How Emoni Bates and Team Final are attracting Beatles-like crowds -- and haters -- as they pursue a Peach Jam title | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Wednesday / October 20.
  • How Emoni Bates and Team Final are attracting Beatles-like crowds — and haters — as they pursue a Peach Jam title

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    By ADAM ZAGORIA

    James Johns knew that as soon as Team Final EYBL announced the addition of Emoni Bates last week, the pressure on his Nike-sponsored grassroots team would grow exponentially — and the haters would come out.

    After all, this was the AAU equivalent of LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach to join forces with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Team Final would now have the Nos. 1 and 2 ranked players in the Class of 2022 in Bates and big man Jalen Duren — something that no one can recall happening in recent years. Both players are projected at or near the top of the 2023 NBA Draft.

    Oh, and Team Final also had the No. 32 Justice Williams, 42 (Dereck Lively), 104 (Corey Floyd Jr.), 109 (Otega Oweh) and 117 (Jameel Brown) players, too.

    “I think there’s going to be an enormous amount of attention — those who want to support it and more than anything, those who want to see it fail,” Johns said Monday in a telephone interview.

    Johns was speaking one day after the new-look Team Final attracted about 1,000 fans per game, some 75 credentialed media members and an undetermined number of NBA scouts en route to winning the championship in the 17U Platinum Division at the Southern Jamfest in Hampton, Va.

    The Philadelphia-based team had a couple of games that were close at one point, but won their six games by 15, 30, 16, 15, 17 and 18 points.

    “They practiced for an hour and a half on Friday over at the Convention Center and they were able to just kind of jell right away, all be unselfish, all share the ball and ultimately win the championship,” said tournament director Eric Kessler of The Hoop Group. “I just thought it was really impressive that they were able to do that and play like a unit like they had been practicing for years together.

    “I think that was the most special thing, in my opinion,” he added. “I think everybody bought into their role. It was like everything was supposed to happen that way. Those guys just did what they were supposed to do. I think they were a little bit under-sold on how they played this weekend. Those guys were spectacular.”

    Johns said he’s heard some people say that Team Final “could beat some college teams now, but that’s crazy because college teams get nine months to practice.” He added: “The craziest thing is people saying we could compete in the Big East right now and compete.”

    ***

    Nobody was quite sure how Emoni Bates would fit into the picture.

    After all, when we last saw the 6-foot-8 prodigy on the AAU circuit, he was competing for his father’s Bates Fundamentals 16U team at the Peach Jam in 2019 — where he earned First-Team All-Peach Jam honors on ZAGSBLOG alongside players like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga — all projected top-5 picks in this year’s NBA Draft.

    A year later, in June 2020, Bates surprised many in the basketball world by verbally committing to Tom Izzo and Michigan State — only to decommit this April.

    He has added offers from Memphis, Texas and Tennessee, but his future remains clouded in uncertainty. He won’t be eligible for the NBA Draft for two more years, so everyone is curious where he will spend those intervening years? Will he reclassify to 2021 and enroll in college this fall? Will he stay at the newly-created Ypsi Prep in Michigan for a year and then join the NBA G League pathway for a season? Would he consider the new Overtime Elite League? Or would he go another route altogether?

    Amid all these questions, Bates linked up with his buddy Duren and the others and joined forces with Team Final for some normalcy and some good old-fashioned summer fun on the grassroots circuit.

    “I’m really enjoying playing with them and really like being around them,” Bates told 247Sports. “We are like minded people who have the same goal who want to win games and have fun.”

    Said Otega, the 6-2 Blair Academy guard who has played with Team Final for three years. “Obviously, he has a lot of publicity around his name so I think having that type of reputation, a lot comes with it.

    “So maybe that joy thing was taken from him a little bit because of all the expectations. I think him coming here is a great opportunity for him because he gets to have fun, gets to play with other top-ranked kids, gets to play with a good group of guys and coaches and also has a chance to win Peach Jam.”

    ***

    Kessler, the tournament director, has attended the last five Southern Jamfests but never saw anything like what he witnessed this past weekend with the excitement around Team Final.

    It may not quite have been Zion Williamson vs. LaMelo Ball in Las Vegas in 2017, where LeBron was kept out of the gym while close to a million people watched online, but it was special.

    “From the second they walked in the door, people just followed them around,” Kessler said. “The baselines, the sidelines, there was a camera on every inch of the sidelines. They literally had to put security at each corner to not let people go by so the referees could still do their jobs.

    “I’ve been to the last five Southern Jamfests and I’ve never seen anything like that with the people following them and watching them play,” he added. “And I mean other kids playing in the tournament just following them around and taking pictures, stopping for autographs. It was just different seeing those guys following them around.”

    Said Otega: “Even after the games we had to be escorted out, it was crazy.”

    Despite all the craziness and the newness of the team, guys like Otega, Brown and Floyd played well alongside he bigger names of Bates, Duren and Lively.

    “I just thing that it kind of shows how unselfish we all are,” Otega said. “A lot of people didn’t think that this whole Emoni coming to play for us would work but it actually worked great. He just blended right in with the program and the way that we play, the system that we play.

    “It’s kind of exciting to see what else we can do, what else we can win just knowing that this is our first tournament and we won the whole thing playing a lot of top-ranked teams.”

    ***

    The coming weeks are going to get crazier, too.

    This weekend, Team Final will play at an event near Albany with seven other elite EYBL teams that will feature Big East officials and professional broadcast teams for live streams.

    Told about the event and Team Final’s participation, one high-major assistant coach said, “That live stream might just break the Internet.”

    Beginning June 1, the live period finally starts after coaches haven’t been able to see players for more than a year during the pandemic. Prospects will compete with their high school teams in June and then with their AAU clubs in July.

    They can also begin to take visits.

    Bates is being courted by Texas, Memphis and Tennessee among others.

    “I want to view all my options, I want to go everywhere to see what’s the best option for me,” Bates told 247. “I think I’m supposed to take a lot of visits to all the schools that offer me.”

    Texas, of course, has a new coach in Chris Beard and is where Kevin Durant, whom Bates has been compared to, spent a year.

    “Our relationship is really good, they were the first school to offer me after I decommitted from Michigan State,” Bates told 247. “They just called, talked to me and reached out to my family. With them I haven’t really gotten to watch them yet. I watched videos of (Kevin Durant) when he was there but not their game recently.”

    Tennessee is another option with former Texas coach Rick Barnes.

    “Tennessee talks to me too, the head coach is from Texas and he was KD’s coach so he reached out to me,” Bates said. “Their message to me was that they just want to get me out there and take a visit and I for sure would want to take a visit at some point.”

    Sources said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway has also been in regular contact with Bates, and Hardaway of course has an NBA pedigree of his own.

    The 6-10 Duren from Montverde (FL) Academy, meantime, is trying to set up some visits to Memphis, Kentucky and other spots. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Bates and Duren visit at least a couple of places together. Some schools are already planning on that.

    “A couple schools have reached out trying to setup dates like Miami, Memphis, Kentucky and a couple others,” Duren told SI.com, referring only to his plans and not those of Bates. “I haven’t locked anything in yet, but we’re figuring it out. Right now, the conversations with the coaches are more about the fit and what my role would be.”

    Lively, the 7-foot center from Westtown (PA) School, will take an official to North Carolina June 8-10 and is also being courted by Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, USC, Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

    Otega is planning an unofficial to Penn State June 1 and mentioned Seton Hall and Minnesota among those recruiting him hard.

    ***

    In July, Team Final will reconvene to focus on Peach Jam. The dates haven’t been officially set yet but the NCAA has set up three live periods that month.

    Peach Jam is the overriding goal for this team.

    “Honestly,” Johns said, “that’s what it’s all about for us, just getting to that point.”

    He added: “We’re trying to leave a legacy and, of course, win Peach Jam.”

    The Peach Jam has seen some big-time stars in recent years, including Julius Randle, Andrew Wiggins, Trae Young and Michael Porter Jr., but North Augusta, S.C. could witness something unique when this squad of future pros comes to town. It figures to be standing room only for this Beatles-esque group, with long lines to even get in the gym.

    “You’ll have an enormous amount of people who want to follow it because of the excitement and the talent level we have on this team,” Johns said, “and the one thing we kind of communicated is to the guys is, “If you want to be the show, then be the show.”

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.