LeBron James watches the future as his son Bronny and Emoni Bates duel
WESTFIELD, Ind. -- For around an hour and a half Saturday, a 15-and-under grassroots game became the epicenter of the basketball world as LeBron James showed up to watch his 8th grade son LeBron James Jr. and the best freshman in America, Emoni Bates.
Anywhere LeBron goes, the crowds follow and the Pacers Athletic Center was certainly packed. James' son, Bronny, is already a social media magnet and aspiring hooper while Bates is one of the best prospects to emerge since James hit the scene nearly 20 years ago.
They all delivered as Bronny scored 11 points and helped lead his Strive for Greatness squad to a 93-73 win over Bates and Bates Fundamentals (his father Elgin is the coach) despite 43 points and 11 rebounds from the precocious talent.
I want to start with Bates because in my 20 years in the business, the 15-year-old product of Ypsilanti (Mich.) Lincoln is as good a freshman as I have ever seen. He's pushing 6-foot-8, handles the ball like a point guard, shoots effortlessly from deep and plays with an intense passion.
With the NBA looking at allowing high school players to enter the Draft after graduation as soon as 2022, Bates may also be on a path to living the most similar high school experience of anybody since LeBron. The NBA's best player has already given him advice.
“(LeBron) just told me that he’s proud of my accomplishments," said Bates. "He told me to keep going and to stay in the gym. Watching him, he had the same kind of publicity as me so I’ve just got to keep my head on straight and keep working.”
The son of one of the greatest players of all time, Bronny James is already used to playing in front of huge crowds and performing in a virtual fishbowl. His dad is an active and vocal supporter and there's no question that Bronny is developing into a potentially high-level player in his own right.
I first saw him last summer and was struck by his poise and ability to navigate all the craziness around him. That poise is still there and Bronny has now grown to 6-foot-2, has a great frame, is a budding athlete and has the game to play at the point or shooting guard position.
Considering he won't play varsity basketball until next winter at Santa Monica (Calif.) Crossroads, James' skill level is impressive and he's a dangerous jump shooter and alert passer. Bronny and his father weren't available for media, but Bates was certainly impressed.
“It’s always been a dream watching him growing up," said Bates. "For (LeBron) to watch me and play against his son was a real blessing.
"(Bronny) is going to be real special. He plays hard and he plays smart and he finds people real well. He’s going to be really good.”
The world of high school and grassroots basketball is rapidly changing and while some if it may not be ideal, there is still a lot of good. There are still many moments that are reminders of how much good the game can do for young players. Certainly, the first meeting of Bronny and Bates with LeBron watching is something that will go down as a memorable moment for myself and anybody else who was courtside.
With the NBA eligibility looming, the likes of Kentucky, Michigan and Michigan State who Bates said are recruiting him may have to rely on days like this to see him as well. Because when asked if he and his family were aware of the potentially changing Draft rules, a short and simple answer made it clear that Bates not only knows, but is already eyeing a potential direct leap to the NBA.
"That's the goal."