Is 17-Year-Old Emoni Bates' NCAA Experiment Hurting His NBA Draft Stock?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2022

Memphis' Emoni Bates (1) grabs a rebound in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Western Kentucky, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)
Karen Pulfer Focht/Associated Press

It's not often NBA scouts find themselves evaluating a high-profile prospect in college for a draft that's two cycles away.

They've been torn watching 17-year-old Emoni Bates, who won't be eligible to declare until 2023. Nifty flashes of step-back jumpers have been mostly overshadowed by inefficient play. But almost every dud game, bad miss and cringeworthy mistake is followed by feedback that includes some type of asterisk referencing his age.

Scouts have to weigh the freshman's poor execution against his unusually young age and advanced skill set for a 6'9" wing.

Before exiting the lineup with a finger injury midway through December, Bates was shooting 37.4 percent through 10 games with 25 turnovers to 12 assists. His box plus-minus is the lowest among the 11 Tigers averaging double-digit minutes. The difference between Bates' -0.2 BPM and teammate/projected lottery pick's Jalen Duren's 7.5 BPM is staggering.

Scouts have already started questioning whether Bates' decision to attend Memphis was the right one for his development and stock.

A useful comparison is the case of Scoot Henderson, who turns 18 one week after Bates, and is committed to two seasons as a paid member of the G League Ignite. Talking with scouts, Henderson has improved his image with the Ignite despite shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 17.4 percent from three. Since he's playing a bench role against pros, his percentages have been easier to look past. Henderson's highlights greatly outweigh his lowlights in the G League, and some now see him as a realistic candidate to go first or second in the 2023 draft.

After a month of college hoops, Bates is no longer being viewed as a prospect NBA teams think about rebuilding around. The narrative had already started to shift during his last year of high school, as scouts became turned off by his shot-hunting style and body language. His start at Memphis has only backed up the idea that Bates' trajectory doesn't appear as exciting as it once did.

Karen Pulfer Focht/Associated Press

Assuming he returns to the lineup somewhat soon, he'll still have enough time to remind scouts about the scoring potential that generated so much hype during his first few years of high school. But it's also difficult to resist thinking ahead, especially if his struggles at Memphis continue.

Will he return to Memphis for a sophomore season if his first one continues to go poorly? His friend and teammate Duren seems like a lock to leave and enter the 2022 draft. Does Bates pursue one of the pro routes, which could lower expectations against stiffer competition and offer NBA coaching, training and spacing? Would a change of scenery even matter?

Maybe Bates just isn't who many thought he was at 15 and 16 years old. That's possible. But maybe it's all about patience and the idea he's still too young for his struggles to justify the downgrading. Had he not arrived at Memphis with superstar comparisons and a prominent reputation, we'd likely be focusing more on the positives than the negatives.


Positives to Build On

The combination of height and shot-making skill separates Bates and fuels most of his upside as a scorer. His size and offensive skill package are similar to Brandon Ingram's: shooting off the dribble, a pull-up threat in ball-screen situations and transition, and a step-back threat out of isolation.

When he's on, tight defense isn't enough to force a miss, given his height and high release for a wing.

And NBA three-point range isn't a problem for Bates, which he often likes to prove.

His self-creation and perimeter scoring remain enticing and feel translatable, and he's clearly ahead in these areas compared to others.

Karen Pulfer Focht/Associated Press


Worrisome Weakness or Room to Improve?

Finishing in traffic and decision-making have been the most obvious issues for Bates.

In 10 games, he's made just seven shots at the rim in the half court, where he's converting a scary 38.9 percent of his attempts. He's totaled three dunks all season and zero floaters.

We've seen plenty of prospects improve their finishing at the next level as their bodies strengthen, they learn more nuance and the floor opens up. But there is plenty to question about Bates' length, athleticism and physical development when projecting his paint scoring.

During Memphis' pro day, he measured a 6'7¼" wingspan, which would be the shortest of any 6'9" or taller player in the entire NBA combine database. A 24.5" standing vertical and 31.5" max vertical also reflect severely limited bounce and explosion. He has trouble creating separation on layup attempts in the half court.

And at 190 pounds, he hasn't added much bulk over the past few years.

Aside from Bates' tendency to buckle against contact, he doesn't show high awareness for what angle or shot to take off drives.

His overall shot selection has been noticeably poor, which tracks back to AAU and high school. A reliance on low-percentage specialty jumpers and long two-pointers is a clear factor behind his 37.4 field-goal percentage and 31.1 percent mark from three.

In the preseason, Memphis thought he'd operate in a point-wing role, similar to how coach Penny Hardaway did during his prime NBA years, but Bates has done little to show he has the mindset or passing IQ to add value as a setup playmaker.


Predicting Bates' Future

Bates could return to Memphis and break out as a sophomore, similar to how former lottery pick Kira Lewis Jr. did when he was too young to declare for the draft following his freshman season at Alabama.

But I'd bet against Bates coming back to college without Duren after a year of his reputation taking another hit (assuming it does). There will likely be offers from overseas or maybe the G League Ignite or Overtime Elite.

Regardless of where he ends up, Bates still deserves plenty of NBA attention and interest. There is enough Ingram-like scoring ability tied to his positional height, creation and three-level shot-making. And over the years, he's bound to start figuring out more efficient ways to maximize his unique advantages and offensive skills.

Still, if we were to put together a 2023 mock draft, Bates would be slotted somewhere in the late lottery to teens—not the top three where most fans and scouts initially banked on him going.


Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, Sports Reference.