10 College Basketball Players I’m Watching in 2020-21
After we were cruelly prevented from enjoying a full season last year, college basketball has returned in all of its glory. Well, most of it at least. We won’t have the pleasure of watching inebriated college students attempting to coordinate elaborate distractions while players are at the free-throw line, but we still have Bill Walton doing Bill Walton things, so there’s that. In honor of the long-awaited return of this beloved sporting season, here are ten players I’ll be tuning in to watch this year.
1. Cade Cunningham (G – Oklahoma State)
If the 2020 NBA draft class was a Honda Civic, not flashy or exciting but will get the job done for you as a nice shared family car, the 2021 draft class is an Audi R8, filled with flashy amenities and impressive horsepower. And at the wheel of that Audi is Oklahoma State’s freshman guard and projected first overall pick in next year’s draft, Cade Cunningham.
At 6’7 with a nearly 7’ wingspan, Cunningham is a natural scorer with high basketball IQ who can play on or off ball and guard 1-3. He has been compared to fellow Montverde Academy graduate Ben Simmons, though he has slightly less size and defensive ability but is a much better shooter (low bar, but still). When you watch his highlights, you can clearly see this is a kid who understands the game of basketball and has the wildly impressive body control required to make what he sees in his mind come to fruition. In his first two games this season for Oklahoma State, Cunningham is averaging 20.5pts, 6reb, & 3.5ast. While we’ve yet to see him compete against a solid college opponent yet, it’s a positive sign to see Cunningham is already imposing his will at the next level.
You know a kid is special when local reporters are already conjecturing about whether their teams should throw in the towel for the year to have a chance at drafting him. Whoever decides to #TankForTrevor… sorry, bad habit for the Jets fans in my life, #TrustTheProcessForCade, is in for a hell of a ride in the upcoming years. Oklahoma State is a must-watch for me this season because of Cade Cunningham.
2. Jalen Suggs (G – Gonzaga)
If winning games is something that means a lot to you when evaluating prospects, then Jalen Suggs is someone you need to keep an eye on. The 6’5 guard is the highest-rated prospect to commit to Gonzaga, ranking 5th in ESPN’s top-100 list. And a quick glance at his list of accomplishments in high school will justify the hype around his name:
One of five finalists for the Naismith High School Boys National Player of the Year
The first athlete in Minnesota state history to win the Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball awards in the same year
Four-star dual-threat quarterback who had more than a dozen college football offers
Named the National MaxPreps Male Athlete of the Year
Suggs is quick, athletic, versatile on both sides of the ball, and has that “I’m going to aggressively dunk on your head and pick up a tech in the first minute of my college basketball career” edge to him. In his first game at the collegiate level, the freshman dropped 24pts, 4reb, and 8ast against the 6th ranked team in the country in Kansas. This kid is the “real deal,” and he’s going to be playing for a team with real NCAA title aspirations.
There are analysts out there who currently see Suggs as the number one pick ahead of Cade Cunningham, and if the Gonzaga freshman continues to put up numbers like he already has, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if it happens. Whether he goes first, second, or somewhere later in the draft, expect to hear plenty more from Jalen Suggs this season and beyond.
3. BJ Boston (G – Kentucky)
Continuing the theme of freshman guards, next up is Kentucky’s BJ Boston. You may recognize the name from his time playing in more nationally televised games with Bronny Jr. at Sierra Canyon High School than the Washington Wizards last year. Now, one year later, he finds himself on another exciting team that will be making headlines plenty of times this season, though hopefully not for picking up more losses to unranked opponents like Richmond for his sake.
Boston has great length for the shooting guard position and can play as a small forward as well. He’s been likened to a smaller version of Brandon Ingram, and like the Pelican’s new $158M man, Boston is a natural scorer who can shoot it well. We’re going to get a great look at whether he’ll be able to lead a young, promising team to their expectations, as Kentucky’s recruiting class is assumed to be amongst the most promising in the entire country.
4. Remy Martin (G – Arizona State)
My next pick, Remy Martin, is a very talented basketball player (and apparently quite the tasty cognac?), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t make this pick at least in part because of his hilarious similarities to James Harden. Martin is a score-first guard at Arizona State who wears number 13 and just recently decided to grow quite a ferocious beard. Sound familiar?
The similarities between the Arizona State guards extend to their playing styles as well. Before the season began, Martin was one of the favorites to be named Pac-12 Player of the Year, an award Harden won in 2008-09. And looking at Martin’s stat-line from last season compared to Harden’s two-year average, it’s clear The Beard had some influence on the star senior. Combine the facial hair and the numbers with Martin’s confidence to pull the trigger from anywhere, and we’ve got a real connection.
Harden similarities or not, Remy Martin is an exciting player to watch and has the chance to lead an extremely talented Arizona State team to a Pac-12 championship and a deep run in the tournament despite the slow start. Give this guy a watch, you won’t regret it.
5. Makur Maker (F/C - Howard)
It’s very easy to consider yourself to be a leader. Take a quick glance at the skills section of any number of LinkedIn profiles and you’ll see what I mean. But when it comes down to actions, there are very few people who are willing to make sacrifices to lead a greater cause. And that’s exactly what Makur Maker did when he spurned the top-notch facilities and championship contender pedigrees of college basketball powerhouses to attend Howard University and play for a team that won four games last year.
Of his decision to shock the world, Maker said
I dare to be different, and I always consider myself to be a leader. I want to change the current culture and climate that has kept five-star athletes like myself from viewing HBCUs as a viable choice.
The athletically gifted 7’0 power forward/center became the first five-star recruit to choose to attend an HBCU in over 40 years, and he hopes that his decision will be the start of a larger movement. When Tim Carter and I caught up with the Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Howard, Jake Brown, prior to the start of the season, our former Columbia University classmate had nothing but hope and excitement for the upcoming year and this historic recruiting class.
Unfortunately, things have not quite gone to plan for trailblazing freshman or the Howard Bison, with the team starting the season 0-3, including a double-digit loss to a D-II team and, what could be a much bigger loss, an injury to Maker, who is sidelined indefinitely with a groin injury. Here’s to hoping we get a chance to watch one of the most exciting players in this class lead this Howard team and HBCUs across the country to new heights this season and beyond.
6. Evan Mobley (F/C – USC)
7’0 coordinated big man with a 7’5 wingspan who has some handles and can shoot. You’re already interested.
Following in the footsteps of Onyeka Okongwu, who captured the hearts of the nation during this year’s draft ceremony, Evan Mobley is a freshman at USC who looks like he has all the tools to hear his name called as a top-10 pick next year. His aggressive dunks and well-timed blocks will get people out of their seats, but it’s what he can do outside of the paint that intrigues me the most.
It’s not often we see someone of Mobley’s size carry the ball up the floor with such grace, especially when that fluidity is paired with a decent shot-making ability. Former coaches have called him a “generational talent” with shades of “Giannis and Kevin Durant.” And while those comments should be taken with a massive grain of salt, it’s at the very least a comparison that gets the mouth watering a bit.
To use every analysts favorite buzz-word, Mobley’s “upside” is tremendous. His high-IQ style of play pairs extremely well with his athleticism, and he projects as a solid player at the next level. And did I mention he has a 7’5 wingspan?
7. Luka Garza (C – Iowa)
Time to take a quick turn away from promising young talent to talk about a guy with proven numbers who could very well be the best college basketball player in the country right now, Luka Garza. The 6’11 Iowa big man finished 2nd behind Obi Toppin for last year’s Wooden Award after averaging 23.9pts and 9.8reb. And, after a few nearly perfect games into this season, he currently is the favorite to win it this season.
To be clear, when I say “nearly perfect,” I mean it quite literally. He missed a total of FOUR shots in his first two games, going 24 for 29 from the field and averaging 33.5pts and 9.5reb per game. Everything points to this being a special season for the senior who is hoping to take this Iowa team on a deep run in the tournament.
Yet, despite the career accolades and big numbers, Garza is projected as a second-round pick next season after withdrawing from this year’s draft. His slow lateral movement and general lack of elite athleticism both hurt his ability to guard quicker players. And with the style of play in the NBA shifting away from the traditional big man toward a more versatile option who can guard multiple positions and space the floor, Luka Garza may simply be joining the league at the wrong time.
The contrast between Garza’s college dominance and his expected professional success represents a dramatic storyline that I will most definitely be following. Will the senior be able to improve his draft stock over the next few months, or will this be the last we hear of Luka Garza on a big stage?
8. Ziaire Williams (F – Stanford)
Aside from having one of the coolest names in this draft, I chose Ziaire Williams (really cool, right?) because I’m excited to see what he can bring to a school like Stanford that hasn’t been able to maintain consistency on a national level in recent years. As a projected top-10 pick, Ziaire brings much-needed versatility and dynamism to a team that hasn’t made the tournament since 2014.
The 6’7 forward and former teammate of Bronny James and BJ Boston has a 6’10 wingspan that brings value on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Williams is a good shooter whose quickness and athleticism allow him to find his spots on the court. Defensively, his length helps him create turnovers and prevents any easy shots. He’s been compared to the likes of Rudy Gay and Paul George, though hopefully without the late game struggles of the latter (sorry, Clippers fans, PG is great, but it was right there for me). Some questionable calls landed Williams in foul trouble against UNC, so we didn’t get to see his full potential on display, but I am looking forward to watching Stanford play in some good games this year, particularly against fellow Pac-12 standout Evan Mobley.
9. James Akinjo (G – Arizona)
James Akinjo might be one of the sneaky most fun players to watch this season despite being a fringe NBA draft option. The junior guard at Arizona ripped my heart out last season when he announced he would be transferring from my beloved Georgetown Hoyas to play elsewhere. Years of utter hopelessness and obscurity on a national scale had numbed me to the feeling of excitement for my college basketball team, but watching James Akinjo actually allowed me to feel something again while watching the Hoyas. No, they weren’t good, but they had a competent point guard who was a genuine offensive threat with legitimate ball-handling skills. I even went as far as saying I was glad Akinjo was the one to have the honor of wearing Allen Iverson’s almost mythical number three. I was just starting to believe in the future again.
And then, in the blink of a tear-filled eye, he was gone. Akinjo and nearly half of the Hoyas’ recruited players found themselves transferring as a result of some bizarre scandal that has largely remained uncovered. So now, instead of having the pleasure of watching this skilled little guard lead our storied program out of misery, I am forced to resign to hopelessness once again as Georgetown drops games to teams like Navy to open the season.
Now playing for Arizona, Akinjo will still bring the same energy and excitement on the court while doing so on a much better team. And despite what a grouchy Jim Boeheim may have to say, I’m a firm believer that James Akinjo can be a strong option on a winning team. The former Big East Freshman of the Year shot 39% from three while averaging 13.4pts and 5.2ast in his one complete season with Georgetown, and in his first game for Arizona, he put up 19pts and 3ast in 38 minutes. He may be on the small side at a listed 6’1, but he’s shifty, crafty, and utterly exciting to watch. If you don’t know about James Akinjo, do yourself a favor and give him a watch.
10. Jason Preston (G – Ohio University)
Here’s a guy you won’t find atop any lists of the best players in the country – Jason Preston of Ohio University. You may have seen his name floating around on social media these past few weeks after the junior put himself on the map with a huge 31-point scoring performance against fifth-ranked Illinois and their star guard Ayo Dosunmu. But his incredible story extends beyond his standout performance on the court this season.
To say the odds were against him to even have a shot at playing basketball at the collegiate level is an understatement. Heading into his junior year of high school in Orlando, Preston lost his mother to cancer and, with nowhere else to go, had no choice but to move in with a friend. Understandably, basketball was far from his mind. As a senior the following year, the guard, who was barely 6’ at the time, averaged a measly 2 points per game, all but confirming his basketball career was likely ending soon.
Yet, as luck would have it, an AAU coach caught a glimpse of him playing and convinced him to attend a prep school for one last shot at extending his time on the court. While playing for the school’s C-team, Preston and a few friends took a shot in the dark and uploaded a highlight tape to Twitter that ultimately resulted in two scholarship offers and the coveted opportunity to continue playing at the next level. Two years later as a sophomore, Preston lead the Ohio Bobcats in scoring, field-goal percentage, and minutes played while finishing second in the country in total assists. Now, as a junior, the once overlooked scrawny high school afterthought stands at 6’4 and is going toe-to-toe with some of the country’s best players.
If this story doesn’t have you rooting for this kid, then you might need to look in the mirror because your Grinch is showing. Shoutout to Jason Preston for serving as a much-needed reminder that dreams can come true if you never give up hope.
I tried to limit myself to ten, but I’m just so excited, so here are a few more players I’m excited about.
1. Drew Timme/Corey Kispert (F - Gonzaga)
These guys are both on the Wooden Award watch list and are returning to what might be the best team in college basketball. Gonzaga is a must-watch.
2. Greg Brown (F - Texas)
Brown is an extremely athletic forward at Texas who will almost certainly be a lottery pick next year.
3. Mac McClung (G - Texas Tech)
Another former Hoya who ripped my heart out, Mac McClung probably receives more hype than his talent is worth as a result of odd family ties and some strong marketing, but he is undoubtedly very exciting to watch.
4. James Bouknight (G - UConn)
While it spells additional trouble for the Hoyas, it’s nice to have UConn back in the Big East with a star leading the way.
5. Jalen Johnson (F - Duke)
Johnson is a 6’8 forward with some skills of a point guard. Plus, he’s at Duke, they’ll always be exciting.
6. Caleb Love/RJ Davis (G - UNC)
Caleb Love is the real star here, as he’ll be the future first-rounder next year, but I like the pairing he has with fellow freshman RJ Davis as well.
7. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (F - Villanova)
Villanova kids are rarely superstars at the next level, but they all end up making solid contributions to their teams. Here’s another one who fits that mold. He’s a great player who gets the job done.
As with everything else in the world right now, this college basketball season is going to feel like a rollercoaster ride on Bill Walton's acid, but I'm just excited for the chance to get to know some of the NBA's next stars. Now, let's all cross our fingers and hope we can make it to March Madness this time.