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The Cleveland Cavaliers, and their fans, need to be patient with Emoni Bates

Patience is a virtue for Cavs fans with Emoni Bates

2023 NBA Summer League - Cleveland Cavaliers v Chicago Bulls Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers only had one selection in the 2023 NBA Draft, a mid-second round pick that likely would not see the floor at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse this upcoming season. But the Cavs made perhaps the most high-profile choice in the second round by selecting former number-one high school recruit Emoni Bates out of Eastern Michigan. When Bates committed to play for Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers in 2021, he was penciled in as a consensus lottery selection in the 2022 NBA Draft. But his pathway to Cleveland has not been straightforward, and his eventual NBA debut will require some patience and time.

Bates was named the 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year, the first high school sophomore to win the award, averaging 32.3 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and 2.1 steals per game. But his freshman year in Memphis was marred with issues. Bates dealt with uneven play, missed 15 games due to a back injury (that required a specialist to review), and had legal problems last September. He entered the transfer portal and opted to return to his home state of Michigan, and his hometown of Ypsilanti, to play for the Eastern Michigan Eagles. In his one year with EMU, Bates averaged 19.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists on 40.5% shooting from the floor and 33.8% from three-point territory. It marked improvement over his time with Memphis, but his shot selection and selfishness were major detractors.

The star power Bates seemingly possessed was not enough to lift the Eagles to double-digit victories, but there were flashes of his vast potential. He went off for 36 points, including eight three-pointers, against NBA draftee G.G Jackson and South Carolina. He hung 30 points on Michigan in his EMU debut and poured in 43 against Toledo, including 29-straight points. Bates demonstrated the tough shot-making, pull-up game, ability to get downhill, and was hitting from NBA range seemingly effortlessly. His efficiency is still poor, which comes with having to be the entire offense on one of the worst college basketball schools in the country, and tough shot makers like Bates will have downright dreadful shooting nights, but the scoring ability is undeniable.

Bates was very good in Combine drills, going 25-30 on off-the-dribble shot attempts and placed second in a three-point shooting drill as well, going 19-25 from deep. His frame allows him to be active on the glass and the hope is that that size and some weight gain can translate to being passable defensively. Bates is also still only 19-years-old and has room to grow physically, which he will need at the NBA level.

But the downsides are there, and they are glaring. He has bad tunnel vision, rarely gets his teammates involved, lacks athleticism despite his size, and has exceedingly frustrating shot selection.

Summer League was a microcosm of what Bates was last year for Eastern Michigan. He averaged 17.2 points and six rebounds per game with very, very few assists and 43.9% shooting from the floor. More than half of his shots are coming from beyond the arc and leads the squad in shot attempts per game.

Volume shooter, few assists, wavering efficiency. Some of the shot-making has been impressive, drilling long threes and utilizing his frame and dribbling ability to get into the paint for floaters or layups. But Bates is clearly looking to shoot as soon as he touches the ball. Defensively, his length has affected shots and he had a few emphatic blocks. The tools are clearly there, but on the Summer League squad he is a focal point on the offensive end. What happens if he does not have the ball in his hands? The evolution for Bates would be to be more of a team player, finding cutting lanes and looking to get others involved. Those things, coupled with tough shot-making and decent size, would be very intriguing.

The Cavs know Bates needs a lot of work, but the infrastructure of the organization is sound. The front office is stable with Koby Altman, who has been with the Cavaliers since 2012. Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff signed on with the team in 2019 and is known as a player’s coach. Cleveland Charge head coach Mike Gerrity joined Cleveland in 2013 and has extensive experience in player development, starting out as a video coordinator.

The Cavs have a good group of veterans in the locker room and there is (lately) rarely malcontent. Organizational vision and goals are unified toward deep playoff runs and generating comradery (Caris LeVert’s extension, as an example). Superstar Donovan Mitchell has already expressed how he plans to work with Bates and “take him under his wing”. That is not an insignificant endorsement, especially for a second-round pick that may not see an NBA court this year. Bates will have time in a controlled, NBA atmosphere with a coaching staff that understands his strengths, weaknesses, and can map out his progression. Creating a supportive environment is essential for Bates’ development both physically and mentally.

Cleveland, as well as several other teams that had Bates in for pre-draft workouts, saw the talent level. The Cavs have put themselves in this “project” position before with Kevin Porter Jr. in 2019. That scenario was a little different with the Cavs giving up draft capital to move up and take Porter, while Bates fell into Cleveland’s lap, but the similarities are there. Both players were highly touted high school recruits. Both players went to high-profile colleges and had difficult freshman seasons for one reason or another. Both players had their draft stock fall from high lottery to the second round, or even undrafted. While it did not work out in Cleveland with Porter, the stakes were lower this time around with Bates as they did not give up anything extra to select him.

There is, understandably, more excitement with Bates than your run of the mill second-round draft pick. He fits a need for the Cavs as a wing, has a clear ability to score at all three levels, has a high pedigree dating back to high school, and is still not even 20-years-old. Squint hard and you can see an inkling of Brandon Ingram slinking around screens and using his handle to create space before lifting off for a jumper. Expectations should be tempered, especially given the tumultuous last few years Bates has had, but the talent is certainly there – Summer League showed glimpses. But it will be up to the Cavs, and Bates himself, to exude patience and trust the process on the path to the NBA.