Top Freshmen to Watch in College Basketball for 2020-21 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 17, 2020

Top Freshmen to Watch in College Basketball for 2020-21 Season

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    Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham
    Oklahoma State freshman Cade CunninghamAssociated Press

    Love it or hate it, the one-and-done era of men's college basketball isn't going away anytime soon. And though a handful of players in this year's recruiting class exercised their (lucrative) option of jumping straight to the G League, the 2020-21 men's college basketball season will be loaded with freshmen ready to use the next few months as a springboard into the 2021 NBA draft.

    Those uber-talented players are spread out all over the country, from usual suspects like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina to less conventional routes like Arizona State, Stanford and even Howard University. Keeping track of them all could be tough, especially in a season like this one that is all but certain to be full of postponements and teams periodically shutting down for two weeks at a time.

    But we've got you covered with a few names you're definitely going to want to keep tabs on.

    These aren't necessarily the highest-ranked freshmen in the country, nor is this any sort of way-too-early NBA draft preview. Rather, these are the first-year guys we suspect everyone will be talking about this season.

    The following players are neither ranked nor listed in any particular order, though we have provided their overall rank on 247Sports in case you want that information.

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

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    247Sports Rank: No. 1

    Simply put, Cade Cunningham is a problem.

    For other teams, that is. For an Oklahoma State team replacing five of the six leading scorers on a roster that probably wasn't going to make the NCAA tournament, Cunningham will be the solution to a lot of problems.

    On the Cowboys' official team site, Cunningham is listed at 6'8" and 220 pounds—pretty much the exact same measurements Dayton's Obi Toppin had while dominating in the paint en route to AP National Player of the Year honors last season.

    But Cunningham isn't a power forward. He's a point guard who checks all of the boxes.

    Vision. Instincts. Handles. A desire to create plays for teammates. The ability to either finish in traffic or find the open man when the defense collapses around him. And to complete the puzzle, he even developed what seems to be a reliable perimeter shot during his final season at Montverde Academy in Florida.

    Before that three-point jumper started finding the bottom of the net, many considered Cunningham to be a slightly smaller version of Ben Simmons—which, just to be clear, is one hell of a compliment. Simmons is the total package aside from that little "don't even need to respect the three-point attempt" factor.

    If Cunningham is able to somewhat consistently hit triples at the college level, the NBA comparisons are going to get pretty ridiculous, due simply to the lack of players of this ilk.

    Luka Doncic comparisons are inevitable. You might hear some talk of a "beefier" Anfernee Hardaway. (Penny was a 6'7" point guard, but his pre-injury playing weight was like 190 pounds soaking wet.) The particularly daring might even throw something like "Magic Johnson Lite" into the blogosphere.

    Just don't wait until the NCAA tournament to watch this gem, or you'll be too late. The Pokes have been banned from 2021 postseason play because of "improper certification of student-athletes"—aka the FBI bribery scandal. But start the season out right by making sure to watch the Oklahoma State at Texas-Arlington game on Nov. 25 at 4 p.m. ET.

Scottie Barnes, Florida State

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    247Sports Rank: No. 7

    As great as Cade Cunningham is, Scottie Barnes isn't far behind him in terms of overall talent and versatility. With that pair of point forwards on the roster, Montverde Academy went a perfect 25-0 last year and wasn't really challenged in any of those games.

    Barnes is now in Tallahassee, where Florida State needs an influx of scoring and leadership if it hopes to repeat last year's 26-win campaign.

    While the Seminoles always seem to have a deep rotation of big athletes, they lost three of their top four scorers, including top assist man Trent Forrest. Senior shooting guard M.J. Walker figures to be their MVP, but let's just say there's ample room for Barnes to immediately become a starter, possibly as the primary guy responsible for running the offense.

    If and when he does end up playing point forward, get ready for some flashbacks to Royce White's days at Iowa State. White was a bulkier 270 pounds, but not many people are going to feel like drawing a charge once Barnes (6'9", 227) gets a head of steam on a drive.

    Barnes is a much more willing and capable three-point shooter than White was, though, and he should be a major contributor in two areas where Florida State usually thrives: blocked shots and forcing turnovers. Come for Barnes' ability to play anywhere on offense and run like a gazelle in the open court; stay for his intensity on the defensive end of the floor.

Evan Mobley, USC

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    247Sports Rank: No. 3

    I will always be a sucker for big men who can block a shot on one end, dribble it up to the other end and hit a three-pointer. Mo Bamba and Bol Bol fit that description. In only 69 minutes last season, we did not get much of a chance to find out if James Wiseman could hit threes, but he certainly tried to in high school. I don't know why, but those—I hate the term because it's overused, but, unicorns—are the guys who excite me.

    And you best believe I'm giddy about the Evan Mobley experience at USC for the next few months.

    Mobley is the ideal modern-day center. He's 7'0" with a vertical leap on par with Dwight Howard's, and that makes him a force of nature on defense as both a shot-blocker and a rebounder. And while he's more finesse than brute force on offense, his versatility will make him difficult to guard. He has more than enough mid-range game to stretch the defense, but he can also dunk the soul out of defenders unable or unwilling to push him out of the paint.

    Every scouting report under the sun expresses the same two primary concerns about Mobley: inconsistent motor and not enough muscle/mass. Between that and his willingness to occasionally settle for 15-foot jumpers when he does command the ball, there's at least a little bit of fear that this could be a Skal Labissiere 2.0 situation.

    However, Mobley's versatility, second leap and defensive instincts make him feel like more of a sure thing.

    And don't fret too much about his weight. In my personal experience, it's almost too easy to pack on pounds in 2020.

Makur Maker, Howard

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    247Sports Rank: No. 18

    Makur Maker isn't a top-10 guy in any of the major recruiting services. 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals all have him in the Nos. 16-19 range. So, perhaps he's not a top freshman to watch if all you really care about is draft stock and Player of the Year potential.

    But as far as the future of men's basketball is concerned, Maker is probably No. 1 on the list of players to watch this season.

    In picking Howard over the conventional options (Kentucky, Memphis, Oregon and UCLA were among those that offered him a full scholarship), Maker becomes the first 5-star men's basketball recruit to choose a historically Black college or university (HBCU) since at least the boom of online recruiting services in the early 2000s. The Undefeated's Jerry Bembry wrote in July that Maker will be the first top basketball recruit to attend an HBCU since Earl Jones went to the University of District of Columbia (a Division II school) in 1980.

    This could be a huge deal if it works out for Maker and if others follow suit.

    Top recruits playing internationally or going straight to the G League/NBA hasn't changed much in the world of college hoops, even though there's a "the sky is falling!" contingent every time one of those decisions is announced. But if star players start going to Florida A&M or North Carolina Central instead of Florida and North Carolina, that's a significant shift in the college basketball landscape.

    If you think there's parity in college basketball now, just wait.

    But, again, it hinges on Maker's ability to prove this is a viable career path.

    He certainly has the skill set to run rampant through the MEAC. Most teams in the Big Ten and SEC would have a hard time containing a 6'11" center who can dribble and shoot like a guard, let alone teams from a conference whose tournament champion has been placed in the First Four in four of the past five NCAA tournaments.

    Maker has his work cut out for him, though, joining a program that went 4-29 last year and which hasn't had a winning season since 2001-02.

Ziaire Williams, Stanford

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    247Sports Rank: No. 6

    "5-star recruit" and "Stanford" don't often go hand-in-hand. It's nowhere near as rare as Makur Maker's HBCU decision, but Ziaire Williams will be the first 5-star Cardinal since the Lopez twins in 2006, per 247Sports. (Head coach  Jerod Haase also has a 5-star forward, Harrison Ingram, and an almost-5-star point guard, Isael Silva, committed in next year's class, so keep an eye on Stanford in the immediate future.)

    Listed at 6'8" and 185 pounds, Williams is built a lot like recent ACC stars Brandon Ingram and Justin Jackson.

    But in terms of style, he's much more Ingram than Jackson.

    The latter was pretty exclusively a wing who didn't make much of an impact on defense and who didn't rebound as well as someone his size arguably should. Don't get me wrong: Jackson was an excellent player by the end of his third season with the Tar Heels. However, Ingram was more of a positionless paragon, capable of playing the 2, 3 or 4 on both ends of the floor, and that's what we expect from Williams if and when he gets a little more consistent from the perimeter.

    Strength is a question mark with Williams, but length and athleticism most certainly are not. This guy will be fun to watch, whether he's deftly creating space for himself off the dribble or jumping passing lanes for a fast-break dunk.

    And he should fit in perfectly at Stanford, which already has a fairly positionless setup, outside of Daejon Davis running the point.

Brandon "BJ" Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke, Kentucky

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    247Sports Ranks: BJ Boston 5, Terrence Clarke 8

    Fun Fact: This is the first time since John Calipari became Kentucky's head coach in 2009 that the Wildcats have signed fewer than three 5-star recruits as judged by 247Sports.

    They still have the No. 1 class because they landed three of the 10 highest-rated 4-star recruitsand because five of the top 31 recruits turned pro. But on the usually long list of Kentucky players all but guaranteed to leave after one season, it's really just Brandon "BJ" Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke this year.

    With that little nugget of information out of the way, get ready to fall in love with this dynamic duo of shooting guards. (Or fall in hate with, if you're of the anti-everything-Kentucky frame of mind.)

    At this stage in their respective developments, Boston has the higher floor. He's a little more lethal and consistent than Clarke from three-point range, and he is a bit better at creating separation for himself off the dribble. He's probably going to be Kentucky's leading scorer this year.

    Clarke might have the higher ceiling, though, and we may come to view these teammates as the collegiate, slightly taller version of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (both Wildcats are listed at 6'7"). That isn't to say they are the second coming of the Splash Bros., but that comparison will be almost inescapable after the first time they both put up at least 25 points in the same game.

    For both lanky wings, strength and effectiveness on defense are potential weaknesses, and it's quite difficult to hide two of those guys on the floor at the same time. But one of the things Calipari does best is getting his guys to buy in on defense. If he's able to do that with Boston and Clarke, the Wildcats could quickly vault from No. 10 in the preseason AP poll to the front-runner to win the national championship.

10 Other Super Intriguing Freshmen

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    Greg Brown, Texas (247Sports Rank: 9)

    It's now or never for Shaka Smart. This will be year No. 6 in Austin for the former VCU coach, and he has yet to produce a single NCAA tournament win at Texas. (The Longhorns were arguably on the wrong side of bubble in mid-March, so it was unlikely that last year was going to change that.) Smart was able to sign this  power forward from a high school just a few miles down the road from Austin, but will it be enough?


    Joshua Christopher, Arizona State (247Sports Rank: 12)

    Christopher is the highest-rated recruit to choose Arizona State in the history of the 247Sports database. Yes, he's even higher than James Harden—the only other 5-star Sun Devil in the past two decades. If he's anywhere close to being as good as advertised, Christopher, Remy Martin and Alonzo Verge Jr. might be the best backcourt in the nation.


    Moussa Cisse, Memphis (247Sports Rank: 10)

    Last year didn't work out as Memphis hoped, in large part because James Wiseman only played in three games. But Penny Hardaway is getting something of a do-over here with Cisse, who reclassified in May and picked the Tigers in July. He's going to be an immediate difference-maker in the paint for what is still a young team.


    Sharife Cooper, Auburn (247Sports Rank: 24)

    Auburn lost all six of its leading scorers from last season, so heaven only knows what the Tigers will look like. The one sure thing is Coopera 6'0" point guard who averaged 28.6 points, 8.6 assists and 4.1 steals per game as a high school senior. If anyone in this class is going to have a Trae Young-type of year, it's probably Cooper.


    Jalen Johnson, Duke (247Sports Rank: 13)

    Duke has a lot of depth, but it is lacking in its usual supply of star power. This is the first time since 2012 that the Blue Devils failed to sign one of the top six recruits in the class, and at No. 13, Johnson is the only top-20 guy in Duke's 2020 class. But this combo forward has a very similar build to Jayson Tatum and could have that type of dominant presence on the floor.


    Khristian Lander, Indiana (247Sports Rank: 27)

    For the second time in three years, Indiana was able to keep the local 5-star from leaving the state. And Lander could be every bit the one-and-done star that Romeo Langford was in 2018-19. It's hard to imagine Lander wouldn't be the starting point guard. He'll be the driving force of a team that finally gets Archie Miller to the NCAA tournament in his fourth season as a Hoosier.


    Caleb Love, North Carolina (247Sports Rank: 14)

    North Carolina signing one of the best lead guards in the country is becoming an annual rite of passage. With Coby White running the show two years ago, the Tar Heels were one of the best teams in the country. Things didn't go anywhere near as well for the team with Cole Anthony last year, although he was individually fantastic. Look for Love to slide seamlessly into that same sort of type of role (17 points and four assists per game) in Chapel Hill.


    Adam Miller, Illinois (247Sports Rank: 33)

    In Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu, the Illini have what should be the most dominant inside-outside duo in the nation. But it's going to take more than two players to back up that preseason Top 10 ranking, and they'll be counting on Miller to provide a big boost in what was their weakest area last year: three-point shooting. Aside from Tyler Underwood making two of six attempts, not a single returning player shot 31 percent or better. This lefty with legitimate NBA range will be critical.


    Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga (247Sports Rank: 11)

    Gonzaga lost four players who averaged at least 10 points per game last season, and yet it is No. 1 in the preseason AP poll for the first time in program history. That should tell you how special Suggs is. He was named both Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football in the state of Minnesota, as a lead guard in the former and as a dual-threat quarterback in the latter. Good luck finding anyone who can read the floor/defense as well as this guy.


    Bryce Thompson, Kansas (247Sports Rank: 21)

    Kansas lost both Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike from a team that would have entered the NCAA tournament as the favorite last year. That's a lot of production the Jayhawks need to replace, but Thompson should be able to fill the backcourt vacancy. He's an excellent shooter capable of running the offense, so he will plug in nicely beside Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji.


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