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Padding the Stats: Emoni Bates, NIL & the Future of College Basketball

July 17, 2020

The top-ranked basketball player in the class of 2022 made his college commitment this week. If you’re not aware of Emoni Bates, take a few minutes to educate yourself. He’s a 6-foot-9 wing from Ypsilanti, Michigan who averaged over 30 points this season and became the first sophomore to win Gatorade National Player go the Year.

Bates appears to be a generational scorer, perhaps the best prospect at his age that we’ve seen since LeBron James, and if he plays college basketball he’ll do it in a Michigan State uniform. That’s a big if, though, for a variety of reasons.

Bates committing when he did came as a surprise, although his dad starting a new prep school in Michigan might have had something to do with that. Either way, there wasn’t much of a reason for him to wait. From all accounts, Michigan State was the only blue blood program seriously recruiting him. The Kentuckys and Dukes and other elite recruiters figured it wasn’t worth their time; there was no way Bates would ever play a second of college basketball.

As recently as a year ago, all signs pointed to the NBA doing away with the one-and-done rule, as commissioner Adam Silver appeared to be personally invested in making that happen. Most expected the rule to change by the time Bates finished with high school, thus the lack of recruiting interest.

Unfortunately, Silver seems to be the only one in the NBA interested in changing things. Neither the owners nor the players association feel the same way, and based on what ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported, the rule won’t be going away any time soon.

So if a jump straight to the NBA doesn’t look possible, what other non-college routes does Bates have? The NBA’s new G League Select program—which was designed to keep top prospects who don’t want to play college ball from heading overseas—is one. Jalen Green, one of the top few prospects in the 2020 class, will play for the G League Select team along with a few other top prospects. Green will reportedly make $500,000 in addition to having other earning opportunities. Bates spoke with ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, though, and said he wasn’t too keen on taking that path himself.

“It’s good for certain players,” Bates said. “That’s a lot of money. I don’t really plan on, I don’t think I’ll do it. It’s good for some people, but I don’t think I’ll head that route.”

Perhaps Bates could end up signing overseas, and perhaps his opinion on the G League changes over time, but college certainly seems like a much more viable option than coaches originally thought when Bates started blowing up. College basketball could really use a season of Bates as well after what we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

The 2018 recruiting class featured Zion Williams and a handful of other one-and-done stars like RJ Barrett, Romeo Langford, Coby White and others. The 2019 class was a disaster, though, in terms of producing college stars. LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton chose to play in the Australian NBL instead of going to college. James Wiseman, the top-ranked player in the class, played all of three games at Memphis before NCAA eligibility issues led to him shutting it down. Anthony Edwards, Isaiah Stewart and Cole Anthony played for teams that went .500 or worse and Anthony dealt with injury issues much of he season. Vernon Carey, ranked sixth in the 247Sports Composite, was the most productive high-profile freshman after a terrific season with Duke, but he didn’t generate nearly the same kind of buzz that Williamson did the year before.

College basketball got some good news when the top-ranked 2020 recruit, Cade Cunningham, chose to stick with his commitment to Oklahoma State instead of taking the G League route, but assuming we get a full season and postseason, we likely won’t see Cunningham on that stage thanks to the postseason ban the NCAA hit the Cowboys with. Three other top-20 recruits, headlined by Green, chose the G-League route, however. Jonathan Kuminga, the top player in the 2021 class, appears to be strongly considering reclassifying to 2020 and playing in the G League as well.

Bates playing for a program like Michigan State would be a major win for college basketball, and the NCAA can help itself toward that by pushing through name, image, and likeness rules.

Bates has nearly 40,000 followers between his Twitter and Instagram accounts. He has a massive following among basketball fans, including kids his own age (he’s just 16 years old right now). His highlights are ridiculous. Bates is already incredibly marketable and that will be even more true after he completes his high school career.

If Bates can stay home, play on a big stage, enjoy college life for a semester and make some serious coin on the side, that seems like a pretty appealing option compared to playing in the G League or taking a year off to train for the NBA Draft.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the NCAA, college basketball had taken a series of Ls from both a perception and a talent standpoint. A generational player like Emoni Bates suiting up for the Spartans (imagine getting to watch that guy play in Pinnacle Bank Arena) would be a much-needed W, and pushing through NIL rules could go a long way toward making that happen.

Besides it just being the right thing to do, making sure someone like Emoni Bates plays for the Michigan State Spartans instead of the Illawarra Hawks or the G League Select Team before heading off to the NBA is probably a big reason why we’ve seen the NCAA start to cave to the pressure with regard to players being allowed to profit off of their image.

With college basketball specifically, NIL is designed with someone like Emoni Bates in mind, and if he chooses to reclassify to 2021 (he more or less told Borzello he’d consider it if the competition he faces this season in high school wasn’t good enough) he could be the perfect test subject for what NIL will look like for high-profile players in college basketball.

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