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From prodigy to project, Cavs rookie Bates rediscovers joy on twisted path to NBA

Emoni Bates Eastern Michigan Emoni Bates - The Canadian Press

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Before holding his first interview session as a pro, Cavaliers' second-round draft pick Emoni Bates politely introduced himself to media members.

“Emoni,” he said, smiling and extending his hand to meet reporters and camera operators at the team's training facility.

While the surprising gesture showed goodwill and a level of maturity on the part of the 19-year-old, it was hardly necessary.

Bates has been well known for a while.

Tabbed the “next Kevin Durant” even before he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school sophomore in Michigan, Bates is no longer trying to live up to the expectations of others and simply following his own path, albeit not the one he imagined.

“I just wanted an opportunity,” said Bates, who will debut with Cleveland's Summer League team in Las Vegas on Friday. "This was my dream since I was 3 years old to get to the NBA. So I got the chance. So I’ve been the most happy I’ve ever been, man. This is like a blessing for me for sure.”

From prodigy to project.

With dazzling skills and untapped potential, Bates was once considered a can't-miss lottery pick, then a perennial All-Star capable of lifting a franchise and perhaps leading a team to multiple championships.

Another LeBron James.

It hasn't worked out that way.

After becoming a sensation on the AAU circuit, the 6-foot-9 Bates initially committed to playing at Michigan State before backing out and enrolling at Memphis, where at 17 he joined good friend Jalen Duren, the No. 13 overall pick last year.

Bates had a forgettable season playing under former NBA star Penny Hardaway, averaging 9.7 points while being sidelined for nearly two months by a back injury that led to speculation about his dedication to the sport. There were whispers Bates was a bust.

He transferred to Eastern Michigan, but there was trouble before he even stepped on the floor as Bates was arrested on a felony gun charge. He wound up agreeing to a plea deal and receiving 18 months probation, but the incident created more doubt about him.

During his one season in the Mid-American Conference, Bates showed flashes of the immense talent that brought him national attention in the first place.

He scored 29 straight points and finished with 43 against a solid Toledo squad, but there were also stretches in which Bates, who averaged 19.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, looked disinterested and played selfishly.

In many ways, the Eagles' 8-23 record was a reflection of the enigmatic Bates.

Scouts were divided on his NBA future, some believing he had reached his ceiling while others saw potential. The Cavs were the last team Bates worked out for before the draft, and he knew he had made a strong impression on them.

“It was all smiles when I left,” he said, "so that was a good thing for sure.”

Still, there was nervousness on draft night before Cleveland, which didn't have a first-round pick, selected him at No. 49.

“I’m not going to lie, just a lot of emotions," Bates said. "I worked really hard to get to this spot and for me to actually get here means a lot for me. So it was a lot of tears, just me and my family just all happy. So emotions was everywhere.”

Cleveland represents a new beginning for Bates, who finally feels unencumbered from the weight of smothering assumptions and external pressures. For years, he felt targeted, singled out because of his early fame.

“Every game for sure,” Bates said. “People picked on me. Even my friends on opposite teams, they'd pick on me, too. But it was fun for me knowing I got that challenge. It made me step my game up more for sure.”

There was also a recent period when he wasn't sure basketball was his future. The Cavs have helped Bates reconnect.

“Just wasn’t fun for me for a minute,” he said. "But I found my joy back for sure. Especially this summer, just with my pre-draft, having the people around me and doing therapy. Just took steps for me to get where I’m at for sure.”

There are no guarantees he'll make it, but the Cavs are in no rush. It's possible they'll keep Bates on their G League team next season, giving him a chance to refine his game, add muscle to his slender, 182-pound frame, learn what it takes to be a pro.

He's got time, and right now that's all Bates can ask for.

“I’m not trying to really think too far ahead,” he said. “I’m in this present moment right now and my main thing is just getting better every day. One step at a time. I’ve got to get better each day. It don’t happen overnight. It’s a process. I’m really going to take that process.”


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