With supposed 2022 superstar Emoni Bates sort of saying he’ll play for Michigan State if/when he saddles up for college basketball, SLAM Magazine jumped all over another opportunity to promote one of basketball’s young flames. Bates recently won the Gatorade Player of the Year award given to the best men’s high school basketball player in the country, and he was the youngest to ever do so as just a sophomore.
On SLAM’s Youtube page, you’ll find a video titled…
“Emoni Bates is the BEST prospect since LeBron! Gatorade Player of the Year”
Did you hear that? You thought Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson were pretty good? Ha-ha, just wait until you get a look at…Emoni Bates, a somehow-skinnier KD copycat!
With Bates’ pledge to Izzo land and his crowning as approximately the 40th recruit since 2004 to be considered “the best prospect since LeBron,” I thought I’d whiz through the last ten or so years of prospects who were hyped (almost unanimously overhyped) as the greatest high school prospect since the King. The benchmark has to Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant–the closest talents to LeBron. No one is LeBron, but can you even reach Anthony Davis’ level? It’s just a more realistic question. I’ll start with a laughable pair of 2013-ers.
Jabari Parker | Duke
I can still see this Sports Illustrated cover sitting on my counter in May of 2012:
Maybe if LeBron liposuctioned 25 pounds of muscle, filled his shoes with cement, tore both ACLs and carried himself like a miserly bridge troll, he’d be more comparable to LeBron.
If Bron’s brand was mid-range two-pointers and plain black sneakers, then maybe, we could bring Jabari to the discussion. But the funny thing is, Andrew Wiggins leapfrogged him in the final year of their high school careers, taking the top spot and the LeBron comparisons by the end of 2013.
And Parker was supposed to be a shorter version of everything Giannis became for Milwaukee. Funny how things work out.
Andrew Wiggins | Kansas
Speaking of… The Wiggins hype crescendoed during 2013 McDonald’s All-American festival, particularly in the days of practice leading up to the main event. The uncommitted No. 1 prospect and new generational talent wooed with freakish athleticism, deer-like court-running and unselfish passing. Some scouts whispered he might be the best player since LeBron James. And blog boys bestowed the “greatest since…” moniker after his pulverizing dunk in 2013 McDonald’s Dunk Contest. All the while, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker each courted the top-ranked wing to join their schools (Kansas, Kentucky and Duke).
Wiggins eventually committed to Kansas, had a standard one-and-done season and bowed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to a 10-seed Stanford. Following his 2014 season with Kansas, Wiggins was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. By this point, LeBron was already on his way and he would not be playing with rookies, so Wiggins was traded almost immediately for Kevin Love. After performing as a perpetually disappointing top pick and Karl Towns co-star, he was traded again, this time to the Warriors, this past season, where he figures to factor into a glorified Harrison Barnes type of role going forward.
Shabazz Muhammed | UCLA
The Anthony Bennett of this list. Muhammed, once a major UK target in 2012, was considered–along with Kevin Durant, Wiggins, Parker and Anthony Davis, the five candidates most likely to become the “Next LeBron,” according to Bleacher Report. They batted .400 on that list. Wiggins and Parker we dissed already, but Shabazz barely played 250 career games in the NBA. He wasn’t even the best “Shabazz” in basketball (Napier, the 2014 Final Four MOP if you can painfully recall). Aside from a few stretches in Minnesota, he’s been an outright bust.
Another blog boy used both the names “Durant” and “James” to laud Muhammed as “one of the best clutch shooters in college basketball.” Those 25-10 Bruins could have used some of Muhammed’s clutch gene in 2013.
Ben Simmons | LSU
Best since LeBron? This time around, not a terrible comparison, actually–and also, one that Jay Bilas sang to Dan Patrick. My rule of thumb is not to compare young basketball players to LeBron James, because, well, there isn’t another LeBron. Even if Simmons cranks his game another few gears to reach MVP-level, he won’t be cheered as “LeBron 2.0” He’ll be the first of his kind: Ben Simmons. And then folks will wonder who is the next Ben Simmons?
Among the crop we’ve assessed so far, Simmons easily backs up LeBron comparisons the best.
This is two-fold. Simmons is unquestionably the best player we’ve covered so far, a multi-time all-star, a 6-10 point guard with godly defensive fundamentals. He also plays the most like LeBron: like Magic Johnson before him, the pioneer of the point forward, LeBron’s career position and Simmons’ ideal one. All three are generational passers, run flawless fast-breaks and elevate their teammates while out-growing nearly everyone on the court. To move faster with the ball while being bigger than the opposition is a timeless advantage.
Simmons isn’t quite LeBron (threes to Simmons are still like wasps to a kindergartener), but he’s the closest thing we’re gonna find in this batch.
Harry Giles | Duke
I fear we will never see peak Harry Giles. Weeks before his senior season in high school, Giles mangled his ACL and was done for the year. The next season at Duke, in his lone year, Giles tore a cluster of leg ligaments while struggling to overcome the initial ACL tear–all while playing for Duke and tanking his draft stock considerably. Had he held himself out for the year (or, had Coach K), Giles would have gone in the top ten of the draft at worst (probably still gone 3-7) instead of in the mid-20s.
Scouts told Chad Ford this Giles kid was possibly…you’ll never guess…the best prospect since Lebron before the heaps of lower leg ailments. It’s easy to bag the kid for failing to ever crack a meaningful rotation (at Duke or in the NBA with Sacramento) but I can’t help but wonder what a superbly athletic 6-10 forward/center who ran the floor like a Durant with less wobbly knees would look like next to De’Aaron Fox right now.
RJ Barrett | Duke
They didn’t call him the best, they called him “the most decorated” prospect since LeBron James, which might actually be true. A high school prospect hasn’t completed anything more impressive than Barrett single-handedly dragging Canada to victory in the 2017 U-19 World Championships. He scored 37 against the US team as Canada cruised passed the John Calipari-coached Americans. As a prospect, yeah, he was nearly impeccable.
Again, Barrett wasn’t the best prospect since LeBron or since Anthony Davis. He wasn’t even the best prospect committed to his own team (coming up next!). But he accomplished everything he could at the high school level and went on to become a consensus first-team All-American (pouring in over 22 points per game) and the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. RJ Barrett hasn’t become LeBron, but he delivered as much as a 17-year-old future superstar could. Now let’s hope the Knicks don’t eff his career up too badly.
Zion Williamson | Duke
The words “Best since Michael Jordan” should probably never be uttered. It’s a uniquely unfair expectation. The Google search returns for “Best since Lebron” has gotten a whole article of funny flubs from the past. But the best since Jordan? That doesn’t toe the line like a LeBron comparison does. It sets up an expectation for undeniable greatness–and yes: GOATness.
Scottie Pippen, a six-time NBA champ, claimed a year ago that Zion was the best prospect since his teammate, Michael. And maybe he is. Even admitting that about a 20-year-old is a rarified and elite congratulations. Will he reach MJ? Not a remote chance. Can he reach LeBron? Almost impossible but I guess I could picture a world where it happened. Could he be the best since LeBron? It’s still highly unlikely but realistic. But without question, he’s a 1 of 1.
Emoni Bates | Michigan State
The reason I wrote the article. After he committed the other day in one of the most bizarre and wishy-washy commitments I’ve seen, the collective CBB media did what I’ve shown they like to do: praise the next top prospect as the best since LeBron. And dammit didn’t they. If he ever plays college–and I hope dearly that he does–will Emoni be just another brick in the wall or the next in a long lineage of Zions fighting to prove their spot among the future greats of the game?