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Top 25 Athletes Under 25

Geoff RatliffContributor IIIJanuary 17, 2017

Top 25 Athletes Under 25

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    If the problem with youth is that it’s wasted on the young, that certainly is not true in the case of these young stars. But as one might expect from such a talented group, most of these athletes have yet to hit their prime, so we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. 

    While they have achieved varying levels of team success or individual accolades, these 25 athletes have all performed well enough to be recognized as some of the best in the world under the age of 25.

25. Tim Tebow, Quarterback, New York Jets, 24

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    Tim Tebow had perhaps the greatest college football career ever, setting the all-time Division I rushing touchdown record while leading the University of Florida to two BCS national championships.  

    Despite low expectations, he then followed that up by leading the Denver Broncos to an improbable seven straight wins, an AFC West title and a shocking upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime of the 2011 AFC wild card round. 

    So how can Jesus’ brother rank so low on this list? Because this list is as much about projected future performance as it is previous accomplishments, and Tebow, by his own admission, may never get another chance to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

24. Epiphanny Prince, Forward, WNBA, 24

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    Epiphanny Prince has long been known as an offensive machine. She first gained national attention when she scored 113 points in a high school basketball game, breaking the record previously held by women's hoops legend Cheryl Miller. 

    Now a star forward for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, Prince is still lighting up opponents, leading the league with 25.3 PPG through seven games this season.

23. Michelle Wie, Golfer, LPGA, 22

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    Michelle Wie has generally failed to live up to unrealistic expectations since making her LPGA debut at 15. Her talent was never in question, but it’s now clear that she was ill-equipped to handle such colossal expectations at such a young age. 

    Still only 22, Wie seems to have benefited greatly from following the blueprint of Tiger Woods, spending the last three years as a college student at Stanford. 

    The LPGA talent pool has gotten a lot deeper since Wie’s debut, but she still has a bright future ahead of her.

22. Giancarlo Stanton, Outfielder, Miami Marlins, 22

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    Well before he made his major league debut in 2010, Mike Stanton impressed baseball scouts with his prodigious power. Upon joining the Miami Marlins in June of 2010, he immediately delivered on that promise, launching 22 home runs in only 359 at-bats during his rookie season. 

    After launching 34 more bombs in his first full season, and revealing that he would prefer to be called by his given first name, Giancarlo, Stanton has continued to be among the league leaders in home runs. He's also become a more complete hitter, sporting a .293 batting average through 64 games played in 2012.

21. Alex Morgan, Forward, U.S. Women's Soccer, 22

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    Alex Morgan is the present and future of United States women’s soccer, and is poised to put her exceptional talents on display in London this summer.

    The soon-to-be 23-year-old forward is the best American women’s player, and is poised to make the summer Olympics her official coming-out party.

20. LeSean McCoy, Running Back, Philadelphia Eagles, 23

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    On a team full of dynamic offensive weapons, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy may be the most important player to the team’s success. 

    Quarterback Michael Vick and wide receiver DeSean Jackson may provide the biggest highlights and most breathtaking plays, but McCoy provided plenty of sizzle of his own on his way to an NFC-best 1,300 rushing yards and an NFL-best 23 touchdowns in 2011.

    Look for the former University of Pittsburgh star to dominate opposing defenses again this year as he tries to lead the Eagles back to the playoffs.

19. Caroline Wozniacki, Women’s Tennis, WTA, 21

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    Caroline Wozniacki shot to the forefront of women’s tennis when she became the WTA’s No. 1 ranked player in early 2011, six months shy of turning 21. 

    She has since fallen to No. 7 after a rough start to 2012 that included a premature third-round exit from last week’s French Open.  

    Wozniacki is still a month away from turning 22, and with her boyfriend (Irish golfer Rory McIlroy) already owning a Major championship, she’s likely motivated to get some hardware of her own in the very near future.

18. Anthony Davis, Center, New Orleans Hornets (?), 19

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    If Anthony Davis doesn’t go to the New Orleans Hornets with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft later this month, then the fix is definitely in. 

    The consensus college basketball National Player of the Year, Davis led a green, but talented, Kentucky team to the NCAA Championship this past spring, the first for head coach John Calipari. 

    The ultra-athletic center now leads a top-heavy draft class, and may soon make New Orleanians forget about the Chris Paul era.

17. Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington Redskins, 22

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    The Washington Redskins traded away everything but the team nickname and logo in a pre-draft deal with the St. Louis Rams that brought them the No. 2 overall pick, and the right to select Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Baylor University. 

    The former NCAA Track & Field champion has wide receiver-type speed to go along with his prolific right arm, reminding many of a shorter, faster version of Carolina Panthers quarterback, and fellow Heisman Trophy winner, Cam Newton. 

    No wonder some experts believe he’ll have a better NFL career than Andrew Luck.

16. Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts, 22

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    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck would have a tough enough time carrying the burden of being the most highly-touted quarterback prospect since John Elway. But he now has the unenviable task of replacing another sure-fire Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning, who’s now in Denver hoping to help the Broncos win their first NFL title since Elway retired.

    The No. 1 pick in this past April’s NFL draft, Luck will begin his post-Stanford career as the unquestioned starter from day one. He may not be expected to do much right away with the Colts clearly in rebuilding mode, but since some consider No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III the better long-term prospect, Luck won’t have the luxury of breaking into the position slowly.

15. Matthew Stafford, Quarterback, Detroit Lions, 24

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    Matthew Stafford’s path to NFL stardom was delayed after he suffered a shoulder injury that cost him a majority of the 2010 season, his second in the league. But the former No. 1 draft pick bounced back in a major way in 2011. 

    Stafford (5,038) joined Drew Brees and Tom Brady as one of the only quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards last season, and just the fourth in NFL history to do so, along with former single-season record holder Dan Marino.  

    He added 41 touchdown passes—which was good for third-best in the NFL last year—while leading the Detroit Lions to a 10-6 regular-season record, and the franchise's first playoff berth since 1999.

14. Bryce Harper, Outfielder, Washington Nationals, 19

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    Since gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old, the baseball world has been on pins and needles waiting to see what Bryce Harper would do once he finally stepped into a major league batting box. 

    As he’s done his entire career, Harper has outperformed even the most optimistic expectations while helping the Washington Nationals stay on top of the NL East standings.  

    Well before reaching the majors, Harper alienated many who work in and follow baseball with his cocky attitude. Since arriving in the show, he’s been nothing but a model citizen, displaying the type of hard-nosed, never-slow-down style of play that should eventually win over even his harshest critics.

13. Mike Trout, Outfielder, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 20

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    Mike Trout may be a couple months shy of drinking age, but I’m sure that Angels fans are already drunk off of his talent.

    After getting his feet wet with the Angels during an uneven 40-game call up in 2011, Trout has blazed through the American League since being recalled in late April, and the team’s fortunes have turned around as a result.

    Trout’s .341 batting average would rank second in the AL if he had enough plate appearances to be eligible for the batting title. He’s also stolen 16 bases, while slugging six home runs and playing outstanding defense in center field. 

    If he keeps this up, Trout could win both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. That’ll make quite a story during his first trip to the bar.

12. Stephen Strasburg, Pitcher, Washington Nationals, 23

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    Coming out of San Diego State University as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 MLB draft, Stephen Strasburg was the most talked-about pitching prospect since Mark Prior. 

    His 2010 season was cut short by an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, so Strasburg has only made 30 major league starts in his young career, but oh how good those starts have been.

11. Steven Stamkos, Wing, Tampa Bay Lightning, 22

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    Since being selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2008 NHL draft, Steven Stamkos has quickly established himself as hockey’s top goal scorer. 

    He already has two 50-goal seasons to his credit, including an NHL and career-high 60 this past season. Stamkos has also proven to be durable thus far, playing in all 82 in each of the past three seasons.

10. Blake Griffin, Power Forward, Los Angeles Clippers, 23

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    Blake Griffin’s NBA debut was delayed by a year when he broke his right kneecap during the final preseason game of the 2009-2010 season. When he finally debuted for the Los Angeles Clippers the next year, he wasted no time imposing his will on defenseless rims around the league.

    Griffin has average 21.7 and 11.5 rebounds through his first two seasons, and has provided enough highlight reel dunks to build a substantial boxed set. 

    More important than the numbers, Griffin has not missed a game during the two seasons since his knee injury, and he, along with point guard Chris Paul, helped lead the Clippers back to the NBA playoffs, including a first-round victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

9. Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers, 23

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    Who saw this coming? Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton surprised football fans once when he lit the college football world on fire in 2010 while leading the Auburn Tigers to a BCS title and winning the Heisman Trophy. 

    That wasn’t enough to stop many analysts from predicting that Newton would struggle while transitioning to the NFL game, but he quickly proved them wrong by having arguably the best rookie season of any quarterback in NFL history.

    He broke Peyton Manning’s rookie record for passing yards with 4,051, and the single-season mark for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 14, all the while leading the Panthers to a better-than-expected 6-10 record. 

    At this rate, Michael Jordan may recruit Newton to help save the Charlotte Bobcats.

8. Rory Mcllroy, Golfer, PGA, 23

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    Rory McIlroy has struggled to take the next step to super-stardom since winning last year’s United States Open. But with golf’s obsession with finding the “next Tiger Woods,” it’s easy to forget that McIlroy is only 23-years old.

    He struggled badly in his attempt to repeat as the Open champion, failing to make the cut after shooting 10 over par through his first two rounds. But I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Rory back atop a Sunday afternoon leader board very soon

7. Derrick Rose, Point Guard, Chicago Bulls, 23

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    After a 2010-2011 season that ended with the NBA’s best regular-season record, an Eastern Conference finals appearance and the league’s MVP award, Derrick Rose seemed to be on top of the basketball world.  

    He was well on his way to leading his hometown Chicago Bulls on another extended playoff run this year before tearing his ACL during a first-round game against the Philadelphia 76ers, an injury that ended his season and will cost him most of 2012-2013 as well. 

    Rose is a tireless worker and competitor, and at 23, there’s no reason to believe he won’t make a full recovery. When that day comes, look for the Bulls to be back in championship contention.

6. Clayton Kershaw, Pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers, 24

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    In what is beginning to look like another golden age for starting pitching in Major League Baseball, Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw has quickly risen towards the head of the class. 

    Kershaw separated himself from other notable names like Halladay, Lee, Lincecum and Cain by winning his first National League Cy Young award last season when he was just 23 years old. 

    Kershaw has shown no signs of letting up in 2012, and he’s helped lead the Dodgers to the best record in baseball through the team’s first 64 games (40-24).

5. Kevin Durant, Small Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder, 23

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    Almost two weeks shy of his 24th birthday, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant has already won three consecutive scoring titles and has his team in the NBA Finals for the first time, going head-to-head against LeBron James and the Miami Heat for the unofficial title of best player and best team in the world. 

    Durant has emerged as the best pure scorer in the game, and he’s constantly working to improve his defense and playmaking abilities, meaning the best is yet to come. 

    If the Thunder can keep their core of young talent together for the foreseeable future, Durant could turn them into the NBA’s next great dynasty.

4. Jon "Bones" Jones, Light Heavyweight Champion, MMA, 24

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    Jon “Bones” Jones is the fastest-rising star in the world's fastest-growing sport, as far as popularity goes.

    While boxing continues to die a slow death, Mixed Martial Arts has quickly begun to take its place in the hearts—and wallets—of young men all over the world, led by the performances of exciting, dynamic young fighters like Jones. 

    The current king of UFC’s light heavyweight division, Jones reaffirmed his dominance by prevailing over his former friend and mentor Rashad Evans in the featured event of UFC 145 this past April. 

    Still a month shy of his 25th birthday, there appears to be no end in sight to Jones’ current reign.

3. Sidney Crosby, Center, Pittsburgh Penguins, 24

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    Sid the Kid could easily make an argument for being No. 1 on this list, but a series of recent concussions have cost the Pittsburgh Penguins star the better part of the last two NHL seasons, derailing a once promising career. 

    Crosby already has a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal on his resume, and he looked poised to add a second NHL title this year before his Penguins were upset by their hated cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs. 

    Hockey fans can only hope that Sid’s concussion issues are permanently behind him. It’d be a shame to see such a promising future derailed, much like another former Candian-born phenom that called the state of Pennsylvania home: Eric Lindros.

2. Yani Tseng, LPGA, 23

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    LPGA star Yani Tseng could be the most dominant professional athlete that few people have heard of. 

    The Taiwanese-born golfer made history last June when, at 22, she became the youngest golfer ever to win five major championships. Yes, that includes Tiger Woods. 

    Tseng is currently the No. 1 ranked player in the Women’s World Golf Rankings, and hasn’t shown any signs of letting up on the competition.

1. Lionel Messi, Forward, Barcellona, 24

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    Lionel Messi has about a week of eligibility left on this list, so how can I not give props to the best player in the world’s most popular sport?

    The pride of Argentina, Messi has dominated world competition while plying his trade for Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga. His talent was officially recognized when he won the World Player of the Year award in 2009, 2010 and 2011. 

    Unfortunately defending Olympic gold medalist Argentina did not qualify for the tournament, so football fans will not be able to see the world's best player on the most high-profile international stage.

Honorable Mentions

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    Maria Sharapova, Women’s Tennis, WTA, 25: Sharapova would easily be in the top 10 had she not passed the quarter-century mark in April of this year.

    Novak Djokovic, Men’s Tennis, ATP, 25: If this article were written a month ago, Djokovic might have garnered the top spot. But like his tennis-playing female counterpart, Sharapova, he just missed eligibility. 

    John Wall, Point Guard, Washington Wizards, 21: The former No. 1 draft pick regressed a little in his second NBA season. But expect Wall to stay in the conversation for the next few years.

    DeMarcus Cousins, Power Forward, Sacramento Kings, 21: Though he entered the NBA with many questions about his maturity, and seemed to validate those concerns as a rookie, Cousins blossomed in his second year, averaging a double-double for the first of what is sure to be many seasons to come.

    Russell Westbrook, Point Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder, 23: If Westbrook can help teammate Kevin Durant lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to their first NBA championship this season, expect his name to shoot up this list quickly.

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