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Emoni Bates is trending upward for the Cleveland Cavaliers

Bates impressed during Summer League but this is only the first step of his journey.

2023 NBA Summer League Championship Game - Houston Rockets v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

All eyes were on Emoni Bates as he stepped on the court in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform for the first time. It’s not every year the 49th pick enters Las Vegas Summer League with this much attention, but Bates isn’t a typical second round draft pick.

Much has happened since Bates was considered one of the top prospects of his recruiting class. A tumultuous NCAA career plagued by struggles on and off the court led to the “next Kevin Durant” nearly going undrafted in 2023.

Bates is the type of prospect that Summer League was made for. An undoubtedly talented player with everything to prove and nothing to lose. Las Vegas is a place for development and can potentially make or break a prospect’s future with his organization.

Playing for his NBA life, Bates… struggled in his first game, shooting just 5-18 from the floor and recording 0 assists to go with 3 turnovers. All of the same concerns about his shot selection and efficiency were present on day one.

Rather than sulking, Bates soaked up all the constructive criticism he could from Cleveland’s coaching staff. He displayed rapid growth in each outing, playing with a noticeably different approach after game one.

Bates finished the summer averaging 17.2 points on 40% three-point shooting, earning a spot on Second-Team All-Summer League and playing a role in Cleveland’s championship run.

Reining in Emoni’s erratic tendencies and refocusing his attention on the little things might sound cliché – but it’s what it will take for Bates to last in the NBA. It is clear this was conveyed to him during Summer League as he displayed an eagerness to defend and move the ball that wasn’t present during his time in college.

Playing as a willing passer, Bates was a functional cog in the machine instead of the wrench he used to be. A healthier shot chart made all the difference for Emoni as his catch-and-shoot attempts were complimented by the occasional pull-up bomb that made him a top prospect to begin with.

There were still some ill-advised shots. Though, it is a blessing and a curse Emoni happens to be really good at making them. He shot an efficient 43.7% from deep across his final five games of Summer League, including heavily contested shots like this one:

At this stage of his career, Bates is more of a “shot maker” than a “shot creator.” He rarely creates much separation for himself before shooting off the dribble – but a hand in his face doesn’t deter him due to his height and rapid release speed. When Bates is rolling, we see stretches of world-beating offensive capabilities that should intrigue everyone.

Yet, Bates faces the same issue that all volume shooters suffer from: the inevitable cold streak.

This is where the other things come back into play. Can Bates be an impactful offensive player when he isn’t making three-pointers? Does he bring enough defense to stay on the floor? These are questions Bates will have to answer at the NBA level.

At the Summer League level, Bates mostly passed the tests. He was a surprisingly passable defender, again playing as a functional member of the team. Bates recorded some impressive blocks on the help side and showed a keen understanding of defensive rotations on this interception during the championship game:

Of course, this all becomes more challenging on the big stage. The speed of NBA basketball is notorious when rookies discuss their biggest adjustment entering the league. Making plays like the one above will not be as easy when the game is sped up for Bates.

Few 19-year-olds are able to establish themselves as plus, or even neutral, defenders in the NBA. For Emoni Bates, his history of being an overwhelmingly negative defender in college, combined with his limited athleticism and frail 179-pound frame, makes him an obvious target for bigger, more athletic opponents in the pros. So while he passed his first test, Emoni still has plenty to prove as a defender.

The same goes for his offensive game. Bates is most impressive when he’s drilling dazzling step-back three-pointers — but making quality reads like this quick push in transition and dime to the backdoor cutter is the type of play that will make him a mainstay in an NBA rotation:

NBA teams are not keen on streaky, volume shooters who don’t provide anything else to winning. This is why Bates’ success in other areas is the most reassuring thing about his Summer League performance. He should not be banking his NBA future simply on being a difficult shot-maker.

With that said, it is worth again highlighting Bates’ three-point shooting ability. He has one of the quickest triggers and truly does not need much space to fire away. This can (and does) lead to head-scratching moments but will also provide a jolt of electricity to any offense that is willing to roll the dice with his shooting.

Is there a potential role for Emoni Bates on the actual roster? Perhaps in the future, if he remains dedicated to polishing his game in the G-League. Long-term questions about his shot selection, willingness as a passer and defensive capabilities still need to be answered at the highest level.

Bates being a key player this season feels like a long shot, considering his age and the stakes Cleveland is playing with. The Cavs do not have much room for the errors that can come from an unpolished, 19-year-old prospect being on the floor. They likely can not afford to give Bates the extended leash he needs to develop right now.

None of this, however, should deter anyone from feeling encouraged by Emoni’s Summer League stint. He flashed all of the raw offensive upside that you would want to see. And, his apparent hunger for learning the game is something that will bode well for him in the G-League. There is plenty of reason for optimism here and the future will be bright if Bates continues on this path.