Here’s how the combination of Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren will impact Memphis basketball on the court this coming season.
Memphis and head coach Penny Hardaway officially put a bow on their stellar offseason on Wednesday night when prized recruit Emoni Bates announced his commitment to the Tigers over Michigan State, Oregon, and the G League.
It was Memphis’ second big recruiting win over the last month, as it came on the heels of five-star big man Jalen Duren picking the Tigers. The duo were the two highest-rated prospects in the 2022 recruiting class, and both reclassified to the 2021 class to enroll at Memphis early.
Hardaway has now landed the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in two of the last three seasons. He has turned Memphis into a recruiting powerhouse, though that was never a question.
What has been, and what he has failed to answer to this point in his coaching career, is his ability to translate that off-court success into on-court victories.
This will undoubtedly be the most talented team the Tigers have had under Hardaway given they only had James Wiseman for three games in 2018-19. There will be no excuses if this team doesn’t live up to expectations.
Here’s how Memphis basketball plans to use both Bates and Duren on the court, and how they’re hoping that strategy can lead them on a Final Four run.
—Memphis basketball: Breaking down Duren’s commitment
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Emoni Bates, point guard
It was no secret that point guard was one of the biggest questions surrounding this Memphis program this offseason, especially after Boogie Ellis opted to transfer to USC. Alex Lomax is the only true point guard on the Memphis basketball roster, and he has been relatively inconsistent throughout his career.
Hardaway saw this as an opportunity to pitch Bates on being the team’s primary ball-handler. He’s an uber-talented 6-8 wing who has not played point guard in his career but has flashed quality ball-handling and passing abilities throughout his high school career.
As ESPN NBA Draft analyst Jonathan Givony confirmed — which had been widely rumored as Memphis gained momentum in his recruitment — the plan is to use him as a big point guard like Penny was during his playing days.
The thinking behind this makes some sense. Bates has a rare combination of size, length, quickness, and ball-handling that makes him a special prospect in the first place. He excels at breaking down his man in one-on-one situations and knows how to get what he wants, whether that’s creating space for a jumper or attacking the basket.
The shift here is going to have to be how he views the game mentally. Bates has been the best player out there virtually every time he has stepped on the court in his life. When you have someone who scores as effortlessly as he does, you want him to focus on scoring!
He’s already used to having the ball in his hands and bringing it up the court. But, as you’ll notice in the video above (or really any film of his you watch), Bates comes down in attack mode. He’s looking to get to the rim or to get his shot off, no matter how difficult it might be or how many defenders he has to go around.
Again, this is what Bates has been trained and coached to do because he has always been his team’s best chance at scoring, no matter how difficult the shot.
The key now is finding that balance between creating for himself and creating for others. Memphis basketball still wants Bates to be aggressive because he’s still the most gifted scorer in the country, and you don’t want to lose that skill. But defenses know that, too, and will be paying extra attention to him.
Memphis is hoping to take advantage of that by having Bates recognize that and, instead of forcing a tough shot, opt to hit an open teammate instead. He has the physical ability to do so, but he’ll have to read defenses in a different way than he did in high school.
Key to offensive resurgence
Making that leap isn’t always a sure thing. Florida State tried something similar with Scottie Barnes a year ago and the ‘Noles never found consistent offense.
That could be problematic for a Memphis basketball team that has struggled on the offensive end since Hardaway took over. In his three years at the helm, the Tigers have ranked 81st, 210th and 117th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. Defense has been their calling card (top five in each of the last two seasons), but their offense has been iso-heavy without much motion and leading to a lot of poor shots.
So, Hardaway brought in Hall of Famer Larry Brown to be an assistant coach to help specifically on that end of the court. His resume speaks for itself, having maximized Allen Iverson during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers and winning a championship with the Detroit Pistons along with leading Kansas to a national title in 1988, resurrecting the SMU program, and so on.
He is well noted for his offensive systems and success on that end of the court, knowing how to put his best players in advantageous positions. One of the main ways he achieves this through actions that put the offensive player on the move in an attacking position against a defense also on the move/rotating, essentially simulating transition-like movement in the halfcourt.
Here’s a breakdown Brown have several years ago of how this takes place in a secondary break:
As mentioned previously, Memphis’ half-court offense has really lacked movement. Hardaway has assembled a roster full of extremely athletic players, but they’ve been unable to take advantage of that in their stagnant half-court sets (I’ll use that term loosely here).
We should see a lot more meaningful movement with Brown’s fingerprints on the offense, further maximizing the roster’s ability to attack the rim — particularly that of Bates.
Finally, a big man
Let’s shift our focus now to Duren, who gives Memphis something they’ve really been lacking over the last three seasons: an offensive center.
Wiseman was supposed to be that when he committed but since the Tigers only got three games out of him, they were left with Precious Achiuwa in 2019-20. Achiuwa was a raw athlete with provided a lot for Memphis from a rebounding and defensive standpoint but didn’t add much to their half-court offense. Freshman Moussa Cisse, who transferred to Oklahoma State, had an even lesser impact on the offensive end last season because of where he was in his development.
Duren isn’t the kind of shot-blocker and defensive presence either of those two were, but he’s also much more polished offensively and has a real power to his game.
(Also, the highlights of the Emoni Bates-Jalen Duren pick-and-rolls should make Memphis fans feel really good).
Now, Duren won’t be breaking anyone down like Tim Duncan used to or anything like that, but he’s someone you can throw the ball to in the post and expect him to get a bucket, draw a foul, or kick the ball out to an open teammate. With his soft touch, high basketball IQ, and elite athleticism, he does all those things at a high level.
Those skills are something Memphis has lacked as much as anything and are an aspect of Hardaway’s offense he has wanted to utilize but hasn’t had the personnel.
Duren’s skill set also pairs well with senior DeAndre Williams, who will be playing alongside him in the frontcourt. Williams has range that extends out to the three-point line, giving Duren more space to operate in the post, and is a great passer, as our Riley Davis points out.
Bates’ commitment and the decision to play him at point guard has generated more buzz than anything else this offseason, and rightfully so. It’s going to be fascinating to watch that experiment and to see if he can grow into the role for all the reasons mentioned above.
Memphis basketball needs Bates to be great for them to reach their full potential, but their success isn’t just about that experiment hitting. Duren will also unlock fun, new elements to this offense as a secondary scorer/playmaker, particularly in the half-court.