This might be the most difficult year for a freshman to assimilate into the college basketball environment. Teams are stopping and starting with COVID concerns. Games are being postponed and rescheduled. Everything has become uncertain and unidentifiable.
Despite that, there is a crop of freshmen succeeding across Division I, in a variety of roles. Some of those players will be one-and-done prospects off to the NBA, while others are building a foundation for a fantastic college career.
These five names have jumped out as the best first year performers in college hoops this season.
5. Evan Mobley, USC
No freshman has been more hot-and-cold that USC’s Evan Mobley. On some nights, the seven-footer looks like a future NBA All-Star and one of college basketball’s most mind-blowing talents. That was on full display in a 19-point, 13-rebound, six-block night at Arizona State. That wasn’t his only six-block game or his only 13-rebound outing, either. On some nights, he pops off the screen.
In other games, he disappears. In a home game against Utah, Mobley didn’t attempt a shot from the floor in 31 minutes. He shot 5-14 with 5 turnovers against Colorado. He had just 11 points against a Cal Baptist team he should have dominated and managed only 3 rebounds in 30 minutes against Washington State.
If the Trojan coaching staff can kick Mobley’s motor on for the month of March, he could make USC a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
4. Hunter Dickinson, Michigan
There may not be a more efficient player in the nation than Michigan’s freshman center. The seven-foot Maryland native leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, and two-point shooting percentage. He’s making 70% of his looks inside the arc, on nearly nine such attempts per game.
While the Wolverines are still on pause due to a school wide athletics shutdown, they remain in the hunt for the Big Ten title and a top seed in March. Dickinson has been the steadiest piece of Juwan Howard’s roster and gives Michigan a real chance to fight its way to the Final Four.
3. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
There’s really no competition in the race to be the top pick in June’s NBA Draft. It’s Cunningham’s spot to lose, no matter which team is pulling the trigger with the first selection. The 6-foot-8 freshman functionally acts as Oklahoma State’s point guard and runs the entire Cowboy offense. He is averaging 18.2 points, 3.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds this season, shooting 47% from the field, and 39% from long range.
Cunningham is the most difficult matchup in the nation, too tall to be stopped by a guard, and far too quick and agile for a big man to stop.
2. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Suggs has ridden a bit of a roller coaster already in his debut season at the college level. When he burst on the scene in November, he looked like a candidate for National Player of the Year and was the main reason Gonzaga separated itself as the best team in college basketball. As teams have scouted Suggs and adjusted to his style of play, things have changed.
Suggs was a force when he first stepped on the court, attacking all over the offensive end of the floor, including from outside the arc. He made over 55% of his long-range attempts in his first five games. His shooting has cooled off considerably; he’s made just 23% of his threes in his ten most recent games.
Suggs has not let that shooting dip mire his entire game. He’s still using his athleticism to affect the game. Offensively, he penetrates defenses with a strong first step and gets downhill, opening up passing lanes for teammates. On the defensive end, Suggs is a pest, nabbing more than two steals per game in January.
He may not be Gonzaga’s best player or go-to-guy, but Suggs raises the Zags ceiling. His athleticism is a weapon that nearly no college team is prepared to handle.
1. Sharife Cooper, Auburn
Auburn was a very mediocre team to start the season. Over the Tigers’ first 11 games, Auburn was 6-5, with only one win over a top-100 team, per KenPom. When freshman Sharife Cooper was ruled eligible by the NCAA, Auburn’s outlook totally shifted. He’s been more than a sparkplug. Cooper has fully overhauled everything Auburn does offensively. If he had enough minutes to qualify for statistics, he’d lead the nation in usage rate, assist rate, and assists per game while scoring 21.3 points per game.
With Cooper running the show offensively, Auburn has shifted from a team that plays at a standard pace to the fastest team in college basketball. He attacks the paint with lightning quickness, using high level court vision to exploit the holes in a defense. Even against No. 2 Baylor, Cooper had his worst game to date and posted 15 points, seven rebounds, and five assists.
Unfortunately, Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban this season, meaning Cooper won’t be able to shake things up in March Madness. Thankfully, he’s flying up NBA Draft boards and should bring some excitement to the next level as soon as next year.