Potential. It’s such a strange concept.
We see a good athlete with an excellent skill set and we automatically assume he’s capable of greatness. We assume he should and will be one of "The Greatest Ever" someday. And what is it based on? Speculation? Gut feeling?
Determining an athlete’s potential certainly isn’t based on fact. How do we know that an athlete who had one great season isn’t someone who exceeded his potential?
Instead, we see an athlete who only had one great season as a failure. We see him as someone who did not, and will not, live up to his potential for 400 great seasons.
Some athletes have what it takes to be some of the best. Here are the ones who have what it takes but will never quite get there.
By all means, Barry Zito doesn’t seem to be all that gifted in terms of natural athleticism; because of that, you have to figure that all of his success took work, and lots of it. You have to figure that, maybe, he has already exceeded his potential.
Except that Zito has been far too up-and-down over the course of his 13-year career to suggest that he has accomplished more than he should have—and his ups have been way up.
He was one of the best players the Oakland A’s organization ever built. While he was at his peak, he had one of the best curveballs in the game. During his heyday in 2002, when he somehow beat out Pedro Martinez for the Cy Young Award, he was un-hittable. There aren’t many guys who win Cy Youngs and then spend the next 10 or so years fighting to keep their spot in the rotation.
And then, like so many other pitchers, the mental aspect of the game got in the way for Zito.
He clearly spends a lot of time thinking about why he struggled so much after signing a gigantic seven-year, $126 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, as evidenced by this article. For a long time, Zito tried to cultivate, a carefree, hippie-esque persona, perhaps to convince people he didn’t take baseball too seriously.
But along the way, maybe he stopped taking it seriously enough, and it hurt him.
Zito is still OK. He wouldn’t have two World Series rings if he weren’t. The Giants would have cut him a long time ago, otherwise.
But back when he went a combined 54-25 in three seasons with the A’s early in his career, it was hard to imagine that 10 years later, he’d be one of the most disappointing free-agent acquisitions the Giants made in recent memory.
Whether or not Tim Tebow is going to be successful in the long term in the NFL, we’ll never know—mostly because it looks like he’s never going to get a chance to prove it, one way or another.
The University of Florida legend—who became the first underclassman to win the Heisman Trophy during his reign with the Gators—got his first shot with the Denver Broncos in 2011. When he took over as the starting quarterback, he succeeded: He led Denver, which was 1-4 at the time, to an 8-8 overall record, a playoff berth and an upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round.
But when Peyton Manning came to town, Denver shipped out Tebow because it, unlike the Jets, realized there was no room for two starting QBs on one team. Since arriving in New York, Tebow’s impact on the field has been minimal, but his mere presence has wreaked havoc on this team—and especially on Mark Sanchez, who forever lives in doubt about whether or not his job is secure (we'll get to him).
And until the Jets figure out what to do with him, we’ll never know just how good he could have been in the NFL.
The New England Patriots’ two-headed tight end tandem was a revelation in 2011. Between Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, New England’s offense was virtually impossible to stop.
And while Gronk was the one who got most of the accolades, Hernandez was equally important to the attack—especially when Gronk got injured, which he did in the midst of the Patriots’ playoff run.
And while Hernandez was great during the regular season, amassing 910 yards and seven touchdowns, he was quieter in the postseason, and his impact in 2012 has been virtually nonexistent due to injury. He suffered an ankle sprain in the Patriots’ Week 2 contest against the St. Louis Cardinals, and upon returning last week against the New York Jets, he tallied just two receptions for 36 yards.
It’s certainly not Hernandez’s fault that he got hurt. But there are some players who are a whole lot better when they aren’t up on stage all by themselves—and when the Patriots have needed him to dominate when Gronk has been MIA—Hernandez hasn’t really been able to produce.
We’ll see how he does over the next few weeks while Gronk’s broken forearm heals, but as Hernandez continues to heal from that sprain, it’s hard to believe he’s going to come back and be the player he was for most of 2011.
And if history is any indication, he's like the backup singer who tries to go solo too soon: He just can't handle the bright lights by himself.
There are so many centers who have come into the NBA and failed in recent years that it’s hard to get excited about the up-and-coming ones.
The assumption is that they’re going to be busts, and maybe part of that is due to the effect players like Hasheem Thabeet have had on the league. Or the lack thereof.
At UConn, Thabeet was a force to behold. He spent three years in Storrs, and during his junior season, he averaged a double-double of 13.6 points and 10.8 blocks per game, which set him up pretty nicely for the draft.
And unfortunately for the Memphis Grizzlies, they were the team that bit.
The first few months of Thabeet's professional career were rocky: He missed a couple of weeks with a broken jaw, but while he was on the court, he averaged just 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
He was sent to the D-League in February of his rookie campaign, and the next year, he was traded to the Houston Rockets.
Thabeet was bounced to the Portland Trail Blazers a year after that, and this offseason, he signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent.
Maybe his lack of impact is due to the fact that he hasn’t been able to stick around with one team long enough to get in a groove, or maybe it's just because the NBA has been a cruel wake-up call for this college standout.
For someone who hasn’t lived up to his potential thus far, Ryan Lochte has done pretty well: In the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, he came away with a gold medal in the 400-meter IM and another gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay.
Not bad, right? Right.
But the thing is, Lochte does have the potential to be the next Michael Phelps. Or he did. And he could have proven it this summer in London, but something got in the way.
Most likely, his ego.
Phelps was unbeatable any time he hopped in the pool, even this summer, when everyone seemed to be doubting his ability to compete with the likes of Lochte. Not only did Lochte failed to beat Phelps in the 200-meter IM, he earned only the bronze medal in the 200-meter backstroke, an event he won in 2008 when he set the world record.
Despite the fact that he finished first in the event during the trials, he came in third when it mattered most, losing to his own U.S. teammate Tyler Clary. Lochte also failed to medal in the 200-meter freestyle relay, finishing fourth.
Maybe it’s unfair to hold Lochte to Phelps-ian standards—or maybe it isn’t. Lochte had what it took to beat Michael Phelps. He certainly had what it took to destroy the competition in the backstroke, and he couldn’t do it this summer.
He’s a great swimmer, but he’ll never be Phelps, even if it looked like he could’ve been four years ago.
Blake Griffin, like so many others on this list, was projected to be a serious impact player once he left Oklahoma for the NBA.
Alas, not so.
He has been good—but maybe it's our own fault for expecting him to be another LeBron.
In two years with the Sooners, Griffin averaged 18.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. After his sophomore season, he earned a host of awards, including the Naismith, the AP Player of the Year and the Wooden. He led the NCAA in field goals, points and total rebounds.
He was expected to do big things in the NBA.
But, as the Los Angeles Clippers have seen, he hasn’t been on the floor long enough to do big things—at least not yet.
The 2009 No. 1 draft pick missed the entirety of what would have been his rookie campaign with a broken left kneecap, and since then—even though he has been an All-Star and has managed to restore the Clippers to something resembling prominence—he seems to have a knack for finding the worst times to get injured.
If he stayed healthy, the Clippers could have been on top of the Western Conference by now. But because he hasn't, it's taking a lot longer than we expected. Maybe it will never happen at all.
Tuukka Rask could have been the starting goaltender for any team in the NHL for the last several years.
But on the Boston Bruins, he has been stuck behind Tim Thomas for too long. And while that seems like the type of problem any team would love to have, it has had an impact on Rask.
Thomas, at his prime, was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. There was a time when starting Rask over him would have been laughable.
But those days are gone, and now it’s Rask’s turn—and he’s earned it.
At various points, he has stepped in and killed it when Thomas couldn’t, most notably in 2010. But maybe it was ending up on the wrong side of history in that postseason—and giving up a 3-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers—that did him in. Rask hasn’t gotten a good shot at proving himself since.
Part of that is due to the fact that Thomas had the season of his life in 2010-11. But now that Thomas can’t seem to decide whether or not he wants to play anymore, it should be clear: The job is Rask’s, not just for the upcoming season, but for good.
He has a career 2.20 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. He can’t become one of the best if the Bruins don’t give him the job he deserves.
Or maybe he’ll never live up to what he’s capable of because the NHL is dead forever. We’ll soon find out.
James Harden was an excellent sixth man. He carved out a niche with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and even though he’s no longer there, that niche is where he succeeded the most.
A player like Harden has a choice: He can either continue to be that fiery sixth-man spark on a championship-caliber team like the Thunder, and he can be the very best at what he does. Or, he can take the money and run—he can take the big pay day and try his hand at being The Guy on a lesser team.
Harden chose option no. 2.
Last season, Harden was a key component for the Thunder, averaging 16.8 points per game, but he always took a backseat to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
He seemed fine with it. Why wouldn’t he be?
He was the Sixth Man of the Year. He was a fan favorite. His team loved him, and his fan base loved him. The impact of his role on that team couldn’t be underestimated, and if he'd stayed with the Thunder, he probably could have finished his career with multiple championships.
Are his numbers better with his new team? Yes.
But are the Houston Rockets the Oklahoma City Thunder? No, and Harden—as the No. 1 guy on that team—is unlikely to get them to the place where they are the Oklahoma City Thunder. He thrived on a team where he was surrounded by top-tier talent but wasn’t the marquee player—but he was still the marquee sixth man.
With the Rockets, he’s the star of the show, but he’ll never be up there with the Durants and Westbrooks of the world. He'll never be the best Star of the Show, but he could have been the best sixth man for a long time. And he could have won a lot of rings en route.
Fulfilling your potential doesn’t always mean being the star. It means figuring out what your role is and being the best at that role.
Clay Buchholz is the prime example of a situation in which it’s unclear whether he has just had random flashes of brilliance or whether he just can’t get in the right mindset to be brilliant all the time.
What we do know about Buchholz is this: In his second major-league start, he threw a no-hitter, becoming only the 17th pitcher in Boston Red Sox history to accomplish the feat—and the first rookie to do so, too boot. It didn't look like a freak accident; Buchholz genuinely looked like he had nasty, unhittable stuff.
He just hasn't been able to find it over the better part of the last five years.
There have been moments where Buchholz has shown us glimpses of that rookie who no-hit the Baltimore Orioles in his second big-league start, but for the most part, his ERA has lingered at about four or above.
At times, he has been sent down to the minors midseason to figure out what's wrong with him. He has admitted to overthinking and letting his head mess with his game.
If he can ever conquer the mental demons, Buchholz can be amazing. He can always be that unhittable rookie. But until then, we're most likely going to have to deal with the intermittent flashes of brilliance.
We’ve seen flashes of greatness from Mark Sanchez.
We saw them at USC, when he took over for Matt Leinart and, a few years later, threw for 3,207 yards and 34 touchdowns before entering the NFL Draft.
We saw a few more flashes in his first two seasons with the New York Jets, when he went a combined 19-12 with an average passer rating of 70.2 and got the Jets to the playoffs twice—and as far as the conference championship both times.
But lately, it has been pretty dismal for Sanchez in New York, and nobody really knows why.
It started last season, when—after going 8-5 through mid-December—he and the Jets lost out and missed the playoffs and he threw seven picks and just five TDs over those last three games. This season, it has been worse: The Jets are 4-7 and just got embarrassed on Thanksgiving by the hated New England Patriots.
But Sanchez has kind of been set up to fail in 2012.
He has had Tim Tebow breathing down his neck all year and never knew whether his starting job would be secure the following week. Now, he’s stuck in an unwinnable situation because it’s unclear whether the owners actually think he can continue to do what he did in his first two years in the league.
That doubt has gotten to him, and it has ruined him.
Albert Pujols had a great thing going in St. Louis. He was adored by the entire Cardinals fan base, he was always one of the best and most feared hitters in the game and he racked up nine All-Star appearances and three MVPs, plus two World Series rings.
So why did he leave?
The same reason every marquee free agent ends up leaving the house he built: more money elsewhere.
Except Pujols’ defection from St. Louis makes little sense. It’s not as though the Cards were a struggling franchise. It’s not as though the people in St. Louis didn’t like him. It’s not as though he struggled hitting the ball at Busch Stadium.
He left to pursue more money and a different atmosphere in L.A., even after spending the entirety of his 11-year career up to that point in St. Louis.
And he struggled with the Angels. He wasn’t the same hitter by any means when he made the jump from the NL to the AL, and the Angels missed the playoffs.
As one of the greatest hitters of the last decade, Pujols clearly accomplished very much. But if he’d stayed with St. Louis, he could have continued to establish himself as one of the greatest ever. He could have gone down as one of the Cardinals’ most legendary players and one of the game's most legendary players.
He was on that route; diverting from it was a big mistake.
We’ve seen so many uber-talented college stars fail when they finally reach the NBA. It doesn’t matter how dominant they were in college, how high they were drafted or how hyped they were—most of them would reach the next level, only to find that they could no longer compete.
So what’s stopping us from believing the same thing will happen to Anthony Davis?
What Davis did at Kentucky was unbelievable. Amazing. Undoubtedly impressive. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe his 2011-12 campaign, when he led Kentucky to a 32-2 record and a national championship as a freshman.
But most of Davis’ dominance stemmed from the fact that he was a ginormous matchup problem for essentially every other player on every team in the NCAA. His height and his wingspan translated to an impossible specimen to contend with on the boards and in the paint. He was too big to defend, and too versatile.
But that was the NCAA. In the NBA, there are plenty of players who can contend with Davis. In the NBA, he isn’t a matchup problem; in fact, it’s the opposite.
At 6’10”, Davis isn’t tall enough to be a dominant center, and at the 4, he’s average. He’s never going to overpower anybody with his size, and his long, lean frame isn’t going to help him push anyone around.
Davis made his name in the college world because he could get to the rim and there was nobody there who could stop him, ever. Now, there are plenty of people who can stop him.
Tony Romo’s career trajectory in the NFL has been similar to Mark Sanchez’s: It seemed, out of the gates, that he had the potential to be one of the very best in the game, and people wanted to believe he was because he was young and likable.
And purely from a football perspective, Romo seemed to be worth the hype: In his first season as the full-time starter in 2006, Romo led the team to a 13-3 record and had them poised for a deep postseason run—or so we thought.
That run lasted only one game, as the Cowboys bowed out to Seattle. In 2007, it was the same story: Dallas couldn’t get past the Giants in its first playoff game.
In 2009, Romo broke the first-round curse with a win over the Eagles, but he and the Cowboys promptly suffered a 34-3 loss to the Vikings one week later to get knocked out of the fun once again.
And since seeing all that potential in 2006, Romo has had two losing seasons and three mediocre seasons, and he has battled a host of serious injuries. We know he is capable of leading America’s (former) team, but judging by the way things have gone for him since that one good season—and all of the gaffes that he has become infamous for—it seems unlikely that he’ll ever replicate that success.
Like so many of the young stars that now populate the NBA, John Wall was at his best in college. In his only year at Kentucky, he averaged 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.
From there, it was off to the NBA, where he was selected by the Washington Wizards with the No. 1 overall selection, a move that is still criticized.
A lot of top picks in the draft don’t end up panning out, but Wall really hasn’t panned out. The point guard has averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 assists over two seasons with the Wizards, who have still remained in the hunt for a lottery pick ever since taking Wall.
That’s a red flag, as is the fact that Wall hasn’t seemed to make virtually any alterations to his game since transitioning from the NCAA to the NBA. Nor has he been able to stay on the court.
The latest out of Washington is that Wall’s knee injury, which has kept him out for the entire 2012-13 season thus far, is still a problem, and there’s no return date in mind.
Perhaps Wall was set up to fail. These are the Wizards, after all. But wasn’t he supposed to redeem them?
When Carmelo Anthony first came into the league, many of us expected him to be another LeBron.
Or at least a Kevin Durant, before there was a Kevin Durant.
And despite the fact that Carmelo has played on good teams in Denver and in New York, he has never been able to take them to the next level. Fans love him for what he has been able to do, but they also kind of hate him for failing to bring them a championship—and for being eager to get out of Denver when it became apparent he wasn’t going to be able to do so there.
Trouble has followed Carmelo wherever he’s gone in the NBA, and to be fair, a lot of it has been amplified by the media. But whereas guys like LeBron and Durant have been able to be the No. 1 guy on their teams and take them far into the postseason—to the NBA Finals—Carmelo hasn’t come close to that.
Objectively, he has the potential to be that guy for his team. He has averaged 24.7 points per game throughout his career. And while he has had Big Moments—going off for 50 points in a game, battling it out with Kobe and the Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals—he has never been able to get the job done.
Maybe it’s an attitude thing. Maybe he really does alienate his teammates, as the media has been prone to suggest.
But objectively, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to do what the other elite players in the league have done. He just hasn’t been able to find a way to become the leader that those players have become.
Dez Bryant has long been heralded as having the potential to be one of the very best—if not the best—receivers in the NFL.
But here we are, three seasons into his professional career, and we still haven’t seen anything spectacular from the 2010 first-round draft pick.
Bryant—who electrified the football-loving world with his heroics at Oklahoma State—has the athleticism, the speed and the hands to be a top receiver in the NFL. Or at least it seems that way.
But off-the-field problems have consistently gotten in the way of success for him.
The problems started in college, when he was suspended for lying about having dinner with Deion Sanders during his senior season. He has been in fights with rappers in nightclubs.
Last summer, he was arrested for reportedly assaulting his mother, and after that, the Dallas Cowboys took to extreme measures to keep him in line, putting him under the permanent watch of a security team meant to limit his extracurricular activities and keep him away from alcohol.
We’ve all been under the impression that if he can stay on the field and out of trouble, Bryant can be spectacular. But staying out of trouble is a lot easier said than done, and if he can’t do it, the Cowboys—or any other team—aren’t going to keep wasting their time.
Andrew Bynum has had the same problem many other underachievers have had: He can’t seem to stay healthy.
It seems odd that Bynum could be considered an underachiever when he has been a part of two championship teams in his young career. But when you’re replaced by one of the only other “elite” centers in the NBA, you know there’s probably more you could’ve done to make yourself indispensable.
And Bynum, despite being talented, wasn’t indispensable to the Lakers. He had all the necessary pieces, but he was still replaceable .
Bynum has battled more than his fair share of injuries in his career, many of which kept him out for giant, critical chunks of time. But in addition to being criticized for an inability to stay healthy, he has also been criticized for giving less than 100 percent at times.
There have always been rumors floating around that even Kobe Bryant couldn’t keep him motivated. And as a result, the team seemed eager to trade him when the opportunity to get Dwight Howard popped up.
Bynum is good—obviously. He averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game last year. But he can do better.
You can’t ever realize your potential if you can’t stay motivated. And if Bynum had stayed motivated, the Lakers wouldn't have felt the need to replace him.
Derrick Rose is still supposed to be one of the greatest ever. We’re still supposed to see him win multiple championships and multiple MVPs and become one of the best point guards to ever play the game of basketball.
But here we are, in the fifth year of his professional career, and we’ve seen some impressive stuff from him—but we haven’t seen him become the game-altering superstar he was supposed to be.
The most frustrating thing with Rose is that he's been getting better and better every year.
The Bulls have been getting closer and closer to achieving something huge. And just when it seemed like he and Chicago were destiny's darlings last season, everything came crashing down when Rose suffered that freak ACL injury in Game 1 of the playoffs.
In record time, the Bulls have gone from Eastern Conference favorites to a team in the early stages of rebuilding mode. We still haven't seen Rose since he suffered that injury, and we probably won't for several more months. He's getting older, his knees are getting worse, and the injury problems are amplifying.
How many good years does he have left in him? And how much will those good years be compromised by the ankle, toe, groin, back and knee problems he has had over the last couple of years?
Maybe we're just spoiled by the prompt success players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have had. Or maybe Rose just isn't going to get where they are.
It’s not Stephen Strasburg’s fault that he’s been unable to realize his potential; it’s the Washington Nationals’.
Everyone knows that Strasburg has the kind of stuff to make him one of the most feared pitchers in the league. Everyone knows that he is the Nationals’ No. 1 weapon. Washington’s hopes of dominating the NL East depend on him.
Why, then, don’t the Nationals let him fly?
The 2009 No. 1 draft pick was having a spectacular season for the Nats, who were the surprise of the NL in 2012 when they won their division. He was 15-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 159.1 innings.
But then, barely into September, team management decided to shut him down—in the midst of a playoff race, in the midst of one of the only exciting seasons the Nationals have ever had. Strasburg was one of the biggest reasons Washington succeeded in 2012, and the team shut him down before he could reap the benefits in the playoffs.
It’s understandable. The Nats were trying to put Strasburg’s health before their desire to win, and considering he had reconstructive elbow surgery in 2010, the team was trying to do the right thing—but the Nats infuriated the entirety of the baseball world in the process.
Strasburg is never going to realize his potential unless the Nationals let him do so.
Maybe running quarterbacks really are set up to fail in the NFL—maybe it’s just too hard for them to stay healthy, and too unlikely that they do so.
It’s hard enough for Tom Brady to stay healthy, and he never runs the ball. Imagine what it’s like for someone like Michael Vick, who’s constantly putting his body at risk.
But the fact that he’s a running quarterback isn’t the reason why Vick never reached his potential and never will. And we all know what the reason is.
Vick wasted the prime of his career committing despicable acts that eventually robbed him of his job. If it weren’t for the whole dog-fighting scandal, he could have kept improving, kept working to turn the Falcons into a contender. He could have remained a perennial Pro Bowl contender and finished out his late 20’s with a few more awards and accolades, maybe even a Super Bowl ring.
Instead, he was out of the league from 2007-08, and when he returned, he was 29, he was out of practice and he barely got a chance to play. There seemed to be a resurgence, at least for a little while, but Vick has never been the same player he was before he was shut out of the league.
He wasted two of the years that could have been the best of his career, and now we’ll never know what he could have done if he had just stayed out of trouble off the field.