The Cleveland Cavaliers came into the 2023 NBA Draft with a singular, sparse asset: the No. 49 pick, only nine picks away from the end of the draft. Having traded their first-round pick to the Indiana Pacers and not having made any trades leading up to the draft, the Cavs had a lot of pressure to make the most of the pick.
With a core of four young players in place, the Cavs were looking for role players to fit around them. Would they go for an older prospect to try and plug in right away, or recognize their lack of picks moving forward and invest in a younger, higher-upside prospect?
They certainly swung for the fences, standing pat at 49 and taking Eastern Michigan forward Emoni Bates. Despite plenty of rumors that they were discussing a trade up into the first round, they let the draft play out and took a player in Bates that they had been linked to throughout the pre-draft process.
The Cavaliers drafted Emoni Bates
If the Cavaliers were looking for someone who could score the basketball, there wasn’t a player left on the board (with the exception of 5’9″ Liberty guard Darius McGhee) who can score better than Emoni Bates. The 6’8″ forward reclassified to attend college a year early after absolutely dominating the competition in high school, and many thought he could be in play for the No. 1 pick.
Then college games started, and he struggled mightily as a young freshman at Memphis. He was better this past year at Eastern Michigan, but he was still inefficient and didn’t elevate his team to win in any sense of the word.
Despite his size, Bates is an abysmal defender, with no effort, athleticism or strength to speak of. He has a short wingspan and not much vertical pop, making him both a pushover on defense and a poor finisher on offense. He doesn’t pass or even seem to see his teammates on the court, simply hunting for an angle to get his own shot off.
That shot is notably pure, and he is one of the best shooters to have gone in the second round. That’s his niche to becoming an NBA player. If he can give up dreams of grandeur and commit to becoming a knockdown shooter as a stretch big off the bench, he can carve out an NBA career.
More likely, all of the reasons he struggled the past two seasons will carry over to the NBA, and Bates’ ego will likely get in the way. Players don’t like to go from No. 1 recruit to small-role bench player. Bates needs to defend, needs to move without the ball, needs to pass. If he can become a role player, he has a shot.
For now, he represents a bizarre swing for the Cavaliers’ front office. Why did they draft Bates? They must see upside somewhere. Hopefully for the franchise that upside will be revealed as Bates becomes a player who helps the Cavs win games. Hopefully.