Emoni Bates is everything any college could want in a prized recruit.
He’s a 6-foot-7 basketball player who’s still growing, a serious student of the game and an honor student. Moments after stepping onto the court at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, he put on a show of athleticism any NBA star would envy.
Bates soared across the lane after grabbing a lob pass off the backboard, cradled it long enough to adjust his grip and banked it off the glass and in the hoop with just the right amount of spin.
The Spartans and Kentucky Wildcats are already two of his favorite teams. They’d probably sign him right now if they could. But they can’t, not for a long time.
While the early signing period for college basketball begins Wednesday, the 13-year-old Bates can’t sign a letter of intent to play anywhere for at least three and probably four years.
But the eighth-grader at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has already found himself in the middle of a debate about how young is too young to offer a scholarship. He’s one of the most highly touted players in the Class of 2022 and one of three already promised a scholarship by DePaul University in Chicago.
And Bates isn’t even the youngest player to get an offer. Just two years ago, NBA superstar LeBron James complained that his 10-year-old namesake was already being courted with offers.
“Let him be a kid,” is how James put it.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said he has a problem with the process and acknowledged coaches deserve at least some of the blame.
“These kids get so screwed up,” Izzo told The Associated Press. “You see it on Twitter, ‘I’m blessed to get my 29th offer.’ They collect offers. That’s so stupid, but that’s our fault. Not theirs.”
“We haven’t offered anyone recently before ninth or 10th grade,” Izzo added, “but there are some special guys out there.”
NCAA rules bar coaches from discussing potential recruits by name or contacting their families via phone calls, texts, email or even snail mail until they’ve completed their sophomore year of high school. But those same rules allow coaches to host what are considered unofficial visits by those same recruits — as long as the contact is initiated and the costs are picked up by the recruit’s family.
That explains why Bates and teammate Javaughn Hannah were the only two people shooting hoops at Michigan State’s basketball arena just hours before the arena was open to the public and packed with fans flocking to the second-ranked Spartans’ annual Midnight Madness event.
“I like going up there a lot,” said Bates, who has struck up a friendship with Michigan State sophomore star Miles Bridges. “I like working out with (Bridges) and being around him.”
Bates and Hannah were joined on the visit by some of their eighth-grade teammates and their fathers, all part of the Bates Fundamental squad coached by E.J. Bates. A former professional basketball player in Europe, E.J. Bates is carefully weighing his son’s options, including “reclassifying” — effectively skipping a year of high school as freshman Marvin Bagley did to play for No. 1 Duke this season.
Amari Bailey of Chicago and California’s Skyy Clark, two of the other top-ranked eighth-graders in the country, already responded to DePaul’s scholarship offer with verbal commitments.
“I know I’m young but what I want is what I want,” Clark wrote in an October post on Instagram.
Emoni Bates, who doesn’t even know where he’s going to high school next year, isn’t ready to look that far ahead.
“I was excited because it was my first offer,” he said, “but there’s plenty more to come.”
That’s what worries Izzo, a Hall of Fame coach with a national championship and seven Final Four appearances on his resume.
“Some believe you should offer as soon as the kid comes out of the womb because the first offer gets the kid. I think that hurts the kid,” Izzo said. “Some people don’t think you should offer until they’re sophomores. If a kid is that dumb that he’s not reading the internet and realizes that some of those coaches that offer early have offered 50 guys. That offer doesn’t mean as much.”
But the relationships kids forge while going through the process can make all the difference.
Bates has grown close to Bridges on and off the court and has even posed for pictures in Michigan State’s green jersey and shorts. There’s a framed photo of the two of them in Bates’ bedroom.
You’d think that kind of head start would bother rivals.
But Michigan coach John Beilein, whose program is headquartered 10 miles west of where the Bates live, doesn’t sound worried. He refuses to recruit any prospect until he’s in ninth grade.
“You see them in a high school setting and that’s when we start inviting them for unofficial visits,” Beilein told the AP. “There’s a lot of time. If you’re going to start offering scholarships to seventh and eighth graders, there are so many unknowns both ways. Who’s going to be where in six years? It makes great media, right?
“I’m sure it’s a novel idea,” he added. “But does it really make sense?”
In Bates’ case, only time will tell.