Maybe some who pulled up to the Lincoln High School parking lot that night knew what they were getting into, but I sure did not.
I was there — like most — to see Emoni Bates. Bates is the top prospect in the 2022 recruiting class, according to, well, everyone. Most recruiting analysts, including ESPN’s Paul Biancardi, tab Bates as the best prep player in the nation, regardless of class. As a freshman, Bates averaged over 28 points and 10 rebounds and led Lincoln to the State Title. His face subsequently plastered Sports Illustrated with the headline “Magic, Michael, LeBron, … Emoni?”
He was 15.
In August, an ESPN article compiling the opinions of over a dozen prep basketball experts ranked Bates, now 15, tied for the third best prospect since LeBron — behind Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, and tied with Derrick Rose.
The article quotes an anonymous scout: “He has a chance to be ahead of LeBron (James). I’ve never seen a better freshman.”
I had not parked myself on those rigid bleachers with any intention to be an arbiter of his legitimacy. That ship has long sailed. I just wanted to see it.
And yet, perhaps cynically, my default expectation was disappointment. In this Hoop Mixtape-ified era, when every highlight video is edited and flawlessly quaffed to only display the good, hype can be a dangerous drug. There’s a reason LeBron remains the only player of this ilk to truly live up to the hype; it’s really hard.
Then, as anyone with any mild interest in the sport must do, I watched him play basketball. I watched him rise from 25-plus feet; I watched him drive the lane, knifing through four flailing help defenders; I watched him slam alley-oops and toss no-look passes; I watched him handle the ball with dizzying speed and yoyo-like control. And let me tell you: There’s not an ounce of hyperbole in these anonymous quotes and over-filtered Overtime videos.
His shot is aesthetically the closest thing anyone’s ever come to recreating that of Durant. In warmups, he widens his stride, loads his lanky arms and shoots with a silky smooth release. Few even bother to touch rim. Bates — at 6-foot-9 — can get that same shot with the same motion off over anyone.
But then the game starts, and the true wonders of his game begin to come to life. Off the tip, Bates grabs the ball, sprints down the court with haste, shakes his defender with a few crossovers and takes a long 3-pointer. It clanks rim.
Instead of sulking or relaxing on defense, he keeps that maniacal energy all game. There are no questions about his “motor” or concerns that he “drifts” or other euphemisms to express disinterest. He is here. And he wants to snatch your soul.
He first hits one 3-pointer. Then another. Then he rises for an alley-oop dunk and unleashes a scream upon landing. Every trip down the court is a mini-event. Will he dribble straight into a pull-up? Will he try to make his defender fall? Will he put his head down and get to the rim?
Then, as he dances around the arc, controlling his defender’s ankles like a puppeteer, Bates steps back and drains another three. I can’t help but stand up. It was like a churchgoer compelled from his seat, not by free will, but by the spiritual force of some divine entity. He had 19 points after the first quarter. Nobody seemed surprised. Everyone (opposing players and fans aside) was rollicking in joy.
It was purely human, instinctive shock. A 15-year-old simply should not be that good at basketball. He goes on to score 40 points of his team’s 67. You get the feeling he could’ve scored all 67 if he wanted.
Rumors, as they do, are flying about Bates’ future. Some have entertained the possibility that he reclassifies to the 2021 class to presumably play at Michigan State for a year. The thinking, simply, is that it’s unimaginable this kid will want to play four years of high school basketball. It’s easy to see why. It’s also an open secret that when they negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NBA will end the “one-and-done” rule, perhaps in time for Bates to turn professional right away.
The future may be uncertain. But the present is undeniable.
If you, like me, are late to the party: The next great basketball player just happens to live in Ypsilanti. Go see him play.
Marcovitch can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch.