DETROIT — There was Emoni Bates, cashing in a step back 3 with her foot almost touching the midfield logo. There he was sprinting from the 3-point line to catch a teammate’s miss and slam it home. And how about when he crossed, hesitated, then ducked into a mid-range jumper for another bucket?
Throughout Friday night’s game between Eastern Michigan and Michigan, Bates looked like the players who normally take the floor at Little Caesars Arena, home of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.
On his debut for Eastern Michigan, Bates dazzled the crowd and wowed players and coaches on both sides, recapturing the magic that made him the nation’s No. 1 prospect for several years.
His final field goal, a long-range 3 in the dying seconds – the one that got Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, who aggressively contested the shot, said. Damn – gave Bates 30 points. That wasn’t quite enough to pull off the upset, as Michigan won 88-83 in an early season game that looked a lot bigger.
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard knew what Bates was capable of, but he was still captivated by the performance.
“If you watch NBA games today, you’ll see a lot,” said Howard, who played in the league for 19 years and coached for six more. “You’ll see guys who get paid big money who shoot like Emoni, can score like Emoni, have that size, have ball skills like a great guard.
“I think if he’s healthy throughout the season and keeps working, which I know he will, he has a chance. I don’t know what year it’s going to be because I’m not going to not speak for himself or upset his coaches, but I think there is a chance for this young man to really do some special things with basketball.”
On Friday, 6-foot-4 guard Kobe Bufkin had the most possessions defending Bates. Isaiah Barnes drew the stain for the six minutes he was on the floor, and other Wolverines also had brief chances. None were particularly effective against Bates, a 6-foot-10, lean, long-armed scoring machine. He displayed a series of moves to create separation and get out of his shot.
Michigan’s Terrance Williams II recalled one of Bates’ first-half backsteps despite a strong contest from Bufkin. “I was like, ‘OK, yeah, that’s the real deal for sure.'”
Eastern Michigan head coach Stan Heath said Bates told him recently that he wanted to become a better rebounder and defenseman. Bates contributed with five boards on Friday and helped hold talented Michigan freshman Jett Howard to nine points on 2-for-8 shooting.
Eastern Michigan has another dynamic shooter in second-year point guard Noah Farrakhan, who scored 19 points. The Eagles are going to be a problem in the Mid-American Conference.
Their efforts weren’t enough against the mighty Michigan, ranked No. 22 in the AP preseason poll, on Friday. The Wolverines have something most teams don’t: a commanding, skillful center in Hunter Dickinson, who had at least five inches on any player defending him Friday. He outshot Bates with 31 on 13 of 17 shots.
It wasn’t your typical Big Ten v. MAC affair, and the atmosphere was electric all night despite it being only the second game of the season. Both teams are working on a lot of new pieces. One of them is Bates, who was ruled out of Monday’s season opener – a “coach’s decision”, but possibly punishment for an off-season arrest – and therefore has played his first official game for Eastern Michigan on Friday.
The opponent and the venue put Bates in the spotlight, but he’s certainly used to it. He was considered the best player in his class, a generational talent, for years.
Juwan Howard recalls Bates being listed as the top fourth-grader in the nation. “Who assesses the best CM1 students in the country?” Howard said with a laugh on Friday. “Then he started being compared to Kevin Durant. It’s tough for any youngster. But give him credit for how he worked on his game.”
Bates, who skipped what would have been his senior year of high school, won’t turn 19 until late January. He’d be young for a freshman, but he’s a sophomore of college.
In his first, at Memphis, Bates never found his footing and didn’t look like the player who won those national accolades. He entered the transfer portal after the season and although he listed some top programs including Michigan among his options, he eventually returned home to Ypsilanti.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that he wanted to come here because he felt at home,” Heath said. “He felt comfortable.” Bates, who was not available to the media after the game, played many of his Eastern Michigan teammates growing up and has a good relationship with them.
“Form matters,” Heath said. “When players choose schools, they have to go where they belong. He belongs here.
On Friday, Bates looked comfortable, confident and capable of almost anything on the pitch. He even twisted time. Bates looked like both the star he was for much of his prep career and a professional basketball player.
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