Ever since the NBA established the one-and-done rule, which required basketball players to wait a year after graduating high school to go pro, freshmen and college recruiting have taken an outsized role in the college basketball world. Diaper dandies like Derrick Rose and Zion Williamson have captured the nation's attention, and a handful of teams led by freshmen — 2012 Kentucky, 2015 Duke — have won national championships.
The upcoming 2020-21 season will be no different, although there are no star-studded McDonald's All-American rosters like the Wildcats and Blue Devils teams of the past. Instead, many of the top freshmen have spread out to non-traditional schools like Oklahoma State, Stanford, and even Howard.
What that should mean, though, is that plenty of first-year college players will have a chance to shine on their own and have major roles on their team. As part of our preseason coverage, Athlon Sports is ranking these freshmen. This will closely resemble the Class of 2020 recruiting rankings, but it’s not a list of the 15 top freshmen in the nation. It’s our prediction of the 15 freshmen who will have the biggest impact this season.
1. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
The top-rated freshman in the country is headed to a team that will need him to produce at a high level. A 6'7" guard, Cunningham will have the ball in his hands from Day One and should be in the hunt for Big 12 Player of the Year honors if the Cowboys can remain relevant in the league race.
2. Evan Mobley, USC
Mobley is a highly skilled big man who can score inside and has range that extends to the 3-point line. Barring any surprises during what figures to be his only season in college, he will be in the discussion to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
3. Brandon Boston Jr., Kentucky
Boston is the top candidate to be the leading scorer on a Kentucky team that returns only one rotation player from a year ago. Boston is a wing player with great length who can score in a variety of ways. He should have the ball in his hands any time that the Wildcats need a bucket.
4. Makur Maker, Howard
Maker made headlines when he became the first five-star prospect ever to commit to play for an HBCU. He will be the most talented player in the MEAC from Day One — but talent doesn’t always equal production. The cousin of current Detroit Piston Thon Maker, Maker is a 6'11" center with the ability to play out on the perimeter.
5. Ziaire Williams, Stanford
A breakthrough recruit for Jerod Haase at Stanford, Williams could be the final piece that gets the Cardinal back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. The 6'8" wing is a top-level athlete who can score from all over the court.
6. Scottie Barnes, Florida State
Barnes will need to contribute right away for the Seminoles, who are losing three key players from last year’s team that was 26–5 heading into the ACC Tournament. Barnes, a 6'9" power forward, will excel right away on the defensive end of the court.
7. Greg Brown III, Texas
Brown, a local product from Austin’s Vandegrift High School, was a huge recruit for Shaka Smart, whose tenure with the Longhorns hasn’t gone as smoothly as most expected. Brown is a tremendous athlete who should dominate around the rim. Unlike a lot of modern-day big men, he won’t offer much from the perimeter, but he can still be highly effective at the collegiate level.
8. Joshua Christopher, Arizona State
Christopher is joining a solid roster at Arizona State but will still be counted on to provide big buckets. He is a highly skilled shooting guard who can score at all three levels.
9. Terrence Clarke, Kentucky
Clarke is a versatile offensive threat who plays with a great motor — a trait that should make him popular with Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
10. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Mark Few dipped into Minnesota to grab Suggs, a five-star shooting guard who should take on a leading role for one of the most talented teams in the nation. He is a combo guard who will score a bunch of points in (possibly) his only season in Spokane.
11. Jalen Johnson, Duke
Johnson is a skilled 6'8" small forward who can bring the ball up the court on one possession and score around the basket on the next. He is a very good passer who creates opportunities for his teammates.
12. Caleb Love, North Carolina
Love will take over the point guard duties following the departure of Cole Anthony. He is athletic and can shoot from deep, but his best trait might be his ball-handling.
13. Moussa Cisse, Memphis
Cisse reclassified from the 2021 class and signed with Memphis in the spring. He is a defensive-minded big man who will rebound and block shots. Don’t expect a ton of offense, but he will be a big part of the Tigers’ plans in 2021.
14. Bryce Thompson, Kansas
Thompson is a combo guard with good size (6'5") who can score from the perimeter and get to the basket. He will battle Cunningham and Brown for Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors.
15. Keon Johnson, Tennessee
One of two five-star prospects in Rick Barnes’ 2020 class (guard Jaden Springer is the other), Johnson is a slasher with a good frame who will add some athleticism to the Vols’ lineup. He isn’t known to be a knock-down outside shooter, but he is capable from the 3-point line.
(Brandon Boston Jr. photo courtesy of @KentuckyMBB)