Manny Bates went a long time in between playing competitive basketball games, but when the NC State center finally took to the floor, the wait was worth it. As a redshirt freshman, Bates vaulted himself into becoming the ACC’s top rim protector and one of the more intriguing defensive prospects in college basketball.
A shoulder injury cost Bates most of his senior season at Northwood Temple Academy; then in August of 2018, Bates had surgery on his shoulder, which forced the 6-foot-11 center to take a redshirt for the 2018-19 season. He needed little time to introduce himself, though — kicking off the 2019-20 season with a five-block performance against Georgia Tech. Bates followed that up with seven more blocks against Detroit, which still stands as his career high. (That likely won’t last forever, though.)
Bates posted a ludicrous block rate of 16 percent, which was No. 1 nationally, according to KenPom. Bates rejected 6.2 shots per 40 minutes — a hilarious total.
For the season, Bates rejected 83 shots in 534 minutes of action. Going back to the 2009-10 season, Bates is one of only two players to block 80 or more shots in less than 600 minutes of playing time. Bates blocked at least one shot in all 25 games that he played 10 or more minutes in during the 2019-20 season.
Manny Bates this season: 6.2 blocks per 40 minutes (16% block rate), 34 dunks (2.5 dunks per 40, 71 FG% at the rim), 77 FG% on screen-rolls
Going back to 07-08 season: 1 of 9 players with 15% block rate, 30+ dunks (Kenny Wooten, Jeff Withey, Hassan Whiteside, among others)
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) May 15, 2020
Since the 2007-08 season, only two ACC players — Bates and Tyrelle Blair of Boston College (2008) — have posted a block rate above 14 percent.
There may be more to Bates, though, than his rim protection. He fits a mold on offense, which is proven to fit in the in modern NBA, while also flashing the tools to be an impactful pick-and-roll defender, too.
A Different Kind Of Prototype
A little over two years ago, I wrote how Torin Dorn was the new “prototype” player for the Kevin Keatts era at NC State. Dorn was a small-ball 4 that shot well enough to open up the half-court offense for spread pick-and-roll. On the other end of the floor, Dorn functioned perfectly into NC State’s 1-4 switch scheme; Dorn could guard four different positions, while offering enough rebounding for the Wolfpack to get by with a small-ball/4-out approach.
As NC State continues to mash the pick-and-roll button on offense, there are several necessary components, starting with an engine to propel the pick-and-roll attack at lead guard. This has been Markell Johnson’s domain the last three years. Now, as a linking partner in the middle of the action, is Bates.
A vicious help-side rim-protector, Bates offers a discrete set of skills set that mesh with NC State’s offense and defensive approach. The Wolfpack can switch 1-4 and dial up pressure on the wing, knowing Bates lurks as an invaluable rim protector.
On the inside of NC State’s screen-roll offense, Bates — with some improvements — can emerge as a serious lob threat and potential vertical spacer. In turn, this should improve NC State’s spot-up offense, which has scored under 0.95 points per possession over the last two seasons.
The Wolfpack can mix up their ball-screen coverages, but for the most part, NC State switches 1-4 (willing to let an opponent try to post a height mismatch) and has its center (aggressive) drop or play to the level of the screen. With DJ Funderburk, there’s some flexibility; the veteran big can and will switch on smaller guards (more on this below).
For Bates, however, he’s asked to meet the screen (allow for the guard teammate to get over in rearview pursuit), slide and then recover. This is an ideal fit — for both player and team.
NC State wants to limit the number of 3-point attempts for opposing offenses, while forcing teams to work one-on-one against switches. The Wolfpack can stick to those principles and allow Bates to sink in the paint and protect the restricted area.
Most of the time, Bates’ pre-screen positioning is solid. Bates has a good feel for where the ball handler wants to take the screen and which direction he plans to attack. On occasion, though, Bates, in an effort to stay attached with the roller, would cede a little too much ground to the guard.
Bates almost recovers in time to block this shot, but look how deep into the paint Trey McGowens is able to get with limited resistance.
Later in the same game, Bates does something similar against Xavier Johnson. Initially, Bates is in good position. However, when XJ turns the corner, Bates retreats to Abdoul Karim Coulibaly on the roll, which opens a gap for Johnson, who gets two feet in the paint. Funderburk provides good help on the drive and a closeout to the corner, but this should’ve been a spot-up 3 for McGowens.
Manny Bates Finds A Happy Medium
Guarding screen-roll in drop coverage requires a lot of work and brainpower. There’s potentially less ground to cover and lateral footwork needed than blitzing or trapping ball screens. However, there’s a great deal of mental strain, too. It’s a delicate balance that essentially asks a big man to be in two places at once: threaten the ball handler, close up any angles to the rim, while also contesting passing lanes and monitoring the roll/pop man.
Considering his age, and the gap between when he last played competitive basketball prior to this season, Bates showed real promise as a drop center.
Bates routinely hit his marks, which starts with good positioning at the time of the screen. That’s followed by the willingness to get in a stance and slide with speedy ball handlers. After a successful contain, the big must locate/recover to his own man.
On some of these plays, Bates closed up the initial action, then finished out the possession with a solid contest in help defense.
Bates also proved capable of navigating pre-screen dummy action before getting into his pick-and-roll defense. On this possession at the ACC Tournament, Bates shows his two-way versatility: goading McGowens into an inefficient midrange pull-up with 16 seconds left on the shot clock, then going rim-to-rim for the transition spike.
Pick-and-pop bigs present a tall task against drop coverage. It’s too much of an ask to require the big man in screen coverage to drop, contain and then cover 20 feet on a closeout. Weak-side defenders must to stunt — with the closest help defender jumping quickly to the popper. This will hopefully buy some time for the defensive big man to closeout.
In this possession, Braxton Beverly doesn’t give much of a stunt, but you can see him jab his right foot in the direction of Keith Stone. Either way, this is nice recognition and motor from Bates, who fights through some slippage to closeout on Stone’s miss.
When opposing guards looked to reject screens, Bates was able to diagnose and adjust. Eric Hamilton lifts to screen for McGowens with Daniels pushing him right into Bates. Bates stays down; he doesn’t sprint up with Hamilton and forfeit the lane.
With Bates back and Daniels in pursuit, McGowens takes a really difficult shot halfway through the possession, again.
Bates even showed out against Louisville’s drag screen-slip concept. David Johnson going at Pat Andree in transition is an insane mismatch; Steven Enoch approaches for the drag (half) screen, then slips to the hoop. Bates manages to stick with Enoch while also providing the necessary help on Johnson.
If not for the proper reaction from Bates, this is a layup for Johnson or a drop pass to Enoch for a high-percentage look.
Hand Positioning, Stuff To Clean Up
Defending pick-and-roll is tough; even if you do basically everything correct, the ball handler can still make a play — hit a pull-up jumper, draw a foul or thread a pass around an amalgam of defender arms and legs. Good offense is hard to step.
Bates can get into a stance and play with high hands, though not on every possession. At times, he was able to deter, deflect and outright swallow up some pass attempts this season. There were also possessions where passes whizzed by Bates for layups.
It’s a sizable ask, but I’ll be curious to see if he can dial up steal and deflection rates next season.
Aamir Simms gave NC State fits this year, like a lot of other teams. He’s a matchup nightmare. On this possession, Bates does well to read the early action and get drop position after the screen. This open dunk from Simms falls on Hellems, who fails to tag on the weak side. But Bates is caught with a heavy left foot and low hands; Clyde Trapp is squeezes this pass in through the air.
For the most part, though, Bates showed a willingness to get in a stance on ball-screen coverage, which is a nice indicator. There were some pick-and-roll possessions when Bates utilized his wingspan and hand activity to force turnovers or influence a pass.
There’s also a proclivity to leave his feet. Bates falls a little guilty to the same notion as plenty of other young rim protectors: try to obliterate every shot in sight.
He’s such a talented block artist and a menacing presence on the back line, influencing shots, it’s understandable that he want to send every attempt to the the 10th row. Unfortunately, that can result in open looks at the hoop, too.
This can also turn into foul trouble for the Bates — who committed 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play.
1-on-1 Space Defense
Bates brings an elite block rate and solid drop pick-and-roll coverage to the table. Those are two important boxes to check — of course with room for growth, too. There aren’t that many centers in college hoops that can legitimately space the floor and attack a closeout, which provides another set of challenges.
When asked to guard 20+ feet from the basket, Bates had his struggles. That’s to be expected. It’s hard for perimeter players to stay in front of the opposition on every play, let alone a center who isn’t used to those assignments.
Here, Simms catches Bates leaning with a little rocker step maneuver and it’s off to the races.
Bates proved, however, that he’s capable of sliding and staying in front of opposing play-making bigs. But even when Bates curtails the initial drive, he’s still vulnerable due to an imbalance of weight and footwork.
Without James Wiseman in the lineup, Precious Achiuwa worked as the center for Memphis. While Achiuwa doesn’t have the shooting range of Simms (to put it mildly), he’s an aggressive driver with a solid (yet sloppy) handle. On this possession, Achiuwa is able to go left on Bates, before Bates recovers and uses the baseline as an extra defender. However, Bates is a little too heavy on his heels here; Achiuwa knocks him back, which creates space for him to spin and get up a clean look before a late contest from Bates.
Defensive Pairing With Funderburk
During the first two Keatts seasons at NC State, the Pack played very few minutes with two traditional bigs on the floor at the same time. Gone were the days of playing the likes Kyle Washington and BeeJay Anya together with a team 3-point attempt rate under 30 percent, signatures of the Mark Gottfried era.
With Keatts, NC State went heavy on small-ball; in the 2017-18 season, the Wolfpack ranked 235th nationally in weighted average height, per KenPom. The following year, NC State ranked 187th in average height. However, this season NC State’s average height jumped a full inch — up to No. 110 nationally.
This wasn’t exactly by design, though. NC State dealt with injuries all season, which forced Keatts to alter lineup combinations. Hellems missed a game; CJ Bryce missed five. Grad transfer Pat Andree, brought in to work as a stretch-4, suffered through injuries (377 minutes all season) and a shooting slump (22.2 3P% in ACC play).
These limitations pushed NC State to go with more lineups that featured both Bates and Funderburk — two bigs with restricted shooting range.
Defensively, this caused some concerns, too. After platooning with Wyatt Walker at the center position in the 2018-19 season, Funderburk was asked to play power forward. In terms of defensive scheme, that’s a big difference at NC State. Funderburk was asked to switch off ball with greater frequency and guard smaller, zippier players.
For the most part, though, Funderburk held up as a defensive 4; over the course of the season, he really started to show his chops as a team defender (3.2 percent block rate), communicator and switch piece. At times, even during minutes at the 5, NC State had Funderburk switch on every screen. He found success against some of the ACC top guards, too: Chris Lykes and Xavier Johnson, among others.
Defensive Report Card
In several key metrics, this was the best defense Keatts has assembled at NC State. The Wolfpack allowed 97.3 points per 100 possessions, in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency. Opponents assisted on just 43.3 percent of their field goals (No. 24), a product of NC State’s switching, and shot 48 percent on 2-point attempts, the lowest of the Keatts era.
According to Synergy Sports, NC State’s opponents shot 49.1 percent on non-post-up attempts around the basket (1.02 points per possession), which ranked 32nd in the nation. This was a major improvement for the Wolfpack. Good luck trying to finish over both of these dudes.
During the 2018-19 season, opponents shot 56 percent (1.16 points per possession) at the rim against NC State — No. 238 in Division I (No. 12 in the ACC).
For the second straight season, NC State’s team block rate rose — thanks primarily to Bates: 11.6 percent (No. 49 nationally). Funderburk and Bates accounted for 107 of NC State’s 145 blocks (73.7 percent).
On only two other occasions, since the 1996-97 season, has NC State posted a better team block rate: 2005 (11.9 percent) and 2015 (13.1 percent).
Fit For Next Season
As of right now, Funderburk is currently testing the NBA Draft waters, while also enrolled in summer school. It could potentially be a while before there’s a final decision — stay or go — from Funderburk, too. (According to Keatts, Funderburk hopes to get a workout with an NBA team. With the COVID-19 pandemic, though, that’s obviously been complicated.)
Regardless of Funderburk’s decision, Bates gives NC State a foundational element at the center position and in terms of setting its defense.
Funderburk is an excellent two-way player; he’s a mobile big that offers defensive versatility, rebounding and rim protection. For my money, Funderburk is under-appreciated, even in ACC circles. However, at this point, he’s not a real NBA prospect. That doesn’t mean Funderburk won’t still depart, especially with the 2020-21 college basketball season a bit of a mystery. He could leave, earn a check (somehow, some way) and try to earn a roster spot by going through the undrafted free agent route. That’s an unglamorous process, but even if Funderburk sticks at NC State for his senior season, that’s his likely path a year from now, too.
Assuming Funderburk returns, though, get ready to see plenty more of these twin-big, DJ-Manny lineup combinations. If Funderburk manages to add a spot-up jumper — something he’s flirted with in his career (11-of-45 3PA) — then things smooth out, in terms of fit.
If that doesn’t happen, though, it’s not like those two can’t function together on offense. Things will just remain a little congested in the paint — now without an expert lead guard like Johnson to manipulate coverages and sort things out. (I also think NC State’s offense could really use a 3-point threat off the pick-and-pop, something the Pack haven’t had since Omer Yurtseven transferred out.)
NC State’s offense features limited off-ball movement; the pick-and-roll has to work by getting north-south and forcing rotations. If the lane is crowded and teams can afford to help less off (fewer) shooters, it could spell trouble. The off-dribble shot-making of Johnson and Bryce is gone; that was the escape hatch when things bogged down.
Defensively, however, Bates and Funderburk work well together and could team up to give NC State a solid defensive floor.
While there are certain advantage to deploying two mobile shot-blocking bigs together, it can cause spacing issues in the half-court offense, too. Spread pick-and-roll works because it forces defenses to bend and rotate; offenses can exploit those gaps: kick-out passes to open 3-point shooters or lobs at the rim for a missed help-side assignment.
When teams drop in ball screen coverage and stay home on shooters, the offense gets to attack 2-on-2 — guard and rolling big man.
Johnson, a dangerous pull-up shooter at times, was a good pick-and-roll decision-maker, too. The shifty guard could get downhill, keep his dribble alive and survey his options: pressure the rim, shoot a pull-up or get the opposing big to commit before hitting the roll man. Funderburk and Johnson ran a million pick-and-rolls together over two seasons; their chemistry was superb.
Take one of those spot-up targets off the floor, though, replaced with a non-shooter, and things get congested. It’s not that NC State didn’t find efficient offense with Bates and Funderburk on the floor together; according to Synergy, Wolfpack roll men scored 1.14 points per possession (60.7 FG%) this season. Those two also combined for 78 dunks this season — more eight other ACC team had total.
However, when Funderburk was stationed in the paint during a Bates roll — or vice versa — some of the usual reads failed to present themselves.
One other way to work around this is by turning Funderburk into more of a play-maker; this could be a necessity without Johnson and Bryce next season. Funderburk has a little Euro-step move and he can do some stuff in space.
Asking him to make reliable short roll reads with Bates in the dunker spot may be one step too far, however. For his career, Funderburk has only 24 assists in 1,500 minutes of action.
Early in his career, Bates displayed some upside as a roller out of the pick-and-roll. Bates shot 77.3 percent on basket rolls this season, per Synergy; this ranked fourth in the ACC among players with 20 or more possessions, behind Funderburk, Olivier Sarr and Jay Huff.
Bates finished the season 34 dunks, eighth most in the ACC — an averaged of 2.5 dunks per 40 minutes. At times, Bates flashed really good hand, snagging passes on the move, surrounded by pesky defenders. Bates, of course, has an enormous catch radius and showed good coordination in the air this year, too,
This is a really impressive catch and finish: the pass is behind him and Bates manages to finish with his off hand. During his freshman season, Bates shot 71.1 percent at the rim.
With Bates’ power as a rim-runner, NC State is able to generate open perimeter looks due to his gravity. This is such a necessary component not only for NC State’s half-court offense, but also as Bates progresses with an eye on the NBA.
During the 2016-17 season, Keatts’ last at UNC Wilmington, Devontae Cacok, the team’s center led the nation in 2-point shooting (79 FG%) and roll efficiency: 1.73 points per possession (87 FG%).
In the race toward modernity, every NBA roster needs to check certain boxes; that list goes beyond versatile wings that can shoot. Teams need a big that can screen, roll hard and collapse defenses. Bates fits that prototype, but there’s work to be done, too.
One thing Bates should look to improve, though, is his explosion into and after the screen. Bates does well to hold his screens, and sometimes he transition nicely from screen to rim dive. However, if he can turn with a little more pop on his inside foot before sprinting to the rim, Bates could have even more success.
Look how smooth USC’s Onyeka Okongwu is on this empty-side screen-roll possession. There are several reasons why Okongwu projects as a top-five pick and the No. 1 center in the 2020 draft class; one of which is his ability to roll with force and fluidity to the hoop. On this possession against TCU, Okongwu makes good contact with his screen, which forces the second defender to step up, and flows right into his roll. OO spins on his inside foot, making himself immediately open on his dive to the rim.
Short Roll Passing: Maybe Not Yet
At this point, it’s too much and too early to ask Bates to feature in as a short roll passer. Bates may never get there, either; he would still have offensive value as a pick-and-roll center. NC State also doesn’t ask its bigs to make plays in space — on short rolls.
Check out this play from NC State’s home win over Pitt. In another dual-big lineup, Bates tries to screen for Johnson. On the back side of the play, away from the pick, Pitt is able to stay attached to the secondary players. The Panthers double Johnson before Bates can even screen; Bates slips out to the basket without much concern from the help defense. Justin Champagnie shades over some, but it’s not a full commit.
If Johnson could trust Bates in space here, he could slip a pocket pass to the big fella and let him rumble into a 4-on-3. Instead, however, he keeps his dribble and still does well: waiting out the trap and reversing sides of the floor, which allows Funderburk to use his length and attack a short-corner closeout from Champagnie.
This type of short roll passing isn’t a necessity for Bates; it’s likely something he may never have in his toolbox. But if he were make the addition, at some point, it would raise his prospect considerably.
Bates recorded just eight assists this year, but something to store away for the future: this backdoor pass he threw to Daniels at Miami. Daniels smokes the dunk attempt, and Bates is reluctant to face the basket, initially. However, this is a nice, confident look from Bates as Daniels intelligently darts behind Harlond Beverly’s overplay.
Post Up On The Glass
While Bates did a lot of things well his freshman season, he struggled in the post. According to Synergy, Bates shot just 2-of-11 (18.2 FG%) on post-ups. Bates doesn’t quite have the lower body strength to establish deep position (yet), nor the footwork and touch to activate real moves.
Watch Miami freshman guard Isaiah Wong switch on Bates: 6-foot-11 vs. 6-foot-3. The taller Bates has 60 pounds on Wong, too. Despite the size advantages, Bates struggles to carve out and hold post position against Wong.
That may not matter much for his outlook as an NBA prospect — where his rim protection and screen-roll utility far outweigh whatever marginal value he provides on the block. (It’s not insane to think Bates could turn into a more useful NBA rotation player than, say, Vernon Carey Jr. or Isaiah Stewart, two post-up brutes that project as first round picks despite defensive concerns.) For the purposes of NC State, though, the Pack may want to see gains in this department.
Bates attempted just 37 free throws (48.6 FT%) this season — 2.8 attempts per 40 minutes. If Bates is to get to the line more frequently, the post game is one potential avenue. During his freshman season, the low-usage Bates (12.9 percent) drew just 2.6 fouls per 40 minutes.
Regardless, like a lot of other young rim-running centers, Bates provides additional interior value on offense with his ability to hit the boards.
During his rookie season, Bates averaged 3.75 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes. The Fayetteville product became just the 11th freshman since the 2007-08 season to produce a block rate of 12 percent and an offensive rebound rate of 10 percent. Anthony Davis, Mo Bamba, Nerlens Noel, Larry Sanders and Hassan Whiteside are also on that list.
Similar to his effort on the defensive end, Bates showed a good motor and body control while tracking errant shots. Even if Bates doesn’t corral the loose ball himself, his ability to work as a back-tap threat is a way to create extra possessions. (If I were on NC State’s coaching staff, I’d have Bates watch as much Tyson Chandler film as possible. He’s the gold standard of this skill set.)
The biggest concern for Bates may be his ability to stay on the court. He’s already missed time over the last three years with shoulder problems (two surgeries), and a knee bruise forced him to sit the final home game of this season. Bates spent two games in the concussion protocol, too, which is less of a nagging injury concern, to be clear.
Going forward: Bates has a skill set that fits NC State’s schemes and is scalable for the next level. With refinements to his pick-and-roll approach, on both ends, and some added strength, Bates could turn into a solid center prospect — even if some of the other skills never quite come online.