uncomfortable, if he doesn’t want to be in a certain situation, we get him up out of there.

“The main thing for me is being a parent and protecting my child.”

At the same time, Elgin wants his son to be aware. If everything goes according to plan, Emoni is looking at earning nine figures between his NBA salary and endorsement money. If, as expected, the NBA does away with the age limit for 2022, that money will start rolling in just three years from now. Emoni is not going to be under his wing forever, and he needs to know that the people he comes across are not always going to have his best interest at heart.

Four years ago, I wrote a story on Renardo Sidney. In 2005, Sidney was Emoni Bates, a 6-foot-8 14 year old from Jackson, Mississippi, that tore up Sonny Vaccaro’s famed ABCD All-American camp. He left home and moved to Los Angeles. He and his family took money. He let the hype get to his head. “I could honestly say I probably was ‘Hollywood,'” Sidney told me at the time. “I just thought I made it. I stopped working. I thought that my talent would get me to the NBA.”

That, of course, is not how it played out.

Sidney was barely a top 20 prospect when he graduated high school. Neither USC nor UCLA would accept his commitment because of the potential eligibility issues he faced. He eventually enrolled at Mississippi State, but he wasn’t cleared to play for a year and a half. When I spoke with him, he was on his third comeback attempt, having dropped 35 pounds to get down to 305 in order to get signed by a minor league team in Canada.

The key to avoiding that, Elgin believes, is to give his son a support system, a structure to his life, a humility to understand that nothing is guaranteed until a signed contract says ‘guaranteed.’

To date, it’s been successful.

And as long as Emoni Bates continues to stay the course, his name could very well be the first name that Adam Silver calls on draft night in 2022.

“That,” Emoni says, “is the goal.”

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.