The 2021 men’s college basketball season is just a few years away, and now is the time to start making predictions about how it will go. This article ranks players based on their projected value for the upcoming year. If you agree with our ranking of 25 players, make sure to share this piece!
The “best college basketball players 2020-2021” is a ranking of the top 25 players in men’s college basketball for the 2021.
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Gasaway, John Insiders at ESPN
- College basketball contributor for ESPN Insider
- In 2004, I started covering college basketball.
- Basketball Prospectus and the Wall Street Journal have published his work.
For the 201-22 men’s college basketball season, it’s an exceptionally exciting time to update that venerable tradition known as the top 25 player rankings. We believe, hope, and even demand that this will be a “normal” season at long last.
When the AP preseason poll was announced last week, Gonzaga was rated No. 1 by a large margin. The Bulldogs also lead our preseason player rankings, which is unsurprising.
Drew Timme, a junior, Chet Holmgren, a freshman, and Andrew Nembhard, a senior, all made the cut, ranking among the top 13 players. Early on the list is UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, who is a familiar sight to Gonzaga fans after scoring 29 points against the Bulldogs in the Final Four.
Just a friendly reminder that this isn’t a mock draft. Instead, it’s a rating based only on a player’s expected influence in college this season.
The top 25 players in the country for 2021-22 are as follows:
1. Gonzaga Bulldogs’ Drew Timme
In the midst of the natural excitement surrounding Gonzaga’s near-perfect season in 2020-21, another tale in Spokane may have received less attention than it deserved. Timme emerged in 2020-21 as a genuine national player of the year contender after a rookie season in which he served as a competent reserve behind and sometimes alongside Filip Petrusev. It was a huge step forward, and Timme made it seem simple. Last season, he and Luka Garza were the only high-major players in the country to make at least seven 2-point field goals a game. (Kofi Cockburn was a close second.)
Timme makes a lot of his plays in the Bulldogs’ dangerous transition game, but he’ll score or make the right pass in a half-court set as well. As a foul-prone rookie reserve on defense, the 6-foot-10 Timme showed some modest shot-blocking skills. As a sophomore, he took over as the offensive leader. In a season in which the Zags only had two games decided by single digits, fouling and blocks both decreased.
If the UCLA we saw in the NCAA tournament is representative of what we’ll see more of in 2021-22, Juzang might be on the verge of something really amazing. He had a fantastic tournament, completing 59 percent of his 2s and accounting for 33 percent of the Bruins’ shot attempts during his time on the court. Not to add that those were crucial minutes from Juzang: UCLA went to overtime against Michigan State, Alabama, and Gonzaga, and won by two points in regulation against Michigan. Mick Cronin’s son may be the most pressure-tested player in the country, and Juzang might yet improve. He’s a lifetime 87 percent free throw shooter, so he’ll probably make more 3s than he did as a freshman at Kentucky or a sophomore at Westwood.
Paul Mills deserves credit for what has to be the most impressive re-recruitment in recent memory. After the whole world saw him beat Ohio State and Florida in the NCAA tournament and push Arkansas to the 40th minute, the ORU coach managed to keep Abmas. The rally to within three points of the Elite Eight served as a reminder that, sure, outstanding Summit League player numbers can lead to defeats against Big Ten and SEC opponents. Last season, Abmas played a near-unheard-of 96 percent of Oral Roberts’ minutes against Division I opponents, and the 6-1 scoring point guard virtually evenly divided his shots between 2s and 3s. Last season, he was labeled as a slender 165-pound sophomore, but the bottom-line results were undeniable.
Cockburn was punished for three games by the NCAA in June for selling “institutionally provided gear and memorabilia” before withdrawing from the NBA draft. He’ll almost certainly reestablish his reputation as one of the most physically imposing post scorers in the nation whenever he returns to the lineup. The 7-0 junior’s supremacy in the field of frequent dunking is well-known, but Cockburn’s relatively low-foul domination on both ends of the floor also helps Brad Underwood’s club. Irregular foul shooting is part of the package for a prominent scorer who was nonetheless in the top 60 nationally in true shooting percentage last season.
We know from past experience that a tiny percentage of one-and-done freshmen may really amaze and delight us at the collegiate level; we simply don’t know which ones. This is where we remind you that in 2018-19, Zion Williamson earned a preseason second-team All-ACC pick. Banchero, on the other side, was just voted the ACC Player of the Year in the preseason. Will the 6-to-10-year-olds live up to the hype? Possibly! According to reports, Duke had one of those not-so-secret scrimmages against Villanova, with Banchero putting up a double-double against the AP preseason No. 4 team. ESPN has him predicted as the No. 2 selection in the NBA draft in 2022.
Jackson-Davis has never been a part of an Indiana team that has made more than 32.6 percent of its three-point attempts. If the basketball gods are listening, Mike Woodson’s rotation will almost certainly have at least a Division I average level of perimeter accuracy this season, giving Jackson-Davis some breathing space. Not that he hasn’t done well in the past. Jackson-Davis scored 34 points in a 78-71 defeat to Michigan State at home in February, probably his best game of his career, in which his teammates went 4-of-19 from beyond the arc. He’s a free-throw monster who draws a ridiculous amount of fouls per 40 minutes despite playing a substantially larger percentage of the minutes than FD/40 contemporaries like Cockburn or Scotty Pippen Jr.
Martin was named the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, demonstrating the league’s coaches’ admirable emphasis on proven outcomes. It’s not every day that you find a transfer with over 1,700 points. Martin bolstered what was already shaping up to be another very good KU squad on paper by choosing Lawrence as the location where he’ll ply his craft for a fifth season. When he isn’t passing the ball to an open teammate, the former Arizona State Sun Devil is a superb scoring point guard who generates his own shot. In ASU’s 95-85 victory against the Jayhawks in Lawrence in December 2017, he scored 20 points for the first time in his career. Martin has switched sides and now supports Bill Self.
Last season, Michigan’s 7-1 post scorer appeared out of nowhere as a recruit rated “low” in the 30s or 40s nationally, but he’s already a polished player. Dickinson, who is just a few weeks younger than acclaimed junior Timme, will turn 21 roughly five games into his second season. Dickinson was a standout scorer and rim defender as a freshman for a UM team that was rated in the top five nationally in February and March and came within three points of the Final Four. Now that Juwan Howard has brought in ESPN’s No. 1 recruiting class, the Wolverines’ sophomore will almost certainly continue to cause havoc on both sides of the court.
That roar you heard in July was Holmgren’s MVP-winning performance at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Latvia, which sent Gonzaga and, yes, NBA fans into a frenzy. Despite only playing 21 minutes per game, the rookie had a 7-6 wingspan and averaged almost three blocks per game. Holmgren also made 7-of-13 three-pointers in six games, including five points to Team USA’s 11-0 run in the final that helped them beat France. ESPN projects him to be the first overall choice in the 2022 draft.
Gillespie is still here, a genuine grand old man of Villanova basketball, after playing with Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson and even scoring four points in the 2018 national championship game. (Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, we see you.) You, too, are still here.) With good cause, the veteran point guard is making preseason All-American teams left and right. Jay Wright’s approach produces exceptional individual seasons, and Gillespie saw a significant improvement in efficiency during an injury-shortened senior season in 2020-21.
Pippen has established himself as a 6-3 scoring point guard in only two seasons at Vanderbilt. As a sophomore, he had one of the most demanding offensive workloads in the country, but his overall performance improved drastically compared to his freshman year. On a per-game basis, no player on this list made more free throws last season. Pippen has been named the SEC Player of the Year for the next season.
Liddell has the potential to contribute more for his team than any other Big Ten Player of the Year contender. He bears the same offensive burden as Dickinson, shoots a comparable percentage of 2s as Jackson-Davis, has a similar block % as Cockburn, and hits more 3s and has a higher assist rate than any of the above. Last season, Liddell struggled down the line from the outside, shooting 0-for-7 on three-pointers against Illinois in the Big Ten final game. A probable reversal there will only strengthen the 6-7 junior’s position.
People forget that before Jalen Suggs’ game-winning shot in overtime against UCLA in the Final Four, Nembhard was the man of the hour for Gonzaga, with eight assists. The Bruins were putting up ridiculous numbers on 2-point shots, limiting the Bulldogs’ transition options. With the game mostly reduced to a half-court affair, the Zags found success with the ball in Nembhard’s hands while running the pick-and-roll. In Mark Few’s offense, he is the glue that holds everything together.
Since he was a freshman coming off the bench for a team based around Carsen Edwards, Williams has generated and confidently taken shots in large quantities. Williams now fills an Edwards-like position in the Purdue attack, which he excels at. In addition to making a lot of 2s, the 6-10 senior had the team’s highest assist rate adjusted for floor time last season, and he was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country.
Last season was McCormack’s first without Udoka Azubuike on a KU team, and he responded to the challenge after a shaky start. He hit on 53 percent of his 2s and 83 percent of his line tries in Big 12 competition. Since Perry Ellis, Kansas hasn’t had a high-volume scorer who can also shoot free throws (and even he shot the occasional 3). If the 6-10 senior can stay out of foul trouble, he’ll be a serious contender for Big 12 Player of the Year.
In the face of a long-term reduction in offensive rebound rates throughout Division I, the number of head coaches willing to provide second chances is constantly shrinking. So give Tshiebwe credit for picking a good transfer location. The 6-9 junior has found one of the few individuals in the country who still loves offensive boards as much as Tshiebwe’s old coach, Bob Huggins, in John Calipari. Don’t be shocked if the newcomer from the United Kingdom leads or comes close to leading the country in offensive rebound rate.
Kelvin Sampson has prospered at UH by attracting players who reportedly “can’t” shoot and instead focus on grabbing offensive rebounds. Even Sampson, though, need at least one or two players who can shoot. Sasser and Quentin Grimes were those men last year in Houston. This year, Sasser will be joined by others who will be announced later. The 6-1 junior is a lifetime 82 percent free throw shooter, and he tried more 3s last season than anybody on this list besides Abmas.
After a 26-point explosion in Purdue’s otherwise ill-fated overtime defeat to North Texas in the round of 64, Ivey was already a guy to watch. Then, in the FIBA U19 World Cup, he had an even larger impression with colleagues like Holmgren, Patrick Baldwin Jr., and Kennedy Chandler. The 6-4 sophomore’s spectacular scoring combined with West Lafayette’s customary strong wall of size in the paint (see Williams and Zach Edey) will offer a challenge to the rest of the Big Ten.
Those who have trouble making free throws should not despair. Before last year, Aluma had a lifetime shooting percentage of 57 percent at the line, but he hit 72 percent of the time. The 6-9 junior, who began his career as a never-shoot freshman reserve at Wofford, has had a crazy trip. Mike Young, on the other hand, recognized potential in Aluma. Both are now at Virginia Tech, and Aluma has been selected to the Karl Malone Award watch list, which honors the year’s finest power forward.
Texas basketball fans who don’t make it a habit to watch Big Ten games are in for a treat. Carr, a former Minnesota Golden Gopher and a former Pitt Panther, is an ultimate fighter as a scoring point guard. Granted, he’s a fighter who was a member of a squad last season whose coach was quickly dismissed. Successes were so relative, but Carr’s 41-point avalanche with four steals against Nebraska was a show-stopper even in loss. In the Big 12, the 6-2 senior will make an impact.
Among players who played regular minutes last season, Jaquez was the most accurate Bruin from the field. Of course, the fact that he was playing a supporting position behind Juzang aided his accuracy, but the 6-6 junior’s performance so far indicates he might be in line for more touches. At the Final Four, Jaquez certainly gave Gonzaga all it could handle. His 19 points in support of Juzang’s 29 against the Bulldogs might be a sign of things to come.
Mayer, a senior who has never played more than 16 minutes a game in a season, does not have the track record that one would expect to find on this list. However, this senior came at the same time as a group of tough standouts who won the national championship in 2021 with fairly ease. Everything we’ve seen out of Mayer thus far, particularly his 17 points in 24 minutes against Wisconsin in the round of 32, shows he’ll be ready for his chance.
The players on this list who made three three-pointers per game on average last season belong to a very restricted group. There’s Abmas and there’s Boehiem. That is all there is to it. Over the span of three seasons, Boeheim has connected more than 200 times from beyond the arc. Last season, his perimeter scoring was the bright spot in an Orange attack that battled to find range from either side of the arc in ACC play (but did at least record a high volume of attempts).
When he’s not being Xavier’s tough 6-9 post scorer, Freemantle is the player who gained coach Travis Steele’s OK to shoot threes last season. The end result was 32 percent shooting from the perimeter, and Freemantle’s up-and-down record at the line over the last two seasons doesn’t help determine if he’ll improve from there. But if he does, it’ll be a major deal. While splitting featured-scorer responsibilities with Paul Scruggs, the junior is already a superb defensive rebounder who converts 59 percent of his 2s.
In Cattaraugus County, New York, the stakes are high. For the first time since 1971, St. Bonaventure is placed in the top 25, and the Bonnies are the A-10’s first unanimous preseason pick to win the conference in seven years. When you know your opponents aren’t going to make 2s, you tend to anticipate huge things. Last season, the A-10 completed fewer than 45 percent of its attempts inside the arc against SBU, which was primarily due to Osunniyi’s efforts. The 6-10 senior is a natural shot blocker who also knows how to remain on the court.
The “top 10 college basketball players 2021” is a ranking of the top 25 players in men’s college basketball for the 2021 season.
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