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The Athletes to Watch in 2014

Nick DimengoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2014

The Athletes to Watch in 2014

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    It happens every year—breakout stars.

    And with the calendar just switching to 2014, I'm here to predict which athletes all of us sports fans should keep an eye on heading into the new year.

    2013 gave us guys like Jameis Winston winning the Heisman Trophy and an unexpected boost to the L.A. Dodgers from some guy named Yasiel Puig.

    So what does this year have in store for us? Who really knows, but these are my best guesses of the guys who fans will be talking about the most.

AJ McCarron

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    I'm not sure what it is about Alabama quarterback—and yes, three-time national champion—AJ McCarron, but he's so intriguing to me.

    Given that he's totaled a 36-4 record in his three years as the starter in Tuscaloosa, as well as been tutored by one of the game's best coaches, Nick Saban, it's hard to overlook the kid's leadership, moxie and winning attitude.

    I doubt he'll be anything higher than a third-rounder in the draft, but if at least one of the comparisons come true, he would develop into a steal for whoever takes the chance on him.

Taijuan Walker

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    Ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect in all of baseball heading into this upcoming season, it's easy to see why the Seattle Mariners hope that the pundits are right when analyzing their stud pitcher, Taijuan Walker.

    Striking out 160 batters in his 140.1 innings in the minors last season before earning one win and a 3.60 ERA in three starts on the senior circuit, Walker has the look and confidence to become an ace.

    Given that he joins a rotation with former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez—who's just 27—and has just about as nasty stuff, the M's could be a dark-horse contender should Taijuan Walker live up to the hype in 2014.

Neymar

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    Pele. Ronaldo. Ronaldinho.

    Those three names are synonymous with greatness when talking about Brazilian soccer through the years—and 21-year-old Neymar is hoping to join them in the conversation.

    After being transferred to Barcelona this past summer, the forward has enjoyed quick success in his short time for Barca.

    But it won't be until playing on the world's biggest stage that Neymar will be judged, as he's the poster boy for the his home country of Brazil in this year's World Cup.

    Expected to go far, the Selecao will have to ride their talented star if they want live out their dreams of a sixth title, so fans will have to see if he can live up to the pressure, expectations and criticism that he's sure to endure this year.

Ayumu Hirano

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    Chances are you've heard of Shaun White.

    After all, "The Flying Tomato" is largely considered the most influential and top snowboarder on the planet in the past decade or so.

    But don't overlook the talented, 15-year-old Ayumu Hirano when it comes to challenging White at this year's Olympics in Sochi.

    Taking silver at the Winter X Games in the superpipe—losing to White—Hirano proved that he may be pint-sized, but he can absolutely soar, and that he is an emerging star on the slopes.

Josh Gordon

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    Besides the talent of the Cleveland Browns receiver, what makes Josh Gordon so intriguing is that he's on thin ice when it comes to off-the-field conduct.

    Already being suspended for a few league violations, Gordon is one strike away from a serious ban from the league office.

    Given that he led the league in receiving yards this year in just 14 games and that he's on a team who rotated three quarterbacks all season long, Gordon's career may be determined in the next season—which is a lot of pressure for a guy who has totaled just 30 NFL games.

Connor McDavid

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    Sure, Connor McDavid might still only be 16 years old and a kid who won't be eligible to be drafted into the NHL until 2015, but that doesn't mean sports fans shouldn't start learning about the Canadian star now.

    On the level of other hyped sports stars like LeBron James and even Wayne Gretzky, McDavid is the type of franchise changer that team's should legitimately consider tanking for.

    Hell, even the top NHL prospect of this year, Sam Reinhart, says that McDavid's a guy who makes it easier for his teammates to play the game, which is saying something about the dude's skills.

    It might be a year or so until we see him on NHL ice, but rest assured that hockey fans will be buzzing even before he makes that first start.

Julius Randle

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    Other college basketball prospects are more talked about because they are wing players and not grind-it-out post players, but make no mistake about Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, kid can hoop.

    In fact, just a few weeks ago, SI.com's Chris Mannix even put the forward on top of his Big Board in the way-too-early draft projections.

    Averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds thus far, the young Randle has a chance to be great both in his presumably only season in Lexington as well as for whichever team decides to draft him, as he's shown to be a man amongst boys on the college level.

Masahiro Tanaka

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    It seems everyone in baseball is  waiting to see what Japanese pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka is worth now that he's hit the open market.

    Is he like Daisuke Matsuzaka when he signed with the Boston Red Sox, or more of Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers?

    Only time will tell. But seeing how he went 24-0—yes, undefeated—with a 1.27 ERA in winning the Japanese League's MVP, one would assume he as the skill to be nasty once in the majors.

Jameis Winston

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    Come on now, the Florida State quarterback just won himself the Heisman Trophy. Of course I'm going to add him to this list.

    Not only did Jameis Winston earn the top individual accolade in all of college football, but he's led his Florida State team to the national title game next week, giving him a chance to get a head start towards greatness in his college career.

    As just a redshirt freshman—and given his skill set—Winston will be under the microscope from now until his playing days are over, so he better hope that he can live up to both the pressure and the praise.

LeBron James and Paul George

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    Whether opinion or fact, Miami Heat all-world talent LeBron James and Indiana Pacers star-in-the-making Paul George are the two best players in the Eastern Conference.

    For that matter, they're both in the spotlight in 2014.

    In James' case, it's his impending free agency that will continue to grab headlines—though less than it did in 2010 when he first had a big decision with the Cleveland Cavaliers—and if he can lead the Heat to a third straight NBA title this summer.

    For George, the question is if he has improved enough to be considered amongst the league's elite two-way players and if he can take the Pacers to the promised land—into the Finals, most likely knocking off their new rivals, LeBron's Miami squad.

Tomas Hertl

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    He may be injured right now, but that only adds to the intrigue of San Jose Sharks phenom Tomas Hertl, because he was great before the knee injury that will sideline him for at least a month, and one can only hope he returns to form once he does return.

    As a superstar in the making—just watch this goal of the year candidate—Hertl is both just 20 years old and a guy who can legitimately make the case as the next Sidney Crosby in the league—but hopefully without all the whining.

Jose Fernandez

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    While there aren't too many fans outside diehard baseball lifers who know his name, Miami Marlins All-Star and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez is someone all fans should familiarize themselves with.

    Besides the aforementioned recognition, Fernandez is a 21-year-old ace who is in the mold of a Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners—a guy who is as dominating as anyone, but doesn't get the recognition because of the lack of his team's advice.

    But ask any opposing batter what they think of this guy, and they'll tell you he's as tough as they come, so we'll have to see how his sophomore season turns out.

Jadeveon Clowney

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    Sure, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has always earned praise as a freak of nature—after all, dude is 6'6", 250 pounds and believes he can run in the 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash.

    But Clowney became a sensation following last year's behemoth of a hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl and has been one of the most highly-touted prospects in the NFL ever since.

    He's the type of guy who GMs seem to overthink about more than they need to, so we should all keep a close eye on where he falls in April's draft—which shouldn't be anywhere outside of the top 10.

Teddy Bridgewater

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    There's a reason why fellow B/R writer Matt Miller believes that Louisville Cardinals signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater will wind up being the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft—because the dude is one hell of a player.

    With skills similar to 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III, the Houston Texans have to decide if the mobile quarterback is worthy of becoming the face of the franchise for what they hope to be a long, long time.

    Bridgewater has already said he's headed to the NFL, so now he has a few months to impress at the scouting events and show that he can have the same success as the recent wave of young quarterbacks in the league have had.

Yasiel Puig

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    Since the middle of last season, there might not have been a more talked about baseball player than the L.A. Dodgers' outfielder Yasiel Puig.

    And with good reason, too.

    Blasting his was onto the scene as a modern-day Bo Jackson-type talent of speed, power and athleticism, Puig took over the league with his brash attitude and extreme play—which was solid and unpredictable at times.

    Who knows how his 2014 season will end up, but at just 23 years old, he's mentioned as a guy who has the talent to be one of baseball's best.

Jabari Parker

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    Although there's a guy in Lawrence, Kan. who might be more talked about, Duke's freshman forward Jabari Parker isn't that far behind in elite status.

    As the nation's No. 4 overall recruit last season, Parker has shown to have a developed game thus far in Durham, averaging more than 20 points and eight boards per game for the seventh-ranked Blue Devils.

    People may argue who will be the bigger star between Parker and Andrew Wiggins, but I say let's just appreciate them both and hope they stage some serious battles over the next couple decades in the NBA, because they're both phenomenal.

Johnny Manziel

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    With apologies to all of those fans out there who can't stand the Texas A&M quarterback, Johnny Manziel is arguably the most polarizing player of the past decade in college football—and has been in all of sports since winning the Heisman Trophy in 2012.

    Between his partying antics off the field as well as his exceptional play on it, "Johnny Football" fans have shown to take notice of the guy.

    Regardless of him returning to school or not—which I doubt he does—Manziel will continue to grab headlines—especially if he continues to put up eye-popping numbers like he did in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Andrew Wiggins

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    The Kansas Jayhawk freshman is the most hyped teenage hoops prospect since LeBron James, so it's only natural that Andrew Wiggins lands atop my list here.

    Talked up as a once-in-a-decade player and the projected No. 1 player in next year's NBA draft, Wiggins has already proved to be a dynamic star in the college ranks, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure and expectations once he presumably arrives in the Association next season.

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