10 Young Sports Stars Who Are Already Legends

Zac WassinkFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2015

10 Young Sports Stars Who Are Already Legends

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    Odell Beckham Jr. is already seen as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
    Odell Beckham Jr. is already seen as one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The youth movement in professional sports today is as promising as we have seen.

    Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has taken the NFL by storm since his rookie season with the New York Giants. While the end of the 2015 NFL regular season has probably not gone as Beckham would have imagined or desired, the 23-year-old remains an electric offensive weapon and arguably the best overall player at his position. His best should be yet to come.

    Critics of Major League Baseball who would claim that the sport is "dying" would do well to take a look at the young superstars making waves throughout that league. Bryce Harper is already considered to be one of the best players in the game, and the 23-year-old is theoretically not yet close to reaching his physical prime. The New York Mets have multiple potential future aces in the team's rotation.

    The cycle of life plays out in the sports world every year. Iconic athletes such as LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Rodriguez, Calvin Johnson and so many other icons will eventually be overtaken by younger stars who are, in the eyes of fans, already legends. The future is bright for the most popular sports in the world.

    In some cases, the future is clearly now.

Katie Ledecky, 18

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    You will probably be familiar with Katie Ledecky in the summer of 2016.
    You will probably be familiar with Katie Ledecky in the summer of 2016.Andy King/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Those of you who only follow Olympic sports such as swimming for a month every four years may be struggling to remember why this name is familiar to you. We believe that you'll be familiar with 18-year-old Katie Ledecky by the end of 2016.

    Ledecky first gained international fame at the London 2012 Summer Olympics when, at 15-years-old, she qualified to compete in the final at the 800-meter freestyle. The American not only won that event. She left no doubt, finishing four seconds ahead of then-21-year-old Spaniard Mireia Belmonte, who took home silver (h/t Sports-Reference).

    As impressive as she was in London, Ledecky was just getting started.

    Ledecky's assaults on world records began at the 2013 FINA World Championships when she notched new marks in the 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle races. She won five gold medals at the 2014 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. Ledecky won five gold medals and broke a trio of world records at the 2015 FINA World Championships (h/t Swimswam).

    Next up for Ledecky: the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.

Noah Syndergaard, 23

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    Flamethrower Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets knew that Alcides Escobar would come out swinging at the first pitch when the Mets hosted the Kansas City Royals in Game 3 of the 2015 World Series on Oct. 30. Syndergaard responded by rifling his opening pitch over the head of the Kansas City leadoff hitter. Members of the Royals were understandably upset after the game.

    Per USA Today, Syndergaard had quite the response when speaking to reporters after the New York victory:

    "If they have a problem with me throwing inside," Syndergaard said, "then they can meet me 60-feet, six-inches away. I've got no problem with that."

    That alone was enough to make the 23-year-old a legend in the eyes of New York fans. It also doesn't hurt that Syndergaard routinely throws in the high 90s during starts. His flowing, blond hair has also earned him the nickname "Thor." Fans of the Mets dress up as the fictional superhero whenever Syndergaard makes a start at Citi Field.

    Syndergaard is one of five potential aces currently signed by the Mets.

Jordan Spieth, 22

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    It could be argued that no sport featured in this piece needs a young star to carry the torch more than golf. Enter Jordan Spieth, who has seemingly welcomed the challenge with open arms.

    Spieth was first noticed by casual followers of the Professional Golfers' Association during the 2014 edition of the Masters Tournament. Then 20 years old, Spieth was tied for first after 54 holes. He had a two-stroke lead in the final round of the tournament, but he shot three-over in the final 11 holes to finish behind only then-35 year-old Bubba Watson (h/t PGA.com).

    Spieth learned from that experience, and he made no such errors a year later. In a performance that conjured up memories of a young Tiger Woods, Spieth held the lead at Augusta for all four rounds (h/t MSN.com). Spieth became the first player in history to be 19-under at a Masters Tournament, and his final score of 18-under tied Woods' record score for the tournament.

    Spieth wasn't done. He went on to win the U.S. Open, becoming the first person since Woods to complete the Masters/U.S. Open double (h/t USA Today). Spieth will be 22 years old when he next tackles the Masters Tournament.

    Anybody want to bet against him?

John Tavares, 25

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    John Tavares hopes to make New York a hockey town.
    John Tavares hopes to make New York a hockey town.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    New York is not a hockey town. Local fans embrace the New York Yankees and New York Mets, particularly when those teams are playing meaningful, fall baseball. Both the New York Giants and New York Jets dominate sports talk radio airwaves for at least half of the year because football is king. The New York Rangers register small blips on the radarbut only when the team is in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

    John Tarvares is looking to put the New York Islanders back on the map.

    The No. 1 pick of the 2009 NHL draft, Tarvares has been the key figure for an Islanders club attempting to return to its glory days. The 25-year-old is far and away the most popular player for the team that calls the Barclays Center and Brooklyn home.

    Tarvares is more than just hype. He showed in 2014-15 that he has the goods to be one of the best attacking players in all of the NFL. Only 26-year-old Jamie Benn finished last season with more points than Tarvares (h/t NHL.com). Yes, that means that Tarvares was statistically better than 28-year-old Sidney Crosby, 30-year-old Alexander Ovechkin and other recognizable names.

Harry Kane, 22

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    "He scores when he wants! He scores when he wants! Harry Kane, he scores when he wants!"

    Formerly a young Tottenham Hotspur prospect who appeared headed toward obscurity, Kane has become a beloved figure who is showered with praise from adoring crowds whenever he plays at White Hart Lane.

    Following a group of loan spells, Kane received an opportunity to feature for the Tottenham senior squad during the 2014-15 campaign. Then 21 years old, the forward did not disappoint. Kane buried 31 total goals. Twenty-one of those were scored in Premier League play (h/t BBC.com). Kane joined 49-year-old Teddy Sheringham, current U.S. men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and 26-year-old Gareth Bale as the only Tottenham players to ever score that many goals in an EPL season.

    Kane again made Hotspur history at the end of 2015 when he notched his 27th Premier League goal in 2015. That broke a club record for a calendar year that had been set by Sheringham.

Todd Gurley, 21

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    Todd Gurley was a legend for fantasy football players in 2015.
    Todd Gurley was a legend for fantasy football players in 2015.Stephen Brashear/Associated Press/Associated Press

    It is no longer rare to hear NFL analysts and experts claim that teams should shy away from drafting a running back in the first round of any draft. Todd Gurley has thus far shown that he was worthy of being taken 10th overall in 2015.

    Gurley was compared to all-time great running backs, such as 30-year-old Adrian Peterson (h/t ESPN.com), after he rushed for more yards in his first four starts than any other RB since the NFL/AFL merger (h/t ESPN.com). In just one month, Gurley had become the best young back in the game. He is a must-play for those who participate in weekly fantasy football competitions.

    As should have been expected, Gurley eventually hit a rookie wall. While he will not win the rushing title in his first year in the league, Gurley was selected to the 2016 NFL Pro Bowl squad. We may not yet know which city the St. Louis Rams will call home by the end of the decade. However, it does appear that the Rams have something special in the 21-year-old workhorse.

Bryce Harper, 23

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    Everybody assumes Bryce Harper will one day be a future star for the New York Yankees, right?
    Everybody assumes Bryce Harper will one day be a future star for the New York Yankees, right?Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Bryce Harper is everything an MLB club could want out of a budding superstar. The 2012 National League Rookie of the Year is a three-time All-Star. Harper took home National League Most Valuable Player honors for 2015 even though the Washington Nationals right fielder choked the division title away to the New York Mets. Harper turned just 23 years old on October 16 of this year (h/t Baseball-Reference.com). 

    Most worrisome for fans of the Nationals is that it appears that it is only a matter of time before Harper joins up with the New York Yankees.

    Head on over to your favorite search engine and type in "Bryce Harper" and "Yankees." You'll be busy reading stories for at least an hour. As explained by Joe Giglio of NJ.com in November, the Yankees could already be planning to make a move for Harper in 2019.

    You think Harper is a legend now? Wait and see what happens if he wins awards and championships while with the Yankees.

Neymar, 23

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    Neymar can be a polarizing figure among diehard soccer fans who have followed his career. The on-the-ball skills flashed by the 23-year-old are what one would expect to see in an edition of a FIFA video game. Alleged dives that Neymar has committed while playing for club or country have, however, earned him criticism from analysts and fans alike (h/t the Daily Mail).

    Even his biggest detractors can no longer deny that Neymar has become one of the top footballers in the world. Bill Haisley of Deadspin discussed Neymar's greatness this past November:

    Last year, thanks to his 39 goals in all competitions with Barcelona, his growing physical presence complementing his already lethal dribbling ability, his ever-increasing creative talents, and the hive mind that has developed between him, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez, we finally reached the prophesied "One day" foretold in the old adage "One day, Neymar is going to be one of the best players in the world." Rather than stopping there, Neymar has continued his ascent to the very upper echelon of the sport, getting even better and better.

    The trio of Neymar, 28-year-old Lionel Messi and 28-year-old Luis Suarez helped Barcelona win the treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles) last season. It is a safe bet that Neymar will continue filling the Barcelona trophy case for years to come.

Kyrie Irving, 23

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    Kyrie Irving will be a Cleveland sports hero if he helps the Cavaliers win an NBA championship.
    Kyrie Irving will be a Cleveland sports hero if he helps the Cavaliers win an NBA championship.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

    When all is said and done, Kyrie Irving could be the biggest U.S. legend among the athletes featured in this piece. Irving plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers in a city that has not been able to celebrate a professional sports championship in over 50 years. The 23-year-old is the heir apparent in Cleveland to 30-year-old LeBron James. Irving's "Uncle Drew" persona is an advertiser's dream.

    Just one thing continues to be missing: a title.

    Think back to what could have been last June had Irving not injured his knee in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Perhaps the Cavaliers would have been able to win that contest and then complete the road sweep of the Golden State Warriors. A healthy Irving and James could then have led the Cavs back east with a 2-0 series lead.

    What if?

    Irving returned to the court on December 20, just in time to provide the Cavs with a badly needed spark. With James struggling through a slump, it was Irving who helped carry Cleveland to a road win against the Phoenix Suns on December 28 (h/t Cleveland.com).

    Irving could prove to be Cleveland's MVP if the Cavs go on to win the NBA championship this coming June.

Odell Beckham Jr., 23

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    You have seen the highlights of his one-handed catches. You have either been entertained or voiced hot takes when he has danced in end zones after scoring. He is Odell Beckham Jr., the New York Giants wide receiver who made history in the first 25 games of his NFL career (h/t NJ.com).

    It is ridiculous, after the fact, to think that some fans of the Giants were nervous when Beckham missed training camp, the preseason and the first month of the 2014 season because of lingering hamstring issues.

    Beckham was in the news recently after he was suspended for a game by the NFL following multiple incidents that occurred when the Giants hosted the Carolina Panthers on December 20. How the 23-year-old responds following that ban will say a lot about his maturation as his second professional season concludes.

    Beckham has the physical attributes and the skills needed to have a career for the ages. His worst enemy may be himself if he cannot control his anger on the field. Opposing players are now armed with the knowledge that they can get under Beckham's skin.

    Will Beckham be more like Hall of Famer Jerry Rice or retired wide receiver Randy Moss when all is said and done? Only time will tell.