The advent of the new G League Pathway Program designed to give top basketball prospects a professional option directly out of high school had an impact on this year’s freshman class. Top-10 prospects Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga chose to sign with the new program over playing college basketball. So did former UCLA signee Daishen Nix and longtime Michigan commit Isaiah Todd.
But even with a handful of big names from the 2020 recruiting class going an alternative route, there will still be plenty of elite freshmen talent in college basketball this season. But who are the 10 most important? Several five-star prospects from the 2019 chose non-traditional powers with coaches in need of a jolt. Others are poised to play showcase roles for teams replacing numerous key players.
Players like Scottie Barnes at Florida State and Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs are easy picks to be solid players this season. But both are at playing for coaches with secure legacies in programs that rely more on depth and continuity than the boom or bust economy of going all in on freshmen. So their omission from this list is not an indictment on their abilities or NBA potential. Rather, the players included here are those who could have an outsized impact on their programs — and the sport as a whole — in the season ahead.
Similarly, none of the heralded freshmen from Duke or North Carolina made the list, because both programs have enough proven players returning — along with impressive freshmen classes as a whole — that should keep either team from relying too heavily on any one freshmen. The same can’t be said for Kentucky, which did land a player on this list as it replaces its top six scorers from last season.
1. Evan Mobley, USC
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 3
USC is replacing its top five scorers from last season’s 22-9 team, so if the Trojans are going to make the NCAA Tournament, it will probably be because of Evan Mobley. The 6-foot-11 center has the tools to replace the production of one-and-done predecessor Onyeka Okongwu. He’ll need help from a group of transfers and older brother Isaiah Mobley. But if Evan and Isaiah can force opponents to pack the paint defensively and a couple of outside shooters emerge to balance the offense, he could give Andy Enfield’s coaching tenure some needed momentum.
2. Greg Brown, Texas
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 9
There may be no freshman more important to a coach’s tenure than Greg Brown is for Shaka Smart. Signing Brown helped change the narrative around Smart as he enters his sixth season at Texas still seeking his first NCAA Tournament victory. But whether that momentum continues will be dependent largely on if Smart can plug the athletic 6-9 forward in to a nice returning core and unlock the dormant potential of the Longhorns’ program.
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3. BJ Boston, Kentucky
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 5
It’s Kentucky, so you know freshmen will play key roles. But BJ Boston has a chance to be the program’s most productive newcomer since Malik Monk averaged nearly 20 points per game as a freshman in the 2016-17 season. The Wildcats are replacing their top six scorers from last season’s roster, and Boston is regarded as a natural scorer. He’ll be under the national microscope from day one and stay there until Kentucky’s season concludes.
4. Ziaire Williams, Stanford
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 6
Defense figures to be Stanford’s calling card this season, and the Cardinal return leading scorer Oscar Da Silva. So don’t expect Ziaire Williams to compete for the freshman scoring title. But few freshmen have a better opportunity to raise a program’s ceiling than he does. Stanford has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2014, and the addition of such a highly-touted prospect should be the impetus for changing that in an important season for fifth-year coach Jerod Haase.
5. Moussa Cisse, Memphis
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 10
Landing Moussa Cisse provided Memphis with a nice jolt following a disappointing second season of the Penny Hardaway era. The elite shot blocker has a chance to make an already stellar defensive an absolute force on the national level. If he meets expectations and follows Precious Achiuwa as the second straight Memphis player to win AAC Freshman of the Year, it will provide Hardaway with good ammo to continue luring elite players to Memphis.
6. Khristian Lander, Indiana
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 27
Sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis figures to be Indiana’s star this year, but fourth-year coach Archie Miller could use a big season from Khristian Lander. Miller’s last five-star guard, Romeo Langford, put up big numbers but didn’t lift the Hoosiers’ fortunes in the Big Ten. It’s a tall order to ask a slender 6-2 freshman to play a transformative role in the nation’s toughest conference, but Lander could be the key in returning Indiana to relevance.
7. Makur Maker, Howard
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 18
Makur Maker’s impact on a Howard team coming off a 4-29 season will be one thing, as it’s assumed the 6–11 center will return the Bison to competitiveness in the MEAC. But his real impact on college basketball could reverberate for years to come if he can parlay his season at the HBCU program into becoming a first-round NBA Draft pick. A new generation of high-caliber prospects is considering HBCU schools, and if it works for Maker, it could embolden others to follow his lead.
8. Bryce Thomspon, Kansas
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 21
This isn’t the deepest Kansas team, at least in terms of proven offensive production. It’s also not Bill Self’s deepest recruiting class. Bryce Thompson is the clear headliner and will be relied upon to help replace the production of departed stars Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. Expect to see the 6-5 combo guard average double-digits as the Jayhawks vie for the national title they believe they would have won last season before the NCAA Tournament’s cancelation.
9. Sharife Cooper, Auburn
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 24
With five impactful seniors and one-and-done star Isaac Okoro all gone, this will be an entirely different looking Auburn team. But unlike Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke, which restocked their rosters with multiple four and five-star prospects, Auburn only got one. It’s Sharife Cooper, who is a 6-foot point guard. Don’t put it past Bruce Pearl to make this Auburn team a winner despite all the roster turnover and distraction of potential NCAA punishment. But how good the Tigers ultimately end up being will depend largely on wether Cooper is ready to be a star.
247Sports Composite Ranking: No. 1
Oklahoma State received a postseason ban, so barring a successful appeal, we won’t see this year’s top-ranked prospect in the NCAA Tournament. Plenty of folks will still tune in to see Cade Cunningham throughout the season, but the 6-6 guard and likely 2021 NBA lottery pick won’t quite have the impact that a player of his caliber normally would on the sport. Kudos to him for electing to honor his commitment to the Cowboys and play college basketball this season anyway.