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Emoni Bates has been in the spotlight since he was 12 years old. He was supposed to be the next Kevin Durant, the next prep phenom that would be on a direct route to superstardom in the NBA.
The Durant comparisons came from his lanky frame and his silky jumper. Bates was a child prodigy on the hardwood. His game was so good, that Sports Illustrated deemed him the “Next In Line” behind NBA greats like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. Those comparisons were made while Bates was a 15-year-old high school sophomore at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti, Mich.
What followed those lofty comparisons, and goals, that Bates dealt with, was a bumpy road. He transferred high schools, committed, and de-committed to Michigan State, enrolled at The University of Memphis, transferred to Eastern Michigan, and dealt with his share of off the court troubles.
He went from a 15-year-old that was destined to be one of the top overall draft picks, to being selected 49th overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers after his sophomore year in college. It’s certainly a different route than what so many thought was in store for Bates.
“I ain’t gonna lie, they were everywhere,” Bates said of his emotions when his phone rang on draft night. “A lot of emotions. I worked really hard to get to this spot. For me, to actually get here, means a lot to me. It was a lot of tears.”
For the first time since he was 12, the spotlight is off of Bates. He arrived at Memphis as a top-ranked recruit. When he transferred to Eastern Michigan, he was a prodigy returning home and easily the biggest name in the Mid-American Conference. Those expectations and the pressure that comes with it can be something that saps joy out of the game. It did for Bates.
Now, Bates is just a second-round pick looking to find his way in the NBA. It’s that type of thing that has allowed him to reclaim the joy he once had in the game of basketball.
"Great, I love it right now, for sure,” Bates said of the spotlight no longer being on him. “I just get to learn. I just get to enjoy basketball. Like I said, no expectations, I don't gotta go out there and do this. I can just go out there and have fun with basketball.
“Really just a long journey. I was in the spotlight since I was 12 years old. A lot of people have been knowing since I was 12. I’m really the most happy I’ve been in my journey, throughout my whole basketball career, because I feel like I can just have fun right now and no expectations. I’m a talented player, but I can learn from everybody.”
Expectations for Bates won’t be high immediately. Sure, the Cavaliers probably couldn’t have found a more naturally gifted basketball player at No. 49 overall. But being selected that deep in the draft can alleviate expectations. Had Bates been selected first overall in an NBA Draft, as it was once predicted, means that the weight of a franchise would’ve been on his shoulders, as it had been since he was 15 years old.
Instead, for the first time since he was 12 years old, Bates can just play basketball without having to worry about the expectations that no longer exist.