In the past, it was easy to cynically dismiss Summer League success by saying: “They don’t give out rings for winning the Summer League championship.”
But in 2023, they DO give out rings at the NBA 2K24 Summer League championship in Las Vegas – and they’re SWEET.
Heading into Wednesday’s action – with several squads still needing to play their third of four games – the Cavaliers stand atop the standings at 3-0 with a +16.7 point-differential and looking to stay perfect when they face off against the Bulls on Thursday afternoon, 6 p.m. ET at the Thomas & Mack Center.
There’s been no shortage of heroes who’ve emerged from the desert session. Sam Merrill is having an outstanding audition as the possible answer to Cleveland’s three-point shooting questions. Craig Porter Jr. has exhibited what will be a welcome infusion of toughness to the organization. Isaiah Mobley has been rock-solid again, Luke Travers has done a little bit of everything and looks more pro-ready than last summer, and Khalifa Diop has shown he’s got the muscle to mix it up in the middle.
Merrill Scores 8 Threes
But the best individual story for Mike Gerrity’s squad so far has been the Cavaliers lone selection from this past Draft – Emoni Bates.
After being taken with the 49th overall pick last month, the angular 6-9 swingman looks reborn in Vegas – a fresh slate after two college seasons attempting to live up to the massive burden that came with winning the 2020 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year as a sophomore. Bates is playing free, and the numbers have shown it on both ends.
“I’m the most happy I’ve ever been throughout my whole basketball career, because I feel like I can have fun right now,” said Bates, following Cavs practice before they departed for Vegas. “There’s no expectations. And I’m around talented players. I can learn from everybody, like Donovan, Darius, Evan Mobley. Even a guy like Sharife (Cooper), guys in the G-League that have been here already. So, I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Through his first three games, the 19-year-old is averaging 16.3ppg – second on the squad only to Sam Merrill’s 18.6ppg. The Ypsilanti, MI native is shooting 41 percent (17-of-41) from the floor, 38 percent (10-of-26) from deep and hasn’t missed a free throw in six attempts. He’s averaging an even 6.0rpg, has posted two games with two steals and has blocked at least one shot in every game.
In his most recent outing – Cleveland’s blowout victory over Memphis – Bates was 7-of-11 from the floor, including 5-of-8 from long-range, adding four boards, two steals and a pair of swats.
Emoni Bates Media Availability
After struggling under the weight of unbearable pressure as a 17-year-old freshman at Memphis, Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan for his sophomore season. Playing closer to home and outside of the blinding spotlight, he flourished as a sophomore – leading the Eagles in scoring (19.2ppg) and rebounding (5.8rpg). He drilled 76 triples last season and topped the 30-point mark on four occasions, including a 43-point outburst last January against Toledo.
“I definitely expect a big difference (between the NBA and the MAC),” explained Bates. “But the MAC is the second-oldest conference in the country. So, for me, playing against older players that have been in college for four or five years, that definitely helped me, for sure.”
Bates won’t be expected to carry that type of offensive load at the next level any time soon – be it with the Cavaliers or Charge.
“We want to really help (Bates) with the tools to get into a routine here,” said the man who drafted him, Cavaliers President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman. “But he has a runway, and he doesn’t have to prove something right away – which I think was part of the problem the last few years. Everyone wanted him to be the next (Kevin Durant), and it’s OK if he’s not that.
“If he blossoms into a rotational player down the road that can really help us space the floor and shoot – which I think is one of his best traits – that’d be great. But there’s no expectations for him. We certainly have the patience to let him grow.”
Though he’s still technically a teenager, Bates can finally shed the pressure that dogged his developmental years. After playing in three different places in the past three years, he can finally settle in for what he hopes is a long career in Cleveland.
“It feels so good knowing that this is my new home for right now,” smiled the svelte swingman. “Just being with my coaches and everything. For me, this is a blessing, for sure. Especially because they took a chance on me. This is everything to me.”