How and why 15-year-old hoops phenom Emoni Bates could play in college -- if top schools ever recruit him

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- A preposterously giddy crowd packs the lower level and upper concourse to see 14-year-old Bronny James, whose galactically famous father -- against the hopes and wishes of plenty who waited hours just to get in -- is not in attendance.

The gym is split in two, separated by a heavy-polyester blue curtain. Near that curtain, a group of men, all of whom have been designated as VIP, await the start of the game at the Peach Jam recruiting showcase. Another man, who appears to be with Nike, makes his way over. He points to the court in Gym 4, just on the other side of the curtain.

"That's what you want to watch," the Nike rep tells the men, who seem to have a connection to LeBron James' family. 

"He gonna be good," the man says, pointing to Bronny in Gym 3. 

"He good now," the man adds, pointing to the rangy, lissome scoring sensation in Gym 4. He points to Emoni Bates who, at 15 years old, some recruiting analysts already consider to be the most talented high school player in America. 

Bronny vs. Emoni. The future of prep basketball was on display in adjoining gyms. Bronny commanded far more fan attention, but Bates' curious and potentially unprecedented story was the story. Bates is quickly becoming the most celebrated and hyped rising sophomore since Bronny's dad. There have been plenty of kids given the phenom label in the past decade: Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Renardo Sidney, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins. None of them had the buzz and optimism around their talent as high school freshmen like Bates. 

Evan Daniels, 247 Sports' director of recruiting, is loathe to overhype players and slap unwarranted comparisons and labels on 15- and 16-year-olds. But even he can't resist lauding what he sees in Bates.

"He's the best freshman I've ever seen," Daniels told me as we watched Bates score 24 points, grab 15 rebounds and dish four assists vs. the Alabama Fusion. 

Bates is 6 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall and weighs 186 pounds, according to his father, Elgin. That's abnormally lofty for someone who won't turn 16 for another 6 1/2 months. Though his waist is as slender and bendy as a Twizzler and his limbs are thin as breadsticks, Bates' talent is irresistible and obvious. When he plays against other 15-year-olds, it looks unfair and unusual. With the exception of his pubescent face and modest muscle tone, he would not look out of place in a college game right now. 

He might be better than half the players in college, too. 

But will college basketball ever get Emoni Bates? He's tracking to graduate high school in 2022. There is an expectation that the NBA will, that same year, allow high schoolers to leave and be drafted without having to wait until they are 19. If that happens, Bates could well be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft

That's why Bates' games are oddly under-attended by high-level college coaches. The wunderkind played multiple times in front of sparser-than-expected coaching crowds at the Peach Jam. It presented an odd dynamic. In years past, any freak talent would lure in any combination of Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, Arizona, Louisville, Oregon and others. Fifteens, 16 or 17s, if it's a top prospect, the top schools are there. 

This isn't happening with Bates. The bluebloods could well come to regret it because, as Elgin Bates told CBS Sports, his son is not set on bypassing college basketball. 

"I believe the deterrent for most of the colleges is they probably feel he won't ever step foot on a college campus," he said. "I think it's a wrongful assumption, especially for a kid who works as hard as he works and for a kid who's proven that he's worthy of getting scholarship offers. I definitely don't think that's fair to him, just due to the fact that, being a kid who anticipates getting offers because he sees guys in his class -- not a knock on them -- but guys in his class that might be lesser players that are getting offers and high-major offers. It would make him feel some type of way. But I always tell him to continue to remain humble, and at the end of the day, if they offer you too late and you don't want to go, that's their fault."

Incredibly, Bates had only one scholarship offer from a power conference team (Florida State) prior to the start of Peach Jam. On Friday morning, Bates revealed on Twitter -- surely to the shock of some Michigan State fans who thought this was already done -- that Tom Izzo had formally and finally offered a scholarship to play for the Spartans. 

Emoni told me he'd been waiting and hoping a long time for that phone call.

"Those are the only two right now," he said. "But yeah, I do want more."

During his game on Friday, when he dropped 32 and 12 on PSA Cardinals, the only power programs there who were recruiting him were Michigan State and Michigan (Bates is from Ypsilanti, Michigan, all of 20 minutes from Ann Arbor). That's it. For the event, he averaged 32 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and shot nearly 55 percent.

"I most definitely feel like I don't want them to look at me as just going to the NBA," Emoni told me. "I still want them to recruit me as hard as they want to, to look out for me and show they can recruit me as much as they could other players."

"For us, you weigh all options," Elgin Bates said. "College is an option. The NBA, if that's available when he graduates, that's an option too -- but that's not the goal. He's still got to stay focused, continue to get better each day, train and continue what we've been doing. We can't just sit and say, 'Well, let's just work the next three years and we can go to the league.' No, within the next three years you might want to go to college for a year. Who knows?"

There's also the possibility the rule doesn't change by 2022. But that seems less likely than another avenue that's being explored by the Bates family: graduating high school in 2021. If Emoni can maintain good grades and take the proper coursework, there is potential for him to bump up a year, making the timing of the NBA's rule change moot. 

"Me and my parents threw that out a little bit," Emoni Bates said. "Maybe. I talk about it, we think about it sometimes. Maybe if [by then] I'm too mature for high school and I feel like am ready to go to college, I might for a year and then go to the league. Or just get better and stay in the gym for a summer and just work out and get better every day. But it's been mentioned a lot in my house, re-classing up after my junior year and playing a freshman year in college."

"Maybe if [by then] I'm too mature for high school and I feel like am ready to go to college, I might for a year and then go to the league."Emoni Bates on whether he will play college basketball or go straight to the NBA  

Imagine the head start Michigan State, Michigan and Florida State could have on all others if Bates winds up reclassifying and decides he wants to play in college and potentially/ultimately cash in the way No. 1 pick Zion Williamson did. It would drastically alter the dynamics of recruiting if it happened. And instead of being the face of preps-to-pros, Bates might instead become the last of his kind: the final high school megastar who moonlights for a year in college and drastically increases his exposure and earning potential in the process. 

It's unexpected motivation for a preternaturally talented kid. 

"For me, if I was him, I would feel a certain type of way," Elgin Bates said. "But I'm not him. I'm Dad, and I have to keep a certain balance there."

emoni-bates-tv.jpg
A documentary crew follows Emoni Bates' every move at Peach Jam.  Matt Norlander / CBS Sports

At events like this, just being able to keep him level-headed is key. He's only 15, which is blatantly obvious when you talk to him. Emoni's extremely soft-spoken, understandably has trouble making eye contact and feels very much a kid in every setting except when he's got a ball in his hands. The American youth basketball system, bolstered by boundless wells of shoe-company money, is set up for him to thrive just as much as it can destruct him. The family is well-grounded and aware of this. Emoni has been playing up since he was 10 years old, when he was competing against ninth graders. 

Elgin, who owns and runs Bates Fundamentals -- which is both the name of Emoni's grassroots team and the skill-development service that Elgin has operated for 14 years -- was allowed to talk to any coach at Peach Jam, due to it being a live recruiting period. Anyone from Mike Krzyzewski to John Calipari to Sean Miller to the coaches in the Ivy League and MEAC could have reached out. But Izzo, Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy and Michigan coach Juwan Howard are the only ones who as of Saturday had been in touch. (Bates and Howard have known each other more than 25 years; one of his cousins and Howard are apparently very close. Bates said he's been good friends with Howard for so long, they went to Chris Webber's draft party together in 1993.) 

It will be interesting to see if circumstances change in the coming days or weeks. 

And while Emoni is already caped with hype, there is not yet the circus element to his presence the way there is with Bronny James or was with Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. Elgin Bates is grounded and amiable. He also is running his son's grassroots team as means to keep the path as clear as possible. 

"Nike seeks out some of the best talent, some of the projected kids to do really big things," Elgin Bates said. "[Emoni] popped up on the radar and I didn't want to join a neighboring organization. I wanted to create my own, due to the fact I wanted to help navigate -- as a parent should -- navigate my child through the proper channels."

Should Bates reclassify to the 2021 it would, quite honestly, feel fairer to the rest of the prospects in his current class. Bates has been known within Michigan and youth basketball circles for more than three years, dating back to when he was winning tournaments against players two and three years his senior as a 12-year-old. But 2019 has been his national coming-out party. 

At Peach Jam, Bates played up to expectations on the biggest stage of his young life. That shouldn't be overlooked. What's impossible to ignore: Young Emoni also has a three-person film crew following him around at his basketball events -- and beyond -- chronicling these days and his high school life maturation. The plan is to release a multi-episode documentary after Bates graduates high school. 

The release date isn't yet known, however. Will it be 2021 or 2022? 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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