The 25 Biggest Must-See Rookie Seasons of the Past 25 Years

Nick DimengoFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2013

The 25 Biggest Must-See Rookie Seasons of the Past 25 Years

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    With the NBA draft coming and the NFL draft having recently passed, there will be a new crop of rookies to follow in the footsteps of some of the past selections.

    But just because there aren't as many surefire stars this year according to draft experts, doesn't mean we haven't seen some huge rookie seasons in the past 25 years.

    That's why we wanted to examine those who were just a little more popular than their peers, setting their respective leagues, teams and fans into a frenzy in anticipation of their first years.

25. Randy Moss

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    While Randy Moss had always displayed the talent that made many regard him as a first-round pick, thanks to some off-the-field issues, he just kept slipping in the '98 draft.

    When the Vikings finally took him with the 21st overall pick, the team was hoping he'd be more boom than bust, especially when paired up with veteran receiver Cris Carter.

    Considering Moss went out and caught 69 balls for 1,313 yards and a rookie receiving record 17 touchdowns, the risk seemed to pay off.

24. Teemu Selanne

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    Selected as the 10th overall selection in the 1988 NHL draft, Teemu Selanne had always been a top prospect, but it wasn't until he actually played his first game in 1992 for the Winnipeg Jets that he really set himself apart.

    Though the Jets had to wait four years for the Finnish winger to actually strap on a sweater for them, he became one of the most revered rookies in NHL history, netting a rookie record 76 goals—shattering the previous mark of 53—and totaling 132 points (also a record), earning him the Calder Memorial Trophy for top rookie.

23. Manti Te'o

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    If you've paid attention to anything that former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has done over the past 12 months, you're probably well aware of why he deserves to be on this list.

    After helping restore the Notre Dame program among the country's elite and leading the Irish to a national title game appearance—a blowout loss to Alabama—Te'o became a lightning bolt for controversy following the Catfish-like drama around his nonexistent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua.

    Selected in the second round of this year's draft, the Chargers are actually restricting his media access in order to not overwhelm him.

    Time will tell how his career actually turns out, but all eyes will be on him.

22. Matt Leinart

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    After one of the most decorated college football careers in recent history, which included three national title game appearances (winning two), a Heisman Trophy and numerous Southern Cal passing records, many believed Leinart had major things on the horizon for his NFL career.

    On top of that, he achieved rock-star status thanks to the celebrities hanging around the Southern Cal program while there.

    Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out the way the former Trojan had hoped, as he's struggled to stay consistent and has bounced around between teams as a backup.

21. Ken Griffey Jr.

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    When the Mariners selected Ken Griffey Jr. with the top pick in the 1987 MLB draft, there was immediate pressure and attention on "The Kid."

    Paired next to his dad, Ken Griffey Sr., in the outfield, the entire sport wanted to see what the hot shot 19-year-old was all about when he made his debut in 1989.

    Though he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting that year, his 630 career homers, numerous career awards and a spot on the MLB All-Century team have proven that he was worth all the talk.

20. The 1999 NFL Quarterback Class

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    At the time of the draft, the five quarterbacks who were projected to be first-rounders were actually being compared to the amazing 1983 class—which included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.

    Needless to say, save for a few good years by Daunte Culpepper and a more-than-solid career by Donovan McNabb, the heavy expectations for the class weren't met, with all carrying the embarrassing title of "busts" when discussing their careers.

    But at the time, these guys were supposed to be the next phase of throwers.

19. Derek Jeter

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    The future face of the Yankees, Derek Jeter may have made his MLB debut in 1995—collecting 48 at-bats before the end of the season—but it wasn't until 1996 that he really became King of New York.

    Earning Rookie of the Year honors after batting .314, Jeter was a vocal leader who teamed with other young guns Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams to lead the Yanks to a World Series title, their first since 1978.

    Adding four more World Series rings to his collection, DJ can do no wrong in the Big Apple.

18. Cam Newton

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    Like him or not, Cam Newton is one hell of a football player.

    Following some drama surrounding him in Florida—where he started his college career—to his final season at Auburn—where he led the Tigers to a national title and earned himself the Heisman Trophy—draft pundits had mixed feelings on how successful he'd be in the pros.

    Drafted No. 1 by the Panthers in 2011, Newton's passion, energy and charisma rubbed fans and teammates the right way, as he collected Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, set rookie marks for most total yards and touchdowns and taking Carolina from two wins the year before to six in his first season.

17. Alexander Ovechkin

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    As the top pick in the 2004 NHL draft, Alex Ovechkin actually remained to play in Russia until the 2005-06 season, when he finally debuted for the Caps.

    His performance was well worth the wait.

    Notching 106 total points his first year and earning the league's Rookie of the Year Award, big things were to come for the outspoken Ovechkin.

    After capturing the league's MVP in back-to-back seasons in '08 and '09, his rank amongst NHL superstars is still as high as ever—especially after leading the league in goals once again this season.

16. Mike Trout

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    Yes, Mike Trout was a first-round pick by the Angels in 2009, but few within the organization could have predicted such instant success for the young guy.

    But a couple of things happened early in Trout's rookie year: He started putting up ridiculous numbers and the stats geeks started noticing. 

    Wrapping his first full season up in 2012, Trout was able to earn headlines for his spectacular play, overtaking the spotlight from better-known teammates Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson—all before turning 20 years old.

    Taking home the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing as a controversial runner-up in the league's MVP voting, Trout has redefined the outfield position with a combination of speed and power.

15. Eli Manning and Peyton Manning

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    Thanks to the long NFL career of their dad, Archie Manning, as well as accomplished college careers in the SEC, both Peyton and Eli Manning were high on the list of prospects on team's draft lists.

    With the two earning the No. 1 spot in their respective drafts (Peyton in '98 and Eli in '04), all eyes were on how the two could become the next great signal-callers in the league.

    With three Super Bowl rings between them, they're generally regarded as both being elite at this point in their careers, with Peyton potentially earning numerous NFL passing records once he finally calls it quits.

14. Tim Duncan

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    After helping set the standard for what a four-year college basketball player should be, Tim Duncan was the type of player who caused franchises to purposely lose so they could obtain him.

    The lucky team that earned the top spot was the Spurs, and, well, the rest is history.

    In his second season, Duncan teamed with fellow big man David Robinson to win a NBA title, and with four rings and two league MVPs on his resume, Duncan is highly respected as potentially the best power forward to ever play the game.

13. Shaquille O'Neal

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    As he has reminded us since ending his career a couple of years ago, Shaquille O'Neal has always been a character.

    But when Shaq first came into the league after being picked No. 1 overall by the Magic in 1992, though he was as talented as they come, no one really knew how the big fella's career would go.

    To say his career ended with him being one of the most dominating centers to ever toss on a jersey would be an understatement.

    After four NBA titles, one league MVP and hundreds more self-proclaimed nicknames, any question marks about O'Neal's maturity or focus was proven to be nothing more than nitpicking.

12. Ichiro Suzuki

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    Coming to the States after a stellar nine-year career in Japan, Ichiro Suzuki's arrival in Seattle in 2001 surpassed absolutely everyone's expectations.

    Not only did Ichiro have the burden of helping spread the game's popularity to a completely different culture, but his funky swing and amazing speed were "hits" for all fans who watched.

    His rookie year concluded with him winning both Rookie of the Year and AL MVP honors, while helping guide the Mariners to the playoffs by notching an MLB-record 116 wins.

    Talk about an impact from one guy.

11. Ricky Rubio

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    Thanks to Ricky Rubio's spectacular playmaking ability during his performances in the 2008 Olympics for his native Spain—at just age 18—he caught the attention of every NBA general manager.

    But with questions surrounding his status with his Euroleague teams, some weren't sure when he'd make the trip to the Association.

    When he finally made his first appearance in 2011, two years after the Timberwolves selected him No. 5 overall, he quickly proved why he was worth the wait.

10. Andrew Luck

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    Not since both Peyton Manning in 1998 and John Elway in 1983 had there been a more NFL-ready quarterback than Andrew Luck.

    Bypassing the NFL and returning to Stanford for a fourth year—he was redshirted his freshman season—Luck may have left many shocked by his decision, but the wait paid off, as the Colts tabbed him as the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft.

    All he did was replace an icon in Manning, deal with the adversity of his head coach's unfortunate leukemia diagnosis and lead the Colts to the playoffs after setting a rookie record for most passing yards in a season.

9. Kevin Durant

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    It's easy to laugh at the Blazers—who owned the 2007 No. 1 pick—now that their selection of Greg Oden ahead of Durant didn't quite work out the way they had hoped.

    But before Durant became one of the best scorers in the league and a bona fide superstar, there were actually some doubts about whether his slight frame could hold up in the league.

    He proved doubters wrong by not only outshining Greg Oden—leaving fans playing the "what if?" game—but also by reshaping the entire OKC organization.

8. Robert Griffin III

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    Considering the Washington Redskins traded away a whole loot of picks to the Rams in order to get Robert Griffin III, the entire DC area is happy with how the young quarterback's first season went.

    As the reigning Heisman Trophy winner coming into the draft in 2012, there was a ton of hype surrounding Griffin as he continued to rise up draft boards and make people wonder if he was actually a better pick than Andrew Luck.

    Luckily, they have both worked out quite well thus far, but the hype around both has left fans and the league excited about seeing where their careers go.

7. Yao Ming

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    Much like the responsibility the aforementioned Ichiro Suzuki had when he came to the States in order to pursue a sports career, Yao Ming had to deal with the global impact of his play.

    The anticipation for the former No. 1 pick to arrive in the NBA was almost as large as the 7'6" Ming himself, with everyone pinning a rivalry against then-dominating center Shaquille O'Neal.

    Unfortunately, Ming's career got off-track due to injuries, but he was still able to leave his mark on the game.

6. Tiger Woods

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    When Tiger Woods played in his first PGA tournament in 1996, there were a ton of expectations for the wunderkind out of Stanford.

    After winning three straight U.S. Amateurs, the '96 NCAA individual title and the Tour's Rookie of the Year Award in the same year, he inked mega-deals with both Nike and Titleist.

    We could go on for days talking about how the rest of his career has gone, but seeing that he's just four Major titles behind Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18, you should know he's pretty damn good.

5. Tim Tebow

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    After achieving unprecedented status as a college athlete while playing at Florida after winning a Heisman Trophy and two national titles, Tim Tebow jumped onto the NFL scene with much criticism.

    At this point though, the media attention around Tebow is just nuts.

    Sure, he continues to have his doubters and, as of now, is still looking for a team in 2013, but has there ever been a more popular backup player in any realm of any sport?

    Tim Tebow is the epitome of what everyone loves and hates about sports—for better or worse.

4. Sidney Crosby

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    Sure, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby may have endured some major injuries over the past couple of seasons—namely his concussion woes—but when healthy, he's still the best player on the planet.

    Chances are, anyone who knows the sport could have told you as much when Pittsburgh selected the star-to-be No. 1 in the 2005 draft—especially with a nickname like "The Next One."

    Coming into his career with a bang, the former Olympic gold medalist finished sixth in the league in total scoring with 102 points, while finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting to the already-mentioned Alex Ovechkin.

    After being touted as the next coming of Wayne Gretzky, Crosby proved his rookie season was no aberration, as he led the NHL in points, while becoming just the seventh player in NHL history to earn all three of the major awards in the same year.

3. Reggie Bush

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    Bet you didn't think you'd see Reggie Bush this high, did you?

    But take yourself back to 2006 when the former Southern Cal star was drafted No. 2 by the New Orleans Saints, and you probably know why he's so high here.

    After everyone thought he was the hands-down favorite for the Texans—who owned the top pick—to select him, the team threw a curveball at the last minute to take defensive end Mario Williams.

    With all of the hype and expectations around Bush, he went out there and transformed the running back position, maybe not as a pure runner, but as a guy who gave defensive coordinators headaches trying to plan for thanks to his versatility.

2. Bryce Harper

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    Everything we mentioned earlier about the Angels' Mike Trout absolutely pales in comparison to Bryce Harper's journey to the big leagues. 

    At just 20 years old, Harper had always been a firestorm of controversy for his gaudy numbers, and even for unexpected egotism.

    After reaching the majors for good last season, Harper lived up to all of the hype that had surrounded him since being drafted No. 1 overall out of high school in 2010, earning NL MVP honors and having his first season compared to some of the game's all-time greats.

1. LeBron James

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    For so many reasons, LeBron James remains either the most beloved, or the most hated, athlete on the planet.

    Whether you think he's just too good, or just too arrogant.

    Lacking the clutch gene, or incapable to come through in the clutch.

    Ever since his high school days, James has dominated headlines, having the burden of becoming the next Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Oscar Robertson all wrapped into one guy.

    Given his recent fourth league MVP title this year, as well as his ongoing quest to defend his first NBA title, we'd say he's done pretty damn well under the weight of such expectations.