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Who are the best young professional athletes in all of sports?
To suggest that any player in any sport after just a few seasons is a lock to make the Hall of Fame is ridiculous. But it is always fun to look at athletes who have had instant success and try to extrapolate long-term potential.
Young star players give franchises hope of long-term success and, even greater still, young Olympians can give entire nation's reasons to cheer. How do you think Chinese fans felt about the remarkable performance of Tianlang Guan at Augusta National this spring? Or how proud Canadian fans are of Sydney Crosby's accomplishments in his first few seasons?
Needless to say, projecting future Hall of Famers are virtually impossible. But Athlon Sports has taken its best stab at which young professionals — ones who have debuted since 2010 — are the most likely to do so in their respective sports.
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
The Colts were 2-14 in 2011 and it landed them Mr. Luck. All the rookie QB did was win 11 games and return the franchise to the postseason. And he shattered every important rookie passing record along the way. His 4,374 yards, 627 attempts and six 300-yard passing efforts were all NFL rookie records. His 339 completions and 23 touchdown passes are second all-time for an NFL rookie. His set the single-game rookie passing record with 433 yards against Miami. He is the first QB taken No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft to make the playoffs as a rookie and his 11 wins were the most ever by a No. 1 pick as a rookie. His 54 attempts were an NFL rookie playoff record and his 268 yards passing against the eventual Super Bowl champs was second-best ever by a rookie. He was an elite top-100 recruit when he signed with Stanford. He was second in the Heisman voting two years in a row. And he just posted one of the best rookie seasons by an NFL QB ever. Canton might as well get the bust ready now.
2. Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing
At age 29, Keselowski isn't a spring chicken, however, his rookie season was just three years ago in 2010 and his instant success is impossible to ignore. The driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Penske Ford Fusion finished 25th in the points standings in his first season, fifth in his second year and became the defending Sprint Cup Champion after edging Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson for the title in just his third full season. Keselowski posted 24 top-five finishes and nine wins in just three full seasons in Sprint Cup competition. His refreshing yet old-school attitude as a driver is magnetic to the fans, media and, at times, other cars on the track. However, his raw driving talent is painfully obvious and is the reason for such lofty expectations. He is one of just three drivers to win the points championship in the last eight years. The list of potential future HOFers in NASCAR begins and ends with Brad-K, and should he continue to achieve at his current rate, an induction into the newly created NASCAR Hall of Fame is well within reach.
3. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco
There are few players who have ever had a better start to a career than Mr. Posey. He claimed NL Rookie of Year honors in 2010 and led the Giants to their first World Series championship since 1954. Then, after missing all but 162 at-bats of 2011 with an injury, he led the Giants to a second World Series title and claimed the NL MVP trophy last season. He is a career .312 hitter with an .887 OPS and just 203 strikeouts in 1,122 at-bats. He is the consummate professional and the face of a franchise that is positioned to make another run at the World Series and he was recently rewarded with a 9-year, $164 million contract.
4. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
The only reason Harper's own rookie season gets marginalized was Mike Trout's performance in the American League. Harper, who played all of last season at the age of 19, posted one of the best inaugural seasons in recent memory as well. He was an All-Star and earned NL Rookie of Year honors. He finished with 22 home runs, 18 stolen bases, 98 runs scored, 59 RBIs and a .270/.817 split at the plate. And to start his second season, Harper went deep twice on Opening Day. He is well on his way to destroying his rookie marks in 2013 and should play in his second All-Star game still at the age of 20 years old. Harper could easily lead the majors in home runs or OPS as just a second-year player. It's Hall of Fame or bust for a player who made his Sports Illustrated cover debut at 16 and made his second appearance before turning 21.
5. Missy Franklin, US Swimming
Mark Spitz set the world record when we won seven Gold medals at the 1972 Summer Olympics. A mark he held until Michael Phelps took home eight Gold medals in the 2008 summer games in Beijing. At age 17, Franklin won four Golds and five total medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. With those four Golds, she is already tied for 50th all-time in total Gold medals won in Olympic history and a repeat performance in 2016 would make her one of just 12 athletes all-time to land eight Golds. Phelps has set himself apart from the rest of his Olympic peers with his all-time world record of 18 Golds medals. Franklin could easily make a run at that record and would finish no worse than second all-time in Gold medals earned with two more productive summer games. She will have the opportunity to compete in three more Summer Olympics before she turns 30.
6. Mike Trout, OF, LA Angels
What else is there to be said of Trout's rookie season in the majors? He was an All-Star, he won the AL Rookie of the Year award, led the league in runs (129) and stolen bases (49), earned a Silver Slugger honor and finished second in MVP voting behind the first Triple Crown winner in more than 50 years. He finished with a .326 average, .963 OPS, hit 30 home runs and drove in 83. With a 10.0 WAR, it was the greatest rookie season in the history of the sport — right ahead of Joe Jackson's 9.7 WAR in 1911. And, oh by the way, he did all of this at age 20. Yeah, his ticket might already be punched for Cooperstown.
7. Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans
The 6-foot-10, 220-pounder entered the NBA as the consensus can’t-miss No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. After posting the No. 3-rated freshman season in the history of college basketball, Davis and his trademarked unibrow debuted for the Hornets in style. He posted 21 points and seven rebounds in his first NBA game against Sacramento. He finished his first full season starting 60 of the 64 games he played, shooting 51.6-percent from the floor and 75.1-percent from the line. His per game rookie stat line is one of the best in recent memory: 13.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.8 bpg, 1.2 spg on 10.6 shots per game. Efficiency and defense is the name of game for this potential Hall of Famer.
8. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
From pizza boy tight end to Big Ten Rose Bowl star to first-round NFL Draft pick to NFL rookie of the year candidate to NFL Defensive Player of the Year. That is the career trajectory for the massive defensive end. The former Wisconsin Badgers end has started all but one of 32 possible career NFL games and made history by returning an interception for a touchdown in his first postseason game (which helped produce Houston’s first-ever postseason win). He led the NFL in sacks with 20.5 a year ago and made his first Pro Bowl (where he caught a touchdown as a wide receiver). Through two seasons, he has 149 total tackles, 26.0 sacks, 20 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and been a part of two division championships.
9. Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland
Coming out of St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder was one of the nation’s top five prospects. He was electric in the first eight games of his Duke career, leading the team in scoring, before hurting his right foot. Irving returned for the NCAA Tournament, scoring 28 points in his final game against Arizona. He left Duke after 11 career games to be the first overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft on a LeBron-less Cavaliers team. After averaging 18.5 points on 46.8 percent shooting to go with 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds in 51 games, Irving claimed 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year honors. And after an equally impressive second year, Irving appears to only be getting better. He finished this season by averaging 22.5 points on 45.9 percent shooting to go with 5.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. And he just turned 21 in March.
10. Tianlang Guan, Golf
The 14-year old phenom captured the hearts of golf fans all over the world this spring at The Masters. Guan (14 years, five months) shattered Matteo Manassero's PGA Tour record (16 years, two months) for the youngest player to ever make a cut. And he did so at the world's toughest course in Augusta National. Tiger Woods and others have praised the young golfer's poise and calm demeanor. As long as he grows out of his slow style of play, there is no reason to think Guan won't be the next young superstar on the PGA Tour.
11. AJ Green, WR, Cincinnati
Few players have ever started their career like Green. The superstar talent from Georgia was one of the most coveted pass-catchers in the nation as both a recruit and draft pick. He was one of the SEC's all-time bests and all he has done in two NFL seasons is catch 162 passes for 2,407 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Bengals have reached the postseason in each of his two seasons and Green made the Pro Bowl both times. He is an elite red zone target, can stretch the field and has tremendous open field ability as well. He is the complete package at wide receiver.
12. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound floor leader from Oakland, Calif., was a proven commodity the second he stepped on a college court. He led Weber State to a conference title as a freshman before earning Big Sky Player of the Year honors twice in his career. It led to the Trail Blazers selecting him with the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He promptly posted a double-double (23 pts, 11 asts) in his rookie debut and was excellent throughout his first NBA season. Lillard was Rookie of the Month six times and was a runaway Rookie of the Year winner in 2012-13. He started all 82 games and finished with this statline: 17.8 ppg, 6.0 apg, 2.9 rpg, 0.8 spg on 42.9 percent shooting.
13. Julio Jones, WR Atlanta
Forever linked with A.J. Green as fellow 2008 five-star recruits to sign in the SEC, Jones is just as athletic and talented as the Bengals pass-catcher. He helped lead Alabama to a national championship as a sophomore in 2009 and forced the Falcons to trade away multiple picks across two drafts to trade up and get Jones with the sixth overall pick. He has caught 133 passes for 2,157 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first two seasons earning his first Pro Bowl invite in 2012. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Jones is a special talent and is poised for a long and productive career with Matt Ryan throwing him passes.
14. Matt Kalil, OT, Minnesota
The top tackle taken in the 2012 NFL Draft has played from Game 1 for the much-improved Vikings. The former USC All-American started all 16 games as a rookie and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl because of it. He paved the way for Adrian Peterson's run at Eric Dickerson's all-time rushing record and helped return the Vikings to the postseason. He was a coveted prospect in high school, had a great college career and appears to be a lockdown bookend tackle for Minnesota. Having an All-Pro older brother (Ryan) and professional football father (Frank) has certainly helped as well. According to Football Outsiders, Kalil allowed just two sacks in his first 721 NFL snaps.
15. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta
He is the most dominant major league reliever on the planet. The flame-throwing Braves closer won the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and is the only player in MLB to have posted at least 40 saves in each of the last two seasons — a feat he should accomplish again in 2013. He allowed just 25 earned runs in his first two seasons as Atlanta's closer (139.2 IP, 1.61 ERA). The 25-year old (May 28) is a two-time All-Star who finished ninth and fifth respectively in the Cy Young voting the last two seasons and was eighth in the MVP race a year ago.
16. Blake Griffin, PF, LA Clippers
It took the Oklahoma Sooner an extra year to get to the NBA court after sitting out his first season with a knee injury, but he has quickly become one of the most dominant forces in the league. His athletic ability is second to none as massive dunks and demoralizing blocks are a part of his regular routine. He averaged a double-double in his first two seasons — 22.5 ppg, 12.1 rpg and 20.7 ppg, 10.9 rbg — and this season helped lead the Clippers to their first postseason berth since 2005 and only the franchise's second playoff run since 1996. His numbers dropped a touch in his third consecutive All-Star season — 18.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg — but his career stat line is still absurd. Through 228 career games Griffin is averaging 20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 52.9 percent shooting.
17. Taylor Hall, LW, Edmonton
The can't-miss No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Hall posted back-to-back 20-goal seasons in his first two years in the pros — at age 19 and 20. In his third season this year, Hall finished ninth in the league in points (50), seventh in assists (7), fifth in power play goals (15) and seventh in points per game (1.11). He has helped the Oilers improve their winning percentage in each of his three seasons (.378 to .451 to .469).
18. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington
Ever since Bob Costas called his memorable, nationally hyped debut with 14 strikeouts over seven innings against Pittsburgh, Strasburg has been a star. Despite missing all but five starts of his second season due to Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has been virtually perfect. His first three seasons featured only 45 starts but his numbers are electric: 21-10, 2.94/1.09, 251.1 IP, 313 K. He even won a Silver Slugger award during that span as well. The flame-thrower has done nothing but live up to his extremely lofty expectations as the No. 1 overall pick out of San Diego State in 2009.
19. Matt Harvey, SP, NY Mets
The only other pitcher creating as much buzz as Strasburg is the Mets' flame-throwing righty from the University of North Carolina. Through 18 career starts, Harvey has a career ERA of 2.10 and 132 strikeouts in 115.2 innings. He has an effortless motion, excellent mechanics, a great mound demeanor and a filthy four-pitch arsenal. He has 12 quality starts in 18 trips to the bump and has allowed more than three runs in a start just once in his career.
20. Gabby Douglas, Gymnastics
Much like Franklin, Douglas earned her way into the hearts and minds of the nation following her impressive performance in London's 2012 Summer Olympics. At age 16, she became the first American woman gymnast to win the Gold medal for individual all-around competition and the first woman of color from any nationality to win the all-around Gold. She also helped lead the US to a team Gold in London and has posted gold podium finishes in the 2011 Tokyo World Championships and 2012 Pacific Rim Championships as well. She is poised for two more US Olympic showings before she turns 25.
21. Tyler Seguin, C, Boston
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft (Taylor Hall), Seguin took little time developing into one of the game's best. The All-Star centerman helped lead the Bruins to a Stanley Cup title as just a rookie in 2010-11 and exploded for 67 points as a second-year player the following season. He played in all 48 games this season and has finished second (+34) and seventh (+23) in Plus/Minus rating the last two seasons. Seguin has never missed the playoffs in his brief three-year career.
22. Mike Iupati, OG, San Francisco
The Niners have seen a remarkable turnaround under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Much of that can be attributed to what might be the best offensive line in the league. Iupati, taken 17th overall in the 2010 draft, has started every single game of his NFL career and has watched the 49ers' rushing attack flourish. After averaging 103.6 yards per game in 2010, SanFran rushed for 127.8 yards per game in 2011 and finished No. 4 in the NFL in rushing in 2013 (155.7). The 6-foot-5, 330-pound mauler helped the 49ers return to the Super Bowl and should be a mainstay in the Bay Area for years to come.
23. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington
The biggest issue with RG3 won’t be his accuracy, ability to protect the football, win games or produce big numbers. It will be his ability to stay healthy long enough to earn Hall of Fame status. He, like Luck, is a great leader who sets an example for all of those around him. Yet, his style of play has already proven to be a concern as he takes entirely too many hits. He has already missed time due to a concussion as well as a twisted knee. Despite these injuries, he led the Skins to a 10-6 mark and postseason berth last season, breaking Cam Newton's rookie QB rushing record in the process.
24. Kyle Larson, Earnhardt-Ganassi
The 20-year old phenom won the K&N Pro Series East in just his first full year racing stock cars in 2012 after growing up in the cockpit of all things open-wheel. The EGR developmental driver has quickly moved his way up the pro ranks, leap-frogging the Camping World Truck Series, and landing directly in the Nationwide Series in 2013 for Turner Scott Motorsports. In just eight races in the No. 32 Turner Chevrolet Camaro, Larson is 12th in the points — due mostly to two crashes — has posted three top 10s and finished runner-up at hallowed Bristol Motorspeedway. His meteoric rise through the sport could land him in a full-time ride at the highest level in a matter of months rather than years.
25. Mark McMorris, Snowboarding
Throwing some love to the alternative sports, McMorris has taken the snowboarding world by storm of late. The 19-year old Canadian is the two-time reigning Winter X Games Slopestyle Gold Medalist (2012-13) and also claimed the 2012 Big Air Gold at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., last year. He has defeated Shaun White by executing unprecedented tricks and wowing fans around North America, garnering comparisons to the Hall of Fame American rider. He won the Slopestyle Silver at the 2013 FIS Snowboarding World Championships.
Best of the Rest (alphabetically):
Harrison Barnes, G, Golden State (NBA)
Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs (MLB)
Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati (MLB)
Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing (NASCAR)
Ty Dillon, Richard Childress Racing (NASCAR)
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England (NFL)
Jonathan Huberdeau, C, Florida (NHL)
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina (NFL)
Gabriel Landeskog, W, Colorado (NHL)
Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore (MLB)
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NY Giants (NFL)
Aldon Smith, DE, San Francisco (NFL)
Vladimir Tarasenko, RW, St. Louis (NHL)