Ranking the top 25 players in women's college basketball 2020-21

There are plenty of things about the 2020-21 women's college basketball season that will be out of anyone's control. Playing a season amid a pandemic creates unprecedented challenges.

But there are always a few people in any college basketball season who have a little more control than their peers over what happens once a ball is tipped. The best players in the country remain the best players in the country.

Who will star in a season unlike any other? After tallying the votes from Charlie Creme, Graham Hays and Mechelle Voepel, ESPN ranked the best 25 players in the nation.

1. Rhyne Howard

We've grown accustomed to it because of Kelsey Mitchell, Kelsey Plum and Megan Gustafson, but it isn't all that common for the nation's leading scorer to play in a Power 5 conference. The nation's leading returning scorer isn't likely to score any less this season, even as the Wildcats adjust to a new coach and some new supporting characters. She's a 6-foot-2 guard who was among the best in the SEC a season ago at both getting to the free throw line and hitting 3-pointers, a good indication of the impossible choices opponents face when defending her. -- Graham Hays

2. Aari McDonald

  • Arizona Wildcats | G | 5-foot-6 | senior

  • 2019-20 stats: 20.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.6 APG

McDonald begins the season with more career points than anyone who will see the court. She is also the reigning Pac-12 defensive player of the year. That more or less sums up the scope of her influence on the Arizona program to date and hints at why she is one of a handful of players with the ability to influence the championship race. The only thing missing at this point is a consistent 3-point shot. Given her extreme efficiency in every other realm, that, too, might come. -- Graham Hays

3. Michaela Onyenwere

  • UCLA Bruins | F | 6-foot-0 | senior

  • 2019-20 stats: 18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG

Onyenwere has become a wonderfully complete offensive player through her time at UCLA, even developing a 3-point shot the past two seasons. She scores off the dribble, in transition, on midrange catch-and-shoots or through second-chance points. And she does it all with an almost lava-like energy, relentlessly moving toward the basket with her long stride and long arms seeking out open spaces in the defense. Even more maddening for opponents is they can't risk putting an 81% career free throw shooter on the line. -- Graham Hays

If opponents are going to figure out how to slow Boston in her second college season, they didn't leave any clues toward the end of her freshman season. She got better as her debut campaign progressed, increasing her scoring and rebounding against the SEC portion of South Carolina's schedule. Label her a forward, a center or whatever you like, she is a reminder that a dominant post presence still has a place in the college game. That's especially true when the person exhibiting that presence also shoots 80% from the free throw line. -- Graham Hays

5. Dana Evans

Absent from this list a year ago, Evans then turned in what might have been the most individually surprising season in the country. She went from coming off the bench -- she was the ACC sixth player of the year as a sophomore -- to the league's best player and the leader on a team that won 28 games. Evans' improvement came in every facet of her game, but her long-range shooting is what stands out the most. The Cardinals have plenty of talent to be a national title contender again, but that all starts with Evans. -- Charlie Creme

6. Elissa Cunane

NC State was already on the rise under Wes Moore before Cunane arrived in Raleigh three years ago. She has helped take the program to yet another level. Last spring, the Wolfpack won their first ACC tournament title since 1991, and their 28 wins each of Cunane's two seasons are the most for NC State since 1980. Her 16 double-doubles led the ACC, and she was second in the conference in free throw attempts (201). The added strength Cunane put on during the offseason could improve both of those numbers and NC State's Final Four chances. -- Charlie Creme

7. NaLyssa Smith

She was the leading scorer as a sophomore for a team that produced three WNBA draft picks a season ago. She filled in flawlessly as a freshman when Lauren Cox went down with an injury in the national championship game. It seems like a stretch to think Smith is suddenly going to shrink from the spotlight as a junior without Te'a Cooper, Cox and Juicy Landrum around. She makes herself a mismatch in the post, quicker and more agile than bigger bodies and too strong for anyone her size to contain her. -- Graham Hays

8. Kiana Williams

There aren't many guards good enough to be the center of the universe for a successful team. There might be even fewer who can leave that glory to others, all the while knowing it could be them. Good enough to average 20 points per game for a lot of programs, Williams nonetheless plays within the system for one of the deepest teams in the country. At 34 minutes per game a season ago, she was the constant for the Cardinal. -- Graham Hays

9. Ashley Joens

No one else in the country averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game a season ago. And in a conference stocked with post presences, it's not as if Joens was piling up numbers against small-time competition. She played through a dislocated shoulder and got to the free throw line more often than all but two players in Division I (shooting 82% while there), but consider her an undersized forward at your own peril. Give her the ball coming off a screen or spotting up for 3 and she shows the versatility that sets her apart. -- Graham Hays

10. Christyn Williams

  • UConn Huskies | G | 5-foot-11 | junior

  • 2019-20 stats: 14.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.3 APG

By the standards of most programs and players, the season Williams had a year ago would have been considered excellent. But UConn is not most programs and Williams does not consider herself most players. It was not the season she wanted, as inconsistent shooting led to a crisis of confidence and lack of aggressiveness. By all accounts an offseason of reflection has corrected all of those areas and Williams is ready to be the steady star her talent indicates she should be. -- Charlie Creme

11. Destiny Slocum

No player in recent memory is as well-traveled among big-time programs as Slocum. Now on her third stop after a season at Maryland and two at Oregon State, Slocum has remained consistent in one area -- her talents as a point guard. She is a multi-dimensional scorer and a smart distributor. Perhaps the allure of Mike Neighbors' up-tempo style at Arkansas was too attractive to pass up, prompting another transfer, because it is a system in which Slocum should thrive. -- Charlie Creme

12. Rennia Davis

Not everything is the same as it was during the glory years in Knoxville, Tennessee, but Davis is very much a Lady Vol for any era. On and off the court, where she graduated in three years and piled up academic accolades along the way, she's as versatile as they come. Not altogether unlike Rhyne Howard up the road in Lexington, Kentucky, Davis is able to use her frame and range to create headaches on the perimeter, while still leading her team in rebounding. She deserves a trip to the Sweet 16 before her time at Tennessee is done. -- Graham Hays

13. Rickea Jackson

A year ago, Jackson was an uncertain freshman with so much to learn about the college game, scoring a mere two points in 27 minutes in her debut. By the premature end to last season, she was Mississippi State's best player, good enough to score 29 points and grab 10 rebounds in an SEC tournament semifinal against Kentucky. With more confidence and the natural improvement that typically comes in a sophomore season, Jackson will become one of the country's most dominant frontcourt players. -- Charlie Creme

14. Paige Bueckers

  • UConn Huskies | G | 5-foot-11 | freshman

  • 2019-20 stats: N/A (was in high school)

She hasn't played a college game yet, but the résumé already looks full: 2020 Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year, Naismith Prep Player of the Year, three-time Minnesota Player of the Year. Perhaps most impressive, she has already received praise from coach Geno Auriemma about her play in practice. That's quite an accomplishment for a freshman in Storrs. Her court vision and passing talents should stand out immediately. Most expect Bueckers and her good friend Azzi Fudd, the top-ranked recruit for 2021 who arrives next year, will take the Huskies to their next era of dominance. -- Charlie Creme

15. Arella Guirantes

We can't know how long Rutgers would have lasted in the NCAA tournament last spring, but Guirantes made clear throughout the season that she was ready for such a national showcase. After starting her college career at Texas Tech and filling an ensemble role in her first season on the court for Rutgers, she emerged last season as one of the most dependable go-to players in the Big Ten. She dramatically increased her 3-point efficiency and got to the free throw line more often than anyone in the league. -- Graham Hays

16. Evina Westbrook

  • UConn Huskies | G | 6-foot-0 | junior

  • 2018-19 stats: 14.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 5.3 APG

For someone who last played an NCAA game on March 23, 2019, it has been an eventful past 20 months. Westbrook's departure from Tennessee included some controversy, she was denied immediate eligibility at UConn last fall and has had two knee surgeries. Now healthy and settled into her new home, Westbrook immediately becomes a leader on a Huskies' team that has six freshmen and two sophomores. As the Lady Vols' starting point guard two seasons ago, Westbrook led Tennessee in scoring and assists, playing with an edge and competitiveness that should fit in well at UConn. -- Charlie Creme

17. Lindsey Pulliam

Excluding UConn's final romp through the American Athletic Conference, no player whose team won or shared a major conference championship a season ago averaged more points per game than Pulliam. And while her field goal percentage (38.6% in 2019-20) won't necessarily wow you, her ball control and 3-point efficiency (42-for-120) make her much more than merely a volume shooter. The Wildcats were one of college basketball's best stories last season, and you couldn't write the story without her growth into a star. -- Graham Hays

18. Chelsea Dungee

It sometimes feels as if an occasionally erratic shot from her is the only hope of salvation for opponents. And 46 wins in the past two seasons suggest that remains only the slimmest of hopes. Dungee got to the free throw line 464 times the past two seasons, which is almost as often as some entire Division I teams. That gives you some sense of how difficult it is to stay in front of her when she picks up a head of steam. And she's fearless enough and accurate enough from the 3-point line to punish defenses that give her space. -- Graham Hays

19. Zia Cooke

She didn't even need the NCAA tournament to set a program record for starts by a freshman, which tells you what Dawn Staley thinks of her. Cooke led South Carolina in field goal and free throw attempts a season ago, but she'll likely shoulder even more substantial responsibility this season. That shouldn't be a problem. She's cut from the same mold as an Asia Durr or Arike Ogunbowale, not necessarily a point guard but a playmaker in whose hands you want the ball as often as possible. -- Graham Hays

20. Unique Thompson

  • Auburn Tigers | F | 6-foot-3 | senior

  • 2019-20 stats: 16.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 58.2% FG

This hasn't been the easiest stretch in the history of Auburn basketball. But whether putting up 24 points and 11 rebounds while pushing Mississippi State to overtime or scoring 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting in a win against LSU, Thompson is unbowed in the storm. Defenses must respect her midrange touch, but her comfort in the paint sets her apart. Like an old local who knows all the shortcuts, she has the footwork and long stride to get to the basket with no more than one dribble from anywhere in the lane. -- Graham Hays

21. Haley Jones

  • Stanford Cardinal | G | 6-foot-1 | sophomore

  • 2019-20 stats: 11.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 52.8% FG

We list her as a guard because Stanford lists her as a guard, but part of what makes Jones so valuable is she can play every position -- or even make positional designations largely meaningless. While an injury cut short her freshman season midway through January, last year's No. 1 recruit had enough time to show she was as good as advertised. Fully recovered, she should influence just about everything Stanford does this season. -- Graham Hays

22. Kiara Lewis

  • Syracuse Orange | G | 5-foot-8 | senior

  • 2019-20 stats: 17.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.7 APG

Lewis was forced to do much of the heavy lifting for the Orange a year ago, yet she thrived under difficult circumstances. This season the averages might not be as high, but Lewis could be more efficient now that she has more help. The 37.7 minutes per game Lewis played likely had plenty to do with the dip in her shooting accuracy (34.8 3-point percentage as sophomore to 27.5% last season). With Tiana Mangakahia back in the lineup at point guard, Lewis can move off the ball and her accuracy should improve. -- Charlie Creme

23. Micaela Kelly

As last season began, it wasn't obvious how Central Michigan could remain competitive while replacing Reyna Frost and Presley Hudson. Well, the Chippewas were 23-7 and likely headed to the NCAA tournament when last season shut down, and that tells you all you need to know about Kelly. A complementary presence in her first two seasons, she emerged as one of the NCAA's best offensive players in 2019-20. She scored or assisted on nearly 50% of the team's field goals, while also earning nearly 40% of its free throw attempts. -- Graham Hays

24. Naz Hillmon

This spot might sell the Big Ten preseason player of the year short, but the more important and undisputed consensus is that Michigan has one of the best players in the country. Perhaps its best ever, Katelynn Flaherty, Stacey Thomas, Hallie Thome and others notwithstanding. Among the most impressive parts of her game is that someone so good with her back to the basket on the low block -- so relentless inside that she led the Big Ten in offensive rebounds -- was still second on the team in assists as a sophomore. -- Graham Hays

25. Ali Patberg

  • Indiana Hoosiers | G | 5-foot-11 | sixth-year senior

  • Stats: 15.6 PPG, 5.3 APG, 4.6 RPG

It was a long journey for Patberg, who was ranked three spots behind Arike Ogunbowale in her recruiting class way back when but sat out as a transfer and battled injuries. She has carved a place for herself at Indiana as one of the most important players in program history. She ranked in the top seven in the Big Ten a season ago in scoring, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, free throw percentage and even field goal percentage -- the only guard included in that last group. All while playing with the sustained intensity of someone who waited for her time to come. -- Graham Hays