These college basketball freshmen have chances to impress the country from day one.
Every year college basketball lovers begin the season fixated on the juniors and seniors who are ready to take their games to the next level. Then comes along a few stud freshmen who become household names by the end of the year.
Last season, it was Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley living up to and even clearing the expectations handed down to them. Then there was Hunter Dickinson and Sharife Cooper, two players a bit lower down the totem pole that quickly caught the attention of the nation.
While it’s hard to predict who has it in them to rise above their peers, some roster makeups are obvious that incoming four and five stars will have a chance to make a name for themselves. These ten players fit that mold for me and are candidates to have breakout seasons in college basketball.
10. Zion Harmon, Western Kentucky, 247Sports #62 rated recruit
Don’t let Harmon choosing Western Kentucky fool you. He held offers from many of the top programs in college basketball including Kansas, Kentucky and Louisville.
Harmon is from the state of Kentucky and told the Bowling Green Daily News, “he (Rick Stansbury) really wanted me and he’s going to allow me to play my game and it just seemed like the great fit.”
Harmon being able to play his own game means he might put up ridiculous offensive numbers in Conference USA. He’s not going to throw down spectacular dunks – Harmon’s 5-foot-10 frame isn’t built for that style of play. He will use his unique handles to create some highlight plays and hit off the dribble threes.
Harmon also has a good team around him as the Hilltoppers are expected to be one of the best teams at the mid-major level.
9. Bryce McGowens, Nebraska, 247Sports #28 rated recruit
6-foot-6 point guard Bryce McGowens is another highly touted recruit who chose a path less traveled, going with Nebraska despite offers from teams like Florida, Maryland and Oregon.
McGowens has raw NBA moves, using his length to back down smaller guards inside the perimeter. However, he gets the love from the crowd after his highlight dunks on the break or in the halfcourt.
McGowens might have growing pains in the Big Ten, but that won’t stop him from putting up insane numbers from time to time and delivering SportsCenter Top 10-worthy plays.
Bryce is going to be Nebraska’s go-to guy. He’s coming in expected to play a huge role and help carry the Cornhuskers through January, February and March.
8. Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee, 247Sports #7 rated recruit
As far as an overall skillset and NBA potential go, Patrick Baldwin Jr. is right up there with the best in the class of 2021. However, he chose to play under his father Pat at Milwaukee, over what you might guess, a lot of offers from blue-blood programs and championship contenders.
Baldwin Jr. should put up absolutely insane numbers in the Horizon League. You almost never see players of his skillset playing in a conference like that. With that being said, Baldwin will have to adjust to playing with guys who might not yet be up to his speed.
The one thing helping Baldwin Jr. is his unique position as a 6-foot-9 forward with above-average dribbling and passing skills. By not having to sit in the post and let his teammates find him, Baldwin Jr. will still be able to show out and deliver on a nightly basis.
Milwaukee won’t get the same type of coverage once we hit the later months unless the Panthers are practically unblemished in the loss column.
7. Benny Williams, Syracuse, 247Sports #31 rated recruit
Freshmen and Syracuse. Those are two words that have gone well fairly nicely in the 21st century. Guys like Carmelo Anthony and (to a much smaller extent) Tyler Ennis have encaptured the Orange fanbase in their exciting play and winning ways.
This year, Benny Williams looks to be a big piece on a Syracuse team that lost a lot of star power. Sure, Buddy Boeheim is back and expected to be one of the best players in all of college basketball. However, Alan Griffin and Quincy Guerrier were too impactful forwards that left the program, opening up a potential starting role for Williams.
Like many typical ‘Cuse players, Williams is an athletic freak whose long arms create havoc on the defensive side. However, he has a scoring mentality and can lead breaks even at the small forward position. This should allow for some high flying dunks in a newly renovated and state-of-the-art Carrier Dome. There’s just too much not to like with his game.
6. Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga, 247Sports #1 rated recruit
The number one recruit in the nation could very well be overshadowed by his star teammates Drew Timme, Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton and a few other very good freshmen. However, when you’re the top guy, you’ll be treated that way, and Holmgren will have plenty of opportunities to shine in a Gonzaga uniform.
There won’t be many college basketball teams on a mission like the Bulldogs will be after an embarrassing loss to Baylor in the 2021 National Championship. Holmgren will have to come in with that edge, and as a skilled 7-footer, will dominate in the WCC.
A non-conference schedule that includes Texas, ULCA, Duke, Alabama, Washington and Texas Tech will make Holmgren must-see TV over the first two months of the season. Some of the other top recruits might be blessed with being THE guy, but Holmgren will be on ESPN every other day in November and December and will become a household name early on.
5. JD Davison, Alabama, 247Sports #12 rated recruit
The combination of Davison being an absolute monster of a guard and Alabama having a lot of recent success with guards (Collin Sexton and Kira Lewis) puts him in a great spot to succeed. I’m also not reacting to this metaphor either. Davison’s putback dunk was that of a monster in the first clip of this highlight tape.
He’s the type of player you really don’t look forward to guarding, because his bag of tricks is always on full display. Davison won’t back down from anyone, even in a highly competitive SEC.
Nate Oats will get the best out of Davison and being able to learn from Jaden Shackleford will just help his growth all the more. The SEC has some astounding freshmen this year and JD is one of the best.
4. Langston Love, Baylor, 247Sports #40 rated recruit
I’m in awe of the overall smoothness Love plays with. His lights-out stroke will also come on nicely on a Baylor team that has great returning forwards but is in need of replacements for wings Jared Butler and MaCio Teague.
Love is the type of player that can have two points one minute and twelve points the next. He makes buckets look easy and plays so much within himself it’s hard to throw him off his game.
There are a few other top-notch freshmen that will make their way to Waco this season, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Love and James Akinjo will share the backcourt to start games. I’m expecting a lot of triples and points in general out of what could end up being the Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
3. Paolo Banchero, Duke, 247Sports #2 rated recruit
When you watch highlights of Banchero it sometimes looks as if his massive hands are dribbling a mini-basketball. He’s one of those players that’s just a freak on the court and honestly makes everything look a lot cooler.
Paolo Banchero sat him down 😱🥶
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 5, 2021
In coach K’s final season, he’ll need all hands on deck and Banchero’s skillset is priming him for a big year. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, he is a legitimate ball-handler. Sure, Banchero will play a lot of time in the post. It’ll be impossible to ignore the damage he’ll do down low against really anyone Duke goes against.
However, his calling card is the ability to knock down threes and pass from the perimeter. Banchero is one of the most unique players in his class and that alone will make him a spectacle to watch.
2. Emoni Bates, Memphis, 247Sports #4 rated recruit
Cool, calm and collected. That’s what Emoni Bates is and what better place can you think of in college basketball than playing for Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers.
Bates and fellow freshman Jalen Duren are the best freshman duo in college basketball, but Bates is the one I have my eyes on. His game is eerily similar to that of Kevin Durant. Bates is a long and lanky forward who rises up and knocks down shots at will. He has a bit of an odd release, but his skill set allows for that.
Memphis is going to turn heads this season and Bates looks to be the ringleader of it all. He’s going to surpass a lot of his fellow freshmen just because of how crisp everything is about the Memphis program. Bates’ game emulates all of that.
1. Jabari Smith, Auburn, 247Sports #6 rated recruit
I’m going out on a complete whim here, but I think Jabari Smith will have the best overall season of any freshman in the nation this season. He’s this year’s Cameron Thomas – not the top guy in the class, but pretty darn close and in a position to put up some unreal stats.
Last year, Sharife Cooper did it all for Auburn basketball. He was ranked outside the top-20 of 247Sports’ class of 2020 but it didn’t look that way at all.
Smith will be that this season. He has the best size of any combo-forward in this class. His mid-range game is out of this world, being comparable to Zach Randolph and Carmelo Anthony while being to stretch out and knock down threes.
Jabari is NBA-ready and comes into an Auburn team that has enough to be successful around him, but will look to him as the first or second scoring option on the team. Smith will be the freshman to watch in college basketball in 2021-22.