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Gatorade National Player Of The Year Emoni Bates Will Not Stop Putting In The Work

It can be awfully hard to remember that Emoni Bates is 16. People his age are not supposed to be as good at basketball as he is — the Michigan native is already being hyped up as potentially the best high school basketball prospect since LeBron James despite the fact that he’s only a sophomore.

Bates does have something on James, and Kobe Bryant, and every other boys high school basketball player ever. Earlier this week, the Lincoln High School standout became the first sophomore to ever win the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year Award, beating out a pair of college-bound recruits in Oklahoma State commit Cade Cunningham and USC commit Evan Mobley. Per 247Sports’ Composite ratings, Cunningham and Mobley are the Nos. 1 and 2 recruits, respectively, in the class of 2020.

While Bates, the No. 1 player in the class of 2022, doesn’t know Mobley, he is friendly with Cunningham — they spoke on Monday, one day before Bates learned he won the award — and is a big fan of his game.

“Cade’s definitely a really good basketball player,” Bates tole Dime over the phone. “I like how he can play the game as a point guard, especially at his height, the real definition of a true point guard, he makes his teammates better.”

Cunningham is one of the favorites to go No. 1 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft, something that can also be said for Mobley. And yet a high school sophomore managed to beat both of them out, the latest example of how Bates could end up being the sort of generational prospect who forces NBA teams to consider — Adam Silver, please do not read the next few words — tanking in an effort to acquire his services as a potential franchise cornerstone.

It is, of course, completely absurd to talk about a teenager who has two more years of high school ball ahead of him this way. Bates is so young that when I asked what he is looking for in schools as he goes through the recruitment process, he swears he hasn’t thought that far ahead yet. His mind is on the now, and the things he needs to work on to make his dreams of being the best basketball player he can be become a reality.

The thing with Bates is that he has all the talent in the world, and even at such a young age, that talent is able to manifest itself in impressive ways. Even beyond winning perhaps the top individual award a high school basketball player can win, Bates is capable of doing things like going for 63 points and 21 rebounds in a single game, so while everyone can improve as an athlete at such a young age, he is already remarkably good at playing the game. In fact, while Bates made it a point to emphasize that he thought he progressed as a player who can impact games by doing more than just scoring this past season, he believes his biggest step forward was becoming a better leader by filling a void left by a handful of seniors who graduated.

His next step is making everyone around him better. He cited “getting his teammates the ball” as the element of Cunningham’s game that he most wants to fold into his own, and when asked about his favorite player to watch in the NBA, he opted for Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant, citing the mindset the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft brings whenever he steps on the floor.

“He doesn’t fear anybody, and he’s a rookie, and he came in and showed me a lot, especially being one of the youngest guys in the NBA,” Bates said. “He’s a real leader on the court, he knows how to make his teammates better and he plays with energy.”

This doesn’t mean he won’t try to refine other elements of his game. In the call where he learned he won the award, former Gatorade Boys National Player of the Year winner and current Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum stressed the importance of continuing to work. As such, Bates knows he has to spend as much time as possible in the gym. This is where his other favorite basketball player to watch comes in, and funny enough, it’s the guy whose game Bates’ is most frequently compared: Kevin Durant.

“I pay attention to how he makes the game look,” Bates said, referencing the way Durant can something as difficult as playing professional basketball seem so effortless.

Time will tell if Bates can get to that point. He’s quite the player, but by nature of how much harder being a professional is than being even the most promising of high schoolers, there’s a gap between where he is and where guys like Durant, Morant, and Tatum are. The good news for Bates, though, is that he’s at a point that none of them were at when they were 16, and with his mix of skill, drive, and lofty aspirations, he has what it takes to enter rarified air some day.