The youth of college basketball has grown in importance as the one-and-done era has matured. Players are no longer consistently staying four years and winning championships, in part because it’s no longer a prerequisite to success. 18- and 19-year-olds can make an immediate impact for title-contenders now more than ever before they hop to the next level.
Next season we could see a rare iteration of this evolution that bucks a trend of top talent spreading unevenly to traditional blueblood institutions. No. 1 overall recruit Cade Cunningham, for instance, is headed to Oklahoma State; two top-30 recruits, Joshua Christopher and Marcus Bagley, are Arizona State-bound; Stanford is bringing in its highest-rated signee of all-time in Ziaire Williams. The list of traditional blue-chip prospects headed to non-traditional blue-blood schools is a lengthy one.
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With the dispersion of talent should come parity. Duke and Kentucky will still be Duke and Kentucky because, well, Duke and Kentucky are always Duke and Kentucky. (How’s that for analysis?) But game-changing talents will be spread from the bright lights of Hollywood to the booming metropolis of Knoxville, Tennessee, and scattered throughout the states to give boosts to programs not typically accustomed to enjoying the immediate boost that comes with the addition of elite recruits.
Some will make an impact more than others. Below are the 16 incoming freshmen who will immediately impact college basketball this season — ranked in the likelihood that they’ll be stars from Day One.
1. Cade Cunningham | Oklahoma State | PG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 1
From Marcus Smart to Byron Eaton to Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State’s had some incredible talent at point guard over the years. But Cunningham is the crème de la crème that could turn things around in Stillwater, Oklahoma, under Mike Boynton. He has the perfect blend of passing, scoring and defensive abilities that should vault the Cowboys from the fringes of the tournament picture to a darkhorse title contender in the Big 12 and beyond.
2. Evan Mobley | USC | C
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 3
Mobley was the top-rated recruit in the Class of 2020 for months before eventually finishing at No. 3. But his decline was more about Cunningham and Jalen Green’s rise as opposed to his own slip. The 6-foot-11 USC-bound big man has incredible mobility and skill for a player his size, and he should come in as a dominant post presence right away, continuing the destruction Onyeka Okongwu — the best shot-blocking freshman big in college hoops last season — left in his wake. Mobley has his work cut out for him after the Trojans lost their top five scorers from last season, and yet, USC should feel confident there won’t be a drop-off from last year to this year. He’s a generational talent who impacts both ends of the court and should serve as the tide that lifts all boats in Los Angeles.
3. Caleb Love | North Carolina | PG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 13
It was a bleak season for Roy Williams at UNC, who dubbed last year’s team the “least gifted team” he’s ever coached. But things are on the upswing after Williams got up and did something about it, signing arguably his most talented class ever led by Love, the Tar Heels incoming point guard.
Love fits the archetype of prior UNC lead guards with score-first instincts who have been successful under Williams. The Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year can score it at every level and really made strides as an outside shooter this past season. His game should fit perfectly into UNC’s system, and he’ll be the face of one of college basketball’s biggest turnarounds — a team that finished with a losing record in 2019-20 that could be a title threat in 2020-21.
4. Jalen Suggs | Gonzaga | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 10
We’ve seen what Mark Few can do with less — he’s never before signed a top-25 prospect and still has 19 WCC regular-season titles and nearly 600 wins to his name. Well, now we’re about to find out what it’s like when he has more.
(That sound you heard was the rest of college hoops collectively shuddering.)
Suggs is a top-10 incoming talent nationally and the highest-ranked Gonzaga signee ever. He should make an instant impact as a versatile two-way player for a Gonzaga team that ranks No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 (and one). The Zags are so loaded they won’t need him to be their savior, but the way he can effortlessly attack and score the same way he can calmly drill 25-footers in a snap should strike real fear in the WCC. He’s in line to be the best NBA prospect on a team that might be Few’s best overall squad ever.
5. Josh Primo | Alabama | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 57
There’s tremendous value in playing guard in a Nate Oats system, and Primo — a recruit who reclassified late who brings tremendous size and scoring ability — is going to reap the benefits. The 6-6 combo guard will play alongside Jahvon Quinerly in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, next season and should serve as one of the Tide’s many offensive assets who can create offense and score at a high level. He may not be No. 1 in scoring next season, but on a team with some intriguing NBA talent, scouts are going to pop the tape and find him first. If he blossoms quickly he may be the best freshman in the SEC next season.
6. BJ Boston | Kentucky | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 4
The roster turnover at Kentucky this offseason is simply unbelievable — even for John Calipari. He lost all but one scholarship player from last year’s team. But Boston is the best of the incoming freshman bunch at UK who should soften the blows. A 6-6 scoring guard, Boston is a fluid athlete who can score it in myriad ways with a smooth, high release and an effortless launch. UK needs a reliable scorer to come in and make an impact right away and Boston — one of the most lethal scorers in the country — should be uniquely equipped to shoulder a big load as a freshman.
7. Ziaire Williams | Stanford | SF
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 5
Stanford has quietly morphed into a west coast talent factory, producing second-rounder KZ Okpala last year and turning Tyrell Terry — an undersized freshman who had a monstrous 2019-20 season — into a potential lottery pick. It’s pretty clear at this stage that Williams is on an entirely different level than both of them. He’s got great size, an athletic game, and scoring upside to boot as an off-the-dribble creator, making him one of the most gifted talents headed to the Pac-12 next season. If Terry puts the NBA on hold for a season, Stanford is going to put the league on notice.
8. Scottie Barnes | Florida State | PF
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 6
Leonard Hamilton’s got a real knack for reeling in long, athletic difference-makers. (Mfiondu Kabengele, Devin Vassell, Patrick Williams, Jonathan Isaac, etc.) Barnes is next on that list and should be a real spark plug next season for an FSU team likely losing Vassell and Williams to the draft. He can impact the game with his length and strength, but he’s an energy guy, too. I expect his always-hot motor and hustle will win FSU fans over instantaneously.
9. Jonathan Kuminga | TBD | SF
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 1 (in 2021)
The entire situation surrounding Kuminga is unclear right now. He’s a 2021 recruit, but is considering reclassifying (though he hasn’t yet). But even if he does reclassify, no one knows where — or if — he’ll go to college next season. Going pro in an effort to gain 2021 NBA Draft eligibility is also on the table. But if he does indeed reclassify, and if he indeed goes to college, Kuminga will be one of the best and brightest talents in college hoops next season. Smart money is on Texas Tech if he takes that route, as his older brother, Joel Ntambwe, is a member of the Red Raiders. What a boon that’d be for Chris Beard.
10. Jaden Springer | Tennessee | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 15
That cash register sound you hear in the background? That’s me loading up on all the Tennessee futures. This team is going to be loaded. The Vols already bring back Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan-James (and potentially Yves Pons), and on top of that core, they’re adding Springer, a five-star combo guard, to the mix. He has the scoring ability to spring UT back into contention after a down season and has a complementary skill set that should mash perfectly into its already-set backcourt.
11. Jeremy Roach | Duke | PG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 22
Following in the footsteps of Tre Jones is like trying on Andre the Giant’s sneakers, but as the catalyst for a Duke team likely to be top-10 good next season, Roach is uniquely positioned to make an immediate impact. He won’t be called on to score the way Jones did last season, but his impact as a passer and high-level perimeter defender will be profound.
12. Moses Moody | Arkansas | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 44
System and fit for Moody at Arkansas is going to be a winner. Eric Musselman knows how to scheme his guards up for success. And with Mason Jones off to the NBA, opportunities should be available for Moody. He’s a long, smooth guard brimming with NBA scoring potential.
13. Moussa Cisse | TBD | C
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 9
We’ll find out this week where Cisse, who reclassified last month, will play his college ball. But LSU and Memphis look to be the favorites — and both could benefit immensely by adding him. He’s a mobile big who can run the floor and impact the game in the paint with his length and feel.
“Plays with energy and chip on his shoulder,” 247Sports’ director of basketball scouting, Jerry Meyer, wrote of him earlier this year. “Is a mobile athlete who will chase down the ball. Quality finisher around the rim. Is a tremendous rebounder. Limited in his offensive skill set at this point. Tough defender who is a top level shot blocker. First rounder on length, athleticism and energy. Must develop offensive skills to be an impact NBA player.”
14. Joshua Christopher | Arizona State | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 11
From Day One, Christopher will be one of the five most exciting watches among incoming college freshmen. He’s a gifted scorer and finisher who can create off the dribble and isn’t afraid of contact in the lane. He’s essentially the perfect player to match with Bobby Hurley, who has roughly the same amount of confidence and swagger on the sideline as Christopher plays with on the court.
15. Earl Timberlake | Miami | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 34
Wow, does Miami have something here with Timberlake, a crafty lefty with an incredible build and a smooth scoring touch. He’ll need to improve his outside shooting but he can really make plays at a high level from his position and should thrive as one of the most explosive athletes in the ACC .
16. Nimari Burnett | Texas Tech | SG
247Sports Composite ranking: No. 33
Here’s an interesting one subject to change. If Kuminga stays in 2021 or reclassifies and goes anywhere besides Tech, Burnett should then get a healthy bump on this list. He’s a lethal scorer with a smooth stroke who should thrive in Tech’s guard-friendly system that is on the cusp of producing first-round talents in three consecutive years.