Emoni Bates: 2023 NBA Draft Scouting Report
The former prodigy has experienced ups and downs in college. What has he shown to prove his worth as an NBA prospect?
When the word ‘polarizing’ comes to mind in the 2023 draft class, some scouts will bring up GG Jackson. Others might mention the Thompson Twins and the difficulties of the Overtime Elite program.
To us, the most polarizing prospect in the class is Eastern Michigan’s Emoni Bates. A fascinating, winding, up-and-down road has led Bates back home to Ypsilanti as a sophomore, where he’s still freshman-aged and holding an abundance of talent. He averaged 19.2 points per game, shot 47.4% from inside the arc as a perimeter player, and had four games with 30 or more points — two of which came against high-major competition.
On the surface, scouts and pro teams should be salivating over that type of upside and impact at such a young age. Dig a little deeper and the problems start to come up. Bates’ production has been hit-or-miss; he scored in single-digits on five occasions — three of which saw him take 10 or more attempts. He has a below-average TS%, a severely negative assist-to-turnover ratio, and one of the lower assist rates (9.2%) you’ll find for a primary scorer. Eastern Michigan was really bad this year, furthering his complications.
Those numbers cause pause, but nothing causes more trepidation than the film. Dive into the specifics of game film and you’ll see Bates routinely show a lack of athleticism. He’s short-armed for his size and doesn’t do much to put pressure on the rim. His shot selection would make him your least-favorite guy to play pickup with. The defense is somehow worse to watch.
Herein lies the paradox with Bates. There are so many highlights and pieces of tape that point to monstrous upside in the NBA. There are also so many traits that lead us to believe that upside is severely handicapped, and that there might be too much to overcome for him to harness those traits.
For those who are new to our scouting reports here, the video scouting reports (free for all to read) are meant to do a film-centric surface-level dive into a player’s greatest strengths and areas for improvement. The written companion (the rest of this article) contextualizes those skills and deficits, framing Bates as a prospect and setting the expectations for his future. At the end, we provide some feedback for where he likely will stand on our final board and what our gut feelings are about him as a prospect.
Most of the written scouting reports in this draft cycle will be behind our paywall. I’m not Latrell Sprewell, but I do have a family to feed. For now, enjoy this free version with a deep dive on Bates, perhaps the most polarizing prospect in this class.
Let’s be clear: Bates’ individual scoring is incredibly fun. No, he isn’t efficient right now — at least in the structure he played at in Ypsilanti. What he is, though, is an insanely talented shot-maker. Tough turnarounds, step-backs over high contests, runners while going at full speed… he has made them all, and does so a lot.
We’re so impressed with the accuracy of his shooting without space. Most guys who are tough-shot-makers can drill ones that rattle home, swirling around the bucket or getting the friendly bounce. Emoni’s makes seem to go straight in and be exactly on line from where he raises. It’s a remarkable trait that we cannot stop paying attention to in thinking about his upside.
As a pull-up shooter in the mid-range, Bates is incredibly pure with time. He’s got a natural wrist flick and a decently high release (his step-back is low, quick, and in front of his face, but somehow seems to go in).
He’s a ridiculously confident scorer, and we do admire his gusto. We just wish there was a little more to his game off the bounce than taking shots from 16 feet and beyond.
When attacking the basket, Bates seemingly only likes to drive right. His standstill handle is advanced, but the majority of his drives are still very instinct-based: when he gets pressured, the head goes down, he gets into ‘score it’ mode, and he drives right.
Preference for a single direction or hand has drawn our ire in the past, and several current NBA players have proven that it’s a changeable habit. The issue for Emoni is that he doesn’t have many of the other prerequisites for becoming a successful driver in any direction. His first step isn’t a long stride but a short, choppy step that doesn’t allow him to separate from pressure. For as lean and tall as he is, his first bounce is either in place or just at his hip.
While that’s fixable to some extent, the footwork aspect is going to be more of a challenge. He’s a very wide driver as a result; defenders stay in front of him since the first step creates no space, and Bates is now forced to try to drive around them instead of in a straight line to the rim.
Ball screens don’t help matters a ton. Emoni’s ability to change speeds off the bounce doesn’t really exist right now. As soon as he saw a glimmer of space coming off a pick, he’d pull a jumper — likely both what he’s wired to do and instructed by his coaches. Getting into the lane and trying to finish over size doesn’t really work for him. He’s not a great athlete vertically, and certainly doesn’t have the physical strength to maintain his trajectory through contact. The lack of vertical pop and short-stride steps make it difficult for Emoni to be an adequate live-dribble passer, even if he were willing and knew how to read help defenders (at this point, there’s no proof that he’s either willing or capable).
Stan Heath and the coaching staff at EMU catered so much to putting Bates in these situations. He’d isolate a ton at the top of the key or on the right wing. They’d clear out that right offensive corner so that Emoni would be naked on that side, free to either drive or step back.
With the shooting touch that Bates possesses, his game does feel like it could easily transition toward a spot-up approach. The fact he’s been inefficient from 3-point range overall this year (33% on 7.7 attempts) overshadows the fact that he was actually pretty good from deep on catch-and-shoots (38.5% on 3.5 attempts) and very efficient coming off screens. At his size, with his quick release, and the tremendous hip movement and fluidity, Bates has real appeal as an off-ball scorer.
That isn’t to say the ball should be completely taken out of Emoni’s hands at the next level. He’s a talented scorer who likely needs that longer leash to find his rhythm. But he does need to be either more efficient on that volume or an infinitely better finisher/ passer to justify getting the ball in his hands.
We aren’t here to sugarcoat this. Emoni is horrendous on D. Guys with his size who can move are rarely this poor and unable to find an impact on that end of the court. He would be the first player ever in the Barttorvik database to be drafted while having a -2.0 DBPM or lower while being at least 6’8”.
Yet Bates was a turnstile at the point of attack, a careless team defender with slow rotational improvisation and even slower urgency to protect the rim as a helper. He’s thin and gets bodied on the interior. He’s upright and gets easily dismantled by a screen. He goes renegade and tries to jump-double drivers in the middle of the floor. An optimistic outlook would have him improving just by adding strength, but is there good evidence in this year’s footage that he can get to league-average impact?
Complicating the eval is the defensive context Bates was in at Eastern Michigan. He was bad, but he wasn’t alone. The Eagles were one of the worst defensive teams I’ve ever watched at the D1 level. Opponents legitimately shot 48.4% against them this season, the highest mark yielded in the nation. They gave up over 80 points per game (also the highest mark), were undersized and had no rim protection, and seemed to stop trying later in the season.
From a coach’s standpoint, watching their games is almost painful. They always have their hands down, seem to get bladed every single game by a simple Chin back screen in the middle of the floor for an uncontested layup, and have too many players who try to do their own thing. Nothing on the floor is or feels connected at all. When Bates has a 31.1% usage rate and takes 40% of the team’s field goal attempts, it makes you wonder what they’ve done in practice — it’s not working on a team-based offense and certainly not on perfecting their defensive rotations.
Bates was objectively bad as a help defender. He struggles with his feel and processing in scramble situations — what happens when defense gets into rotation and a pass gets kicked out to the perimeter. Scrambles are neutralized by multiple defenders flying onto the next assignment and preventing an open shot from occurring, but a team defense is only as strong as their weakest link in that regard. All five must be on the same page, and if one is not, the offense gets an open look.
Emoni’s lack of feel is evident in these situations, but he also fails to do the simple things. He hugs his man on the weak side, fails to smother the dunker spot on opposite-side drives, and routinely turns his back to the basketball so that he cannot even see what’s happening.
At his size, we’re still struggling to figure out who he should be guarding to minimize his mistakes. Bigger wings and physical 4-men bully him inside. He’s too upright at the point of attack to use his length on lead guards. His effort is his biggest handicapper at the moment, but the long-term questions of where he does fit best are still unanswerable.
Too often, internet scouts and casual fans talk about efficiency and volume in the wrong context. The easy line is that, if Player A is inefficient on a high volume, it means he’s taking too many shots — that if he cannot be efficient on a lot of shots, he shouldn’t be able to take that many.
Shot selection is so much deeper than that. If Player A doesn’t take those shots, then who will? Player B and Player C have to be capable of creating their own and living with that high volume, otherwise telling Player A to score less actually hurts the offense. Then there are the players who need a longer leash in order to find their rhythm. They’re capable of catching fire, and in order to get the 14-24 night, you need to live with the 5-18 night on occasion.
The point is, it’s so much more difficult to find the guy who can go 14-24 and create his own when the defense knows that’s what he’s going to do than it is to find someone who can be efficient while taking 6-8 shots a game.
Not only is it more challenging, but it’s more valuable. This past weekend, I listened to The Game Theory Podcast with Sam Vecenie, where James Edwards was a guest. Edwards discussed the difficulty of matching up against the Phoenix Suns in the playoffs and why their offensive talent makes them the favorite:
“Nothing is more important come postseason basketball than [this scenario]… the defense stops well for twenty seconds… do you have guys who make shots? That’s what separates the Boston Celtics, that’s what’s separated the Warriors for a long time.
…we all like to talk about schemes, and coverages and all these things. But when it comes to meaningful basketball, do you have two to three guys who can get you a bucket at any time, in any situation? There are very few teams in [the NBA] that do.”
It’s difficult to agree with that statement and write off Bates as a prospect at the same time. What he brings to the table, albeit inefficient right now and very one-dimensional, is a lot of what elite scorers showcase. For his age, to be as advanced of a tough shot-maker as he is, impresses nearly anyone who watches him. On it’s face, that’s such an intriguing starting point for a potential NBA scorer… especially one who can handle the burden of taking 20 shots a night.
The scoring is tantalizing with Bates. But the rest of what he offers is so rough and underdeveloped. A year at EMU serves as a good reminder that he has all the tools to be a truly elite jump shooter and check those hard-to-find boxes. But nothing else is close to NBA quality right now. That doesn’t mean he is not a draftable player. What it does mean, though, is that Emoni will need multiple years of work and some drastic changes to become a successful NBA player.
This year at Eastern Michigan was as much about rehabilitating Bates’ image after a strikeout at Memphis as it was about developing skills. He regained his confidence and joy, put up impressive performances in volume, and proved to all that he’s the tough bucket we all remember seeing from his high school days. He had a long, long leash.
Ultimately, getting away with so much and not developing the rest of his game to fit into a team construct could have consequences down the line. Something has to give. Either he adds those missing links to more easily slide into a secondary role, or he doesn’t and doubles down on the need for greater efficiency and athletic gains to be a true number-one option. We cannot see either coming to fruition in the next twelve months.
Loved this one, Coach Spins. Thanks for doing the deep-dive! I’d also say he’s someone who can sell tickets because of the traits you highlighted. There’s a potential “spot” for him on a rebuilding team without an identity who’s not necessarily trying to win... they get a cheap look at him, he gets to prove he can tough-shot-make at the highest level, they sell tickets if he can put on a show + position for a good draft pick (eg Houston last two years). Wouldn’t he best the most exciting Spur right now? You could argue that’s at least A path to starting out and therefore worthy of the late-1st / early-2nd pick.