2023 NBA Draft: A quiet night for the Cavaliers with plenty of upside

The Cavaliers swung for the fences selecting the forever polarizing Emoni Bates toward the end of the 2023 NBA Draft.
bates cavaliers nba draft
TOLEDO, OH – JANUARY 24: Eastern Michigan Eagles guard Emoni Bates (21) goes in for a layup against Toledo Rockets guard RayJ Dennis (10) during a Mid-American Conference regular season college basketball game between the Eastern Michigan Eagles and the Toledo Rockets on January 24, 2023 at Savage Arena in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Despite all the endless trade speculation, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a relatively quiet evening in the 2023 NBA Draft. Multiple sources have confirmed with Right Down Euclid that the Cavaliers were interested in trading back into the first round with teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, the Brooklyn Nets and the Utah Jazz. But those same sources said a combination of taking on long-term salary and the pool of players available at each pick made the juice not entirely worth the squeeze for Cleveland. The Cavaliers did make a selection with their lone pick at no. 49, choosing former five-star recruit and current Eastern Michigan University forward Emoni Bates.

Sure, in the closing moments of the first round, it’s probably a difficult pill for some fans to swallow considering the players available. But, the Cavaliers having the luxury to maintain financial flexibility helps their chances in free agency. During these 2023 NBA Draft previews, Right Down Euclid has shared that players like Kyle Kuzma, Yuta Watanabe, Derrick Jones Jr. and Keita Bates-Diop could all be Cleveland’s free agency options— ditto for big man Thomas Bryant and Royce O’Neale, who would require a trade with the Nets to obtain.

But, again, in the moment, what are the Cavaliers getting with Bates? Considering his pedigree, Bates shapes up as a low-risk, high-reward prospect for Cleveland that could round out and support their glaring need for depth at the forward position. Coming out of high school as one of the most highly recruited players in the nation, Bates struggled to meet expectations in year one while battling injuries at Memphis. A move to Eastern Michigan for his sophomore season would see the Ypsilanti native finally emerge, albeit, for a lackluster 8-23 Eagles team – averaging 19.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 33.8 minutes per game.

Well, it’s not about why but rather what Bates could be as a player. While he showed signs of development and the potential collegiate scouts once saw, there still could be hope for the player Bates could be as well.

At his core, Bates is the best pure-shooting prospect in the 2023 NBA Draft class. Bates shot a highly efficient 41% clip from the field and connected on 33% of his 7.7 three-point attempts per game. One of his greatest attributes that scouts gushed over in high school was his natural and smooth jumper from almost anywhere on the floor, which he’s continued to showcase in college and during the pre-draft process at the NBA Combine. At the combine, Bates ranked among the combine’s best shooters during drills, going 10-for-10 from the line in a free-throw exercise, matched by Atlanta Hawks rookie Seth Lundy. Bates also finished first with a 25-for-30 shooting-off-the-dribble success rate and finished in second behind Pistons rookie Marcus Sasser after shooting 19-for-25 in the three-point drill.

But, with the upside also comes the concern with Bates. In college, his production has been hit-or-miss scoring in single digits on five occasions, three of which saw him take ten or more attempts. Bates has a below-average true shooting percentage, a severely negative assist-to-turnover ratio and one of the lower assist rates for a primary scorer in college basketball. Sure, Eastern Michigan was bad this year, furthering the frustration and complications with Bates as a prospect.

Those numbers would give anyone pause. But nothing causes more trepidation than actually watching Bates play at times in college. Dive into the specifics of game film, and you’ll see Bates routinely shows a lack of athleticism, something that’s always been a concern associated with him. He’s short-armed for his size and doesn’t do much to put pressure on the rim, which can be attributed to his slender frame. Some of the shots Bates would heave at times would make him your least-favorite guy to play pickup with, too.

Worst of all, the defense, a prerequisite for playing for J.B. Bickerstaff, is the most frustrating to watch. Bates has the natural frame to play defense at the NBA level. Unfortunately, it does require effort to use those God-given traits and in his time with Eastern Michigan, it seems like Bates wasn’t fully engaged on that end of the floor. For all the highlights and pieces of tape that point to a monstrous upside in the NBA, some signs also point to Bates being limited at the next level.

Thankfully, some of those concerns are why Bates was available for the Cavaliers late in the second round. The upside, meanwhile, is likely why Cleveland took a chance on Bates with their lone selection in the 2023 NBA Draft. The Cavaliers have a strong commitment to player development on their coaching staff. Arguably, their greatest player development asset, Mike Gerrity runs the show with the Cleveland Charge, the organization’s NBA G League affiliate.

Bates, who will likely sign a two-way deal with Cleveland, will become all too familiar with Gerrity and what the Cavaliers want from a player. But Bates will also be able to develop at his own pace and possibly tap into the potential that made him worth the swing in the first place. For too long Bates was allowed to get away with so much and not develop the rest of his game to fit within the confines of a team construct. While he showed glimpses of a better understanding of those confines at the NBA Combine, Gerrity and his staff will have to spend most of the upcoming Charge season ironing out the rough spots to help realize the vision of what Bates can be.

Sure, what Brates brings to the table, albeit inefficient right now and very one-dimensional, is a lot of what elite scorers showcase. For his age, to be as advanced of a tough shot-maker as he is has impressed nearly anyone who watches him. Right now, Bates is considered a high-level talent but not a sure-fire star or even a starter at the NBA level nor will he probably ever be that unless things change dramatically between now and next season. But at the end of the day, that’s totally fine. The Cavaliers don’t need Bates to be a superstar or their permanent answer at small forward. Instead, they need to allow him to develop into a perimeter shooting wing they desperately need.

Hopefully, the gamble will be worth it.

Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at evan@downeuclid.com. He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.

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