There is no precedent for this in Memphis. The school that has been home to Larry Finch and Keith Lee, to Penny Hardaway and Lorenzen Wright, to Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, never has been graced by two such players at once.
Emoni Bates was so eager to join the Tigers, so eager to become their second top-five recruit from the 2021 class, he jumped his own commitment announcement by roughly 24 hours. Or maybe Bates just forgot what day it was, a problem for many of us in the pandemic era.
Once considered the hottest prospect in all of American youth basketball, Bates announced Wednesday he is committing to Memphis. His father, Elgin, had said just yesterday that such news would come Friday, but now it’s out.
Emoni is rated No. 4 in the class of 2021 by the Recruiting Services Consensus Index. His friend, 6-10 power forward Jalen Duren, is ranked No. 5. They join a roster of incumbent players that includes three of the top five scorers from last season’s NIT champions and will send expectations for the Tigers soaring to a level not seen since they were ranked No. 3 in the 2007-08 preseason polls and finished the year by losing the national championship game in overtime.
Hardaway still is the most gifted player in the school’s history, even with these two coming on board. Now, though, he is the head coach charged with instantly transforming them into college basketball players capable of winning at an elite level. And it will not be easy. We know this because almost no coaches without prior experience dealing with one-and-done talents have shown immediate mastery of this volatile art.
Entering his fourth season in charge, Hardaway has topped 20 victories in each of the previous three years and seen his winning percentage grow each year, but he still has not coached in the NCAA Tournament. Now, his Tigers certainly will be ranked by the polls inside the preseason top 10. We have seen such teams as 2019-20 Washington (Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, 15-17), 2018-19 Indiana (Romeo Langford, 19-16), 2017-18 Oklahoma (Trae Young, 18-14) and 2017-18 Texas (Mohamed Bamba, 19-15) struggle to reach such heights whether or not the players excelled individually.
“Rhythm and chemistry are the biggest questions right now with Memphis,” CBS Sports analyst Jon Rothstein told Sporting News. “Is the Tigers’ roster incredibly talented? Absolutely, but we’ve seen this movie before.”
Rothstein points out that even after losing their most recent top-five prospect, center James Wiseman, to NCAA suspension and eventual withdrawal in 2019-20, the Tigers still had a team with first-round pick Precious Achiuwa and several other top talents and went just 10-8 in the American Athletic Conference. And last season’s team featured guards Landers Nolley and Lester Quinones and forward DeAndre Williams but was unable to squeeze into the NCAAs.
To get the best players on the floor, Rothstein said, Memphis would have to use Quinones at point guard in a lineup that features Nolley, Williams and the two freshmen. Quinones averaged only 1.9 assists in 26 minutes a game last season. The other possibility would be to keep one of these players as a sixth man and install 6-0 Alex Lomax, who started four games last season, as the primary playmaker.
Hardaway hired coaching legend Larry Brown – who won an NCAA championship at Kansas in 1988 and an NBA title with the Pistons in 2004 – as an assistant. So he has more help on the bench, as well as on the floor. It’s going to take all of that.
“Anything less than advancing in the 2022 NCAA Tournament should be viewed as a disappointment,” Rothstein said.
Sporting News visited briefly with Bates and at length with his father, Elgin, after watching Emoni play in a youth game at the 2019 EYBL at the Peach Jam championship. Then 15, Bates’ height, length and ball skills engendered comparisons to NBA superstar Kevin Durant, although those who rushed to put him in that category underestimated Durant’s astonishing size and transcendent talent and possibly overestimated how Bates might develop.
There are questions about his progress now. The decision for him to stay play for his father’s Bates Fundamentals summer team stranded him with less talented teammates. After winning a Michigan state championship at Lincoln High in Ypsilanti as a freshman and seeing his sophomore year ended by the COVID-19 pandemic, he began to play as a junior for Ypsi Prep Academy, created by his father. Ypsi played a 10-game schedule because of the pandemic, and Emoni averaged 23 points a game. He then decided to accelerate his high school graduation and enter college for the 2021-22 academic year.
It was believed when he was a rising sophomore that he might become the first player since 2005 to enter the NBA Draft directly out of high school. There was a push then, including from commissioner Adam Silver, to eliminate the 19-year-draft age limit. But the players’ association has been in no rush to agree to this, which means Bates will not be available to be drafted until 2023.
In the meantime, college athletes were granted the opportunity to profit from their names, images and likenesses, which could be a bonanza for talents such as Bates and Duren in a basketball-crazy market such as Memphis.
And just imagine what it’ll be like for them if Hardaway can make all this work.