10 'What Could Have Been' Athletes of the 2000s

Zac Wassink@https://twitter.com/ZacWassinkFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2016

10 'What Could Have Been' Athletes of the 2000s

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    Jon Jones should be a UFC champion today.
    Jon Jones should be a UFC champion today.John Locher/Associated Press

    Many athletes never reach their full potential for whatever reasons. These types of stories play out in sports practically every year.

    Some are their own worst enemies. Former UFC champion Jon Jones and former NFL wide receiver Justin Blackmon are two examples. Both Jones and Blackmon possess special physical attributes, and yet both men seem destined to become "whatever happened to..." stories mentioned in passing a decade from now.

    Others hit figurative walls during their careers because of physical setbacks. Derrick Rose theoretically should be entering his physical prime this fall. Instead, he is already a shell of his former self as it pertains to his offensive production. Brock Lesnar suffered from a serious intestinal disorder during his fighting career.

    Life often gets in the way of what should be tremendous careers.

    Not every athlete featured in this piece failed to achieve great things. A few won titles, and others remain beloved among certain fanbases. All, however, will be remembered for what could have been had certain circumstances played out differently.

    Opportunities sometimes come and go in the blink of an eye. Young athletes everywhere would do well to remember that.

Robert Griffin III

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    Robert Griffin III is trying to save his career with the Cleveland Browns.
    Robert Griffin III is trying to save his career with the Cleveland Browns.Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Where did it all go wrong for quarterback Robert Griffin III?

    Griffin's injury history is no mystery. Kenny Ducey of SI.com wrote about Griffin's injury woes earlier this year. Knee problems sidelined Griffin on multiple occasions. Griffin missed nearly half of the 2014 campaign because of an ankle sprain. A concussion sidelined Griffin during the 2015 preseason.

    QBs return from injuries. Injuries alone didn't relegate the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year to playing safety for the Washington scout team in September 2015. There's more to the story.

    Chris Cooley, who played alongside Griffin in Washington, spoke about the quarterback this past spring while appearing on ESPN 980. Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post jotted down some of Cooley's comments (h/t ESPN.com):

    The offensive line did not like Robert Griffin, a lot of the receivers did not like Robert Griffin. The offensive line had a problem with Robert, because they were considered for a year-and-a-half or two years a terrible offensive line that couldn't protect a quarterback. A lot of that isn't true. A lot of that was Robert. A lot of the sacks were put on Robert. Want to believe it or not, they were, OK? Football-wise, they were: It was Robert.

    ...

    Receivers didn't like playing with Robert, because they didn't get the ball.

    Griffin signed with the Cleveland Browns earlier this year. He will likely start for the Browns when Cleveland opens the regular season in September. Griffin's body is not what it was four years ago, and thus he'll need to be more than a great teammate to find success with the Browns.

    Can Griffin evolve as a QB? We should have our answer to that question by the end of this year.

Amar'e Stoudemire

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    Amar'e Stoudemire suffered numerous injuries during his career.
    Amar'e Stoudemire suffered numerous injuries during his career.Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    "The Knicks are back." Amar’e Stoudemire famously declared this, per New York Daily News staffers, after joining the New York Knicks on a five-year deal worth $100 million in July 2010.

    Stoudemire was not only wrong. He did more than harm than good for the Knicks in the long run. 

    Stoudemire was not a complete bust during his career. He was a five-time NBA All-Star from 2004 through 2010 while with the Phoenix Suns. As Alex Wong of Sports on Earth wrote following Stoudemire's retirement from the NBA last month, Stoudemire established himself as one of the best big men in the NBA during the 2004-05 campaign:

    The 2004-05 season was when Amar'e emerged as one of the most dominant offensive players in the league. At age 22, running alongside Steve Nash, Stoudemire averaged 26.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and shot 55.9 percent from the field. The Suns won 62 games and had a league-leading offense during the regular season. In the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs, Stoudemire went up against Tim Duncan and averaged 37.8 points and 9.8 rebounds. The Suns lost in five games.

    Stoudemire underwent microfracture surgery to repair knee cartilage damage in the fall of 2005. While Stoudemire recovered and played well for the Suns during his final four seasons with the club, knee problems plagued him through the end of his NBA career.

    Stoudemire's single All-Star season with the Knicks that occurred in 2010-11 was barely a memory when he and the Knicks parted ways in February 2015. NJ.com recently listed Stoudemire as one of the worst signings in Knicks history.

    Talented NBA big men who remain healthy enjoy long careers. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are two examples. Stoudemire's body betrayed him well before he could match the accomplishments of those two all-time greats.

Grady Sizemore

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    Grady Sizemore put up MVP numbers before injuries derailed his career.
    Grady Sizemore put up MVP numbers before injuries derailed his career.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Grady Sizemore was more than a highly touted prospect early in his career. Sizemore proved he could produce in Major League Baseball.

    According to Baseball-Reference.com, Sizemore earned Most Valuable Player votes in each season from 2005 through 2008. Sizemore missed a total of nine regular-season games over that period of time. Sizemore hit 33 home runs and drove home 90 RBI, both career highs, in 2008.

    Sizemore suffered a groin injury in 2009. That, as Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe pointed out, was only the beginning:

    In 2009, the surgeries started. First a left elbow surgery. Then a hernia. Then a left knee surgery. Then another hernia and a right knee surgery. Then another right knee surgery.

    Sizemore staggered through all that through the 2011 season, then had surgery on his lower back in 2012—his seventh surgery in four years. 

    Sizemore did not play in a single game during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns. He failed to find long-term homes with the Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies or Tampa Bay Rays. The 34-year-old is currently a free agent.

    There is likely no happy ending to this story. Sizemore last played for an MLB club in 2015.

    Sizemore could do it all during his best days with the Indians. He hit for power and for average. Sizemore won multiple Gold Gloves. He accomplished all of that before his 26th birthday and what should have been his physical prime.

    Unfortunately for Sizemore, that prime never came.

Brock Lesnar

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    Brock Lesnar could have been the greatest heavyweight in UFC history.
    Brock Lesnar could have been the greatest heavyweight in UFC history.John Locher/Associated Press

    Back in November 2013, a piece posted on FoxSports.com listed Brock Lesnar at No. 19 among the greatest UFC fighters in history. That's impressive considering Lesnar held an official UFC record of 4-3 at that time.

    Lesnar first found fame and fortune working for the World Wrestling Federation. The accomplished collegiate heavyweight wrestler signed with the company in 2000, and Lesnar went on to win the WWE Championship on multiple occasions. Lesnar left the WWE in the spring of 2004, and he eventually signed with the UFC in 2007.

    The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

    Lesnar, a physical marvel who moved like a middleweight despite his massive frame (6'3", 265 lbs), proved to be a quick learner. He won the UFC heavyweight title in only his third fight for the promotion in November 2008. Lesnar successfully defended that championship against Frank Mir, who beat Lesnar in his UFC debut.

    Lesnar was then sidelined by diverticulitis up through the summer of 2010, when he submitted interim champion Shane Carwin to unify the heavyweight titles at UFC 116.

    As Dan McQuade of the Guardian wrote, the diverticulitis hit Lesnar during the prime of his UFC career. Lesnar lost his championship to Cain Velasquez in October 2010, and Lesnar never again fought for the title.

    What if Lesnar had never gotten sick? What if Lesnar had signed with the UFC out of college or at a time when the UFC is far more popular than it was 16 years ago? In either scenario, Lesnar is probably the greatest heavyweight in UFC history.

Michael Vick

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    Bad choices cost Michael Vick years of his career.
    Bad choices cost Michael Vick years of his career.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Michael Vick was an electric athlete while serving as the starting quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. Vick, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, rushed for 21 touchdowns and 3,859 yards during his time with the Falcons. Vick tossed 71 touchdown passes in those six seasons.

    Vick was also far from a perfect QB.

    Vick completed fewer than 54 percent of his pass attempts as an Atlanta QB. He matched those 92 touchdowns with 52 interceptions. Opposing defenses picked Vick off a total of 38 times from 2004 through 2006.

    Vick then lost multiple seasons due to the dog fighting scandal that landed the talented athlete behind bars. 

    The Philadelphia Eagles awarded Vick with a second chance before the 2009 regular season. Vick received an opportunity to start for the Eagles the following year. He didn't disappoint, throwing 21 touchdown passes in 12 starts. Vick averaged only 0.5 interceptions per start for the Eagles. He completed a career-high 62.6 percent of his passes. Vick rushed for nine touchdowns. 

    A 36-year-old Vick looking to land one final NFL contract this summer would probably provide useful life advice to a 2001 version of himself if given the chance. Let's say, in an imaginary world, that's possible, and that you could combine the maturity and intelligence of a 2010 version of Vick with the great athlete who guided Atlanta offenses from 2004 through 2006. 

    How well does that Vick play over the course of a full career? 

David Wright

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    David Wright is likely sidelined through at least the rest of 2016.
    David Wright is likely sidelined through at least the rest of 2016.Ron Blum/Associated Press

    A New York Mets fan will one day write a book about the career of third baseman David Wright. Other Mets fans will weep real tears as they remember all that Wright gave to the club. 

    Wright's offensive numbers speak for themselves. Per the official Mets website, Wright holds franchise records for hits, runs, doubles and RBI. Wright is, at worst, one of the greatest overall players in the history of the Mets. 

    What's remarkable about Wright's career is that he played on some lousy teams over the past decade. 

    The 2006 Mets fell a game shy of appearing in the World Series. New York collapsed and choked-away a division title and playoff spot the subsequent September. The Mets didn't make the playoffs in 2008. From 2009 through 2014, per Baseball-Reference.com, the Mets failed to win at least 80 games in a single season. 

    Wright never forced a trade. In a world of free agency that includes players pursuing money and championships, Wright remained a one-club man. Wright, per Spotrac, signed an eight-year contract extension with the Mets in the fall of 2012. 

    Wright received another opportunity to play postseason baseball with the Mets in the fall of 2015. Spinal stenosis sidelined Wright earlier in the season, however, and Wright was largely a non-factor at the plate during the team's run to the World Series. 

    Wright underwent surgery in June 2016 to repair a ruptured disc in his neck. Wright's return date is unknown as of this time. 

    Wright turns 34 years old in December. That's young in baseball years. David Ortiz is crushing the ball at the age of 40. Ortiz, though, was never sidelined because of spinal stenosis or a concerning neck injury during his 30s. 

    Wright deserved better in a fair world, but no such world exists. 

Derrick Rose

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    Derrick Rose last won an MVP award five years ago.
    Derrick Rose last won an MVP award five years ago.Associated Press

    Derrick Rose won the NBA MVP award in 2011. 

    Rose, per Basketball-Reference.com, played in 81 regular-season games for the Chicago Bulls that season. He averaged 25 points and 37.4 minutes per game, both career highs for the point guard. Rose was only 22 years old with a bright career ahead of him at the time. 

    That is, to date, the high point of Rose's pro career. 

    Rose's injury history is well-documented. Fox Sports put together an image that details the injuries Rose suffered throughout his time with the Bulls. Scott Chiusano of the New York Daily News chronicled Rose's injury history after Rose joined the New York Knicks. 

    Rose last averaged over 20 points per game during the 2011-12 campaign. That was before Rose missed an entire season because of a torn ACL. Rose failed to convert at least 30 percent of his three-point attempts in each of the past two seasons. He consistently averages fewer than five assists per game these days. 

    Rose turns 28 years old in October. That's relatively young in NBA years. Rose, however, is a veteran beyond his years who is maybe already past his physical prime. 

    Rose winning another MVP award in the future seems unlikely. 

Landon Donovan

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    Landon Donovan spent his best years in Major League Soccer rather than in the Premier League.
    Landon Donovan spent his best years in Major League Soccer rather than in the Premier League.Associated Press

    A panel of experts compiled by the Guardian named Landon Donovan the greatest male American soccer player in history back in July 2015. 

    Donovan is an easy choice for such an honor.

    Donovan retired as the leading scorer in the history of his country's national team and of Major League Soccer. Donovan hoisted the MLS Cup on four different occasions. The L.A. Galaxy team featuring Donovan, David Beckham, Robbie Keane and others is arguably the greatest squad to ever play in the North American top flight. The MLS MVP award is named after Donovan. 

    The "what could have been" portion of Donovan's career pertains to his time spent overseas. 

    Donovan left no doubt during a loan spell with Everton that began in January 2010 that he could do more than hang in a European top flight. The midfielder, per Goal.com, won Everton Player of the Month honors for his play during the first month of that loan stint.

    Donovan made a brief return to Everton in January 2012. Per the official Everton FC website, Donovan notched six assists in nine games during what would be the final Premier League stint of his career. 

    Donovan never owed it to fans or anybody else to play in one of Europe's elite leagues. We still cannot help but wonder what could have been had Donovan explored his options outside of MLS in the winter of 2010. Donovan was a 27-year-old still finding his feet and form at the club and international levels at that point of his career. 

    Imagine how much fun American fans could have had watching Donovan and Clint Dempsey play together at Fulham for a season or two. 

Justin Blackmon

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    Justin Blackmon's NFL career is probably over.
    Justin Blackmon's NFL career is probably over.Stephen Morton/Associated Press

    Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon last played in the NFL in Week 8 of the 2013 season. Blackmon has been suspended ever since for multiple violations of the NFL's substance-abuse policy

    No wonder ESPN's Mike DiRocco labeled Blackmon "the biggest mistake in franchise history." 

    As DiRocco wrote this past April, Blackmon entered the 2012 NFL draft with blemishes on his resume. He was arrested on a misdemeanor DUI charge in 2010. The Jaguars nevertheless took a chance on Blackmon, who Walter Cherepinsky of WalterFootball.com once compared to Terrell Owens, by trading up to the fifth pick to grab the Oklahoma State wideout. 

    Blackmon, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, appeared in all 16 of Jacksonville's regular-season contests during his rookie campaign. He finished that season with 64 receptions, five touchdowns and 865 receiving yards. The Jaguars seemed on the verge of cashing in on their gamble. 

    Blackmon played only four more games for Jacksonville before receiving an indefinite suspension that remains intact. 

    Blackmon is no closer to playing football today than he was in 2013. He was arrested on DUI charges last December. 

    Blackmon ever playing another down in the NFL seems unlikely. The memories of his performances during his rookie season fade with each passing year. Unlike others mentioned in this piece, Blackmon's fall came before his rise ever started. 

Jon Jones

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    Jon Jones may have to wait two years before he can again fight in the UFC.
    Jon Jones may have to wait two years before he can again fight in the UFC.John Locher/Associated Press

    On the day before UFC 200, ESPN's Arash Markazi wrote the following about Jon Jones: 

    Jones, who has won 13 straight fights since 2010, has a pristine record inside the Octagon. If his career ended today, he would go down as one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in UFC history, but his biggest opponent has consistently been himself. No one has done more damage to Jon Jones during his career than Jon Jones.

    Jones, physically speaking, is the total package, a prototype for somebody building an elite light heavyweight. Jones can beat you standing up or on the mat. Jones' 84-inch reach, as detailed by Patrick Wyman of the Washington Post, is unmatched by anybody in the division. Since the spring of 2010, those able to maintain distance and last until the end of fights lost to Jones via decisions. 

    Too bad Jones' physical traits and athleticism couldn't save him from himself. 

    Jones tested positive for cocaine roughly one month before he defeated Daniel Cormier at UFC 182 in January 2015. Per Damon Martin of Fox Sports, Jones checked out of a rehabilitation center after 24 hours.

    The UFC stripped Jones of his UFC light heavyweight championship in April 2015 following a hit-and-run accident that injured a pregnant woman. 

    Jones' comeback began this past spring when he dominated an over-matched Ovince Saint Preux and won the interim light heavyweight championship at UFC 197. Jones and Cormier were scheduled to fight in a title unification bout at UFC 200, but Jones was removed from the fight the week of the event due to a potential doping violation. 

    Jones may face a two-year ban. 

    Jones turns 31 years old in July 2018. Two years away from the sport shouldn't end his career. There's also no guarantee Jones will ever again fight in the UFC. 

    What a shame.