Emoni Bates may never take a shot for Michigan State. His commitment to the Spartans’ basketball program Monday was a big win for Tom Izzo anyway.
The best high school player in the country told a national audience he loved the Green and White. On the recruiting trail, that will help almost as much as Bates’ silky jumpers.
Just ask Izzo, who can’t talk about Bates’ announcement just yet, but who has said in the past that winning doesn’t influence recruiting as much as signing and sending other star recruits to the NBA. The best players in the country look at the path of other players.
Zion Williamson didn’t just go to Duke because Mike Krzyzewski has won titles; he went to Duke because Krzyzewski built a path to the lottery.
Bates is so good he will get to the lottery -- and be the likely No. 1 pick in the draft -- no matter where he attends college, if he ends up playing college basketball at all. Which means, in this story, Bates is the one creating the path.
And that’s the point for MSU.
Obviously, Izzo and his staff would love for Bates to wear the Spartan jersey for a year. Considering he intends to reclassify, according to Sports Illustrated, and that he could attend MSU before NBA eligibility rules change, hearing Bates choose MSU must have been thrilling for anyone who cares about Spartan basketball.
They know it’s at least a possibility, especially if the NCAA’s rules on name, image and likeness allow for Bates to play after signing a seven-figure contract with, say, Nike.
Bates is no ordinary five-star prospect. He is a generational talent. The best high school prospect since LeBron James. The best Michigan prospect since Chris Webber, maybe even Magic Johnson. Though his game is nothing like theirs.
The Ypsilanti (Mich.) Lincoln star has a chance to be something new, which is rare. He has been compared to Kevin Durant. And in frame (they are both thin) and skill (they both shoot and handle), this is true. Yet even Durant didn’t shoot and handle the ball like Bates does at this age -- he is 16.
It’s hard to overstate the kind of skill Bates possesses. At 6-foot-9, he dribbles like a point guard and shoots like … Steph Curry? Well, maybe not yet. But his quick release, his unlimited range, his consistency remind of the Golden State star.
If he gets to that level of shooting, it’s hard to imagine. Even if he only ends up shooting like Ray Allen, that is still a different kind of player.
And if you talk to coaches who’ve recruited him, the skill isn’t the first thing that grabs their attention. His competitiveness is Kobe-like, they say. Or even, Jordan-like.
If that sounds over the top, it is. But then this is a player who has hit playoff game-winners and skipped postgame celebratory dinners to stay in the gym because he didn’t like the way he played before his heroics won the game.
That kind of dedication and self-awareness is what Izzo and his staff are dreaming about at the moment. Not to mention a player who can create a shot anytime he desires.
As much talent as Izzo has coached in his time in East Lansing, he never has drawn up a set for a player like this. Not that Bates needs sets; he just needs the ball. And if he winds up in the NBA having skipped the kind of structure a place like MSU would give him, his ability with the ball will make him a star regardless.
Even if he does play a year for Izzo, his presence guarantees nothing. Izzo knows this as well as anyone. The last time he had five-star talent he lost to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Then again, Izzo has been on the other side of this equation, too. A little more than a year ago, his team of seniors and four-star players knocked off Duke and the biggest star in college basketball to make the Final Four.
Yes, Bates could be better as a freshman than Williamson. But even in basketball, a singular transcendent talent doesn’t always win. This is especially true in college.
Still, by all accounts, including Bates’, the college basketball experience is something he’d like to try. This is real. And it was easy to spot when Bates occasionally showed up in MSU’s postgame locker room while visiting the program.
The easy camaraderie he showed with the players, in particular Cassius Winston. The comfort he displayed while chatting up coaches or leaning back at a locker stall reveling in the atmosphere.
There is no doubt that six months of such an environment would benefit him. So would watching film and having a staff in his ear about what makes a good shot. Bates and his family know this. It’s partly why they chose MSU.
"I know they're showing that their love is genuine," Bates told ESPN, "and they've just been here for a long time. I'm big on loyalty, and they showed me all loyalty, so I got to show them love back."
But MSU also knows getting him in that locker room full time is hardly a done deal. He wants to get to the NBA as soon as possible, which is why he reportedly intends to reclassify -- he will be a junior.
If he does, and plays as a senior this winter, he could wind up on MSU’s campus as soon as the summer of 2021. Or he could still elect to play overseas.
"I'm not sure what the future may hold," Bates said.
For now, Bates will play for Ypsi Prep Aim High, an academy designed for Bates and other top prospects to play a national schedule against the country’s best competition. He will be coached by his father, E.J. He will shoot thousands of jumpers a week. Work on his ball skill. Eat and lift and hone his otherworldly ability.
He will do all of this as an MSU commit. If he eventually ends up there for a winter, he’ll bend the spotlight of college basketball to East Lansing in a way it has never been. The Breslin Center will become the place to be.
Even if Bates doesn’t, his decision Monday just changed the perception of Izzo’s program for those that matter most: other recruits.
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