10 Small-Market Stars Commanding Mainstream Attention

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2016

10 Small-Market Stars Commanding Mainstream Attention

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo is elevating over Milwaukee's small market to snag the superstar billing he deserves.
    Giannis Antetokounmpo is elevating over Milwaukee's small market to snag the superstar billing he deserves.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    It's naive to believe all sports markets are treated equally.

    Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott wouldn't garner as much national buzz if they hadn't performed their stellar rookie campaigns for the Dallas Cowboys. (They also wouldn't have dazzled at such a high level behind a lesser offensive line.) Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant and David Ortiz wouldn't have received massive farewell tours if their brilliant careers unfolded in front of fewer cameras.

    Playing for a media magnet obviously boosts an athlete's brand value, but a small-market star isn't necessarily doomed. In the most extreme instance, wherever LeBron James goes immediately becomes the attraction.

    If someone keeps dominating, sports fans will take notice even if the games are played at a YMCA. Players in ignored locations, however, need to shine brighter and wait longer before joining the mainstream conversation.

    For the sake of this list, established veteran superstars (James, Russell Westbrook, Joey Votto, Drew Brees, Evan Longoria) were not considered. Nor were teams like the Green Bay Packers and San Antonio Spurs, who outgrew their markets to earn notoriety.

    Spending power and national attention often matter more than an area's population. Many of these franchises have personally inflicted those wounds with poor performance, but success is not a disqualifier if the team continues to fall under the radar. 

    True fans know these names well, but look for them to receive more recognition in 2017.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo has ascended into superstardom this season.
    Giannis Antetokounmpo has ascended into superstardom this season.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Slowly but surely, everyone is realizing that they need to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    Sorry, fellow sportswriters, but it's time to get that last name down pat. Playing as a 6'11" point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, he has registered a mouth-watering 23.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks per contest.

    An athletic freak with everything but a perimeter shot, the 22-year-old was considered a project pick when drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013. His rapid maturation caused Bucks head coach Jason Kidd to set his ceiling in another galaxy.

    "Having [been] around some of the best in the world in LeBron (James) and Dirk (Nowitzki), wouldn't it be cool to have those two combined as one player?" Kidd asked ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst"Maybe that could happen."

    If he develops a better jumper, that's not an entirely far-fetched aspiration.

    Why isn't he already treated as a must-watch phenom? Per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner, Kidd somewhat jokingly blamed the Greek Freak's hard-to-pronounce name. Playing in Milwaukee for a team that hasn't won a first-round playoff series since 2001 doesn't help either.

    The Bucks rarely ever receive the national spotlight, but that should change next year. Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker have turned them into an intriguing squad who could invade the postseason sooner than expected.

Viktor Arvidsson

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    Viktor Arvidsson has tallied 23 points for the Nashville Predators this season.
    Viktor Arvidsson has tallied 23 points for the Nashville Predators this season.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    Less than midway into the 2016-17 season, Viktor Arvidsson has set a career high in goals (nine) and assists (14). Tied with Ryan Johansen for a team-leading 23 points, the undersized forward also leads the Nashville Predators with 107 shots on goal.

    This is coming from a 5'9", 180-pound player selected in the fourth round two years ago. Per Spotrac, he's earning $631,667 this season.

    Arvidsson has already won his teammates' adoration. P.K. Subban praised his younger peer to the Tennessean's Joe Rexrode:

    Every night, he’s been there. From the drop of the puck in the first game, he’s been ready to go. I knew he was a good player when I got here, but I didn’t know he could elevate his game to the way he’s playing now. That says a lot about him. But with that elevation comes expectations, and that’s what we expect from him every night.

    Ranked No. 26 in Forbes' 2016 NHL franchise valuations, the Predators can relate to their diminutive, overlooked rising star.

Brian Dozier

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    Brian Dozier went on a power tear after 2016's MLB All-Star break.
    Brian Dozier went on a power tear after 2016's MLB All-Star break.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Brian Dozier, who was not selected as a 2016 MLB All-Star, smashed 28 home runs after the game intended to honor baseball's best players. Maybe there's a flaw in drawing that distinction roughly midway through the season.

    In 72 games following the Midsummer Classic, the second baseman batted .291/.344/.646, at one point going deep nine times over an eight-game window. Despite his late power surge, the Minnesota Twins finished an MLB-worst 59-103. 

    The franchise isn't as frugal as before. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, it surpassed a $100 million payroll in 2010 and opened 2016 at approximately $105 million. Nevertheless, it closed the season with the 20th-highest payroll, a large chunk of which goes to fading face-of-the-franchise Joe Mauer.

    Dozier has two more years remaining on an incredibly team-friendly contract owing him a mere $15 million. Just about every reader would gladly take that salary in a heartbeat, but he will easily command more per year on the open market if he stays healthy.

    It's not a guarantee the Twins watch him walk away. They ponied up to keep Mauer in town, and his lavish contract expires the same time as Dozier enters free agency.

    Then again, they may instead choose to sell high on his extravagant second half. Per Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, two big-market rivals, the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, have expressed interest.

    As his team plummeted down the standings, Dozier drew headlines during the summer. Next summer, he may once again dominant baseball discussions because of a heated race to acquire his services.

Jack Eichel

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    Jack Eichel has scored eight points in 12 games this season.
    Jack Eichel has scored eight points in 12 games this season.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    After missing the first seven weeks with an injured ankle, Jack Eichel made the wait worthwhile by accruing eight points in his first seven games back. Although the 20-year-old center has since gone scoreless in five contests, his initial burst briefly spread cheer to the Buffalo Sabres fanbase.

    Last year's No. 2 overall pick may spend his entire career known as the guy picked after Connor McDavid, but the Boston College standout would have merited the top choice most other years. Buffalo missed out on the Edmonton Oilers' emerging superstar, but it received its own franchise cornerstone who has contributed immediately.

    As a teenage rookie, Eichel recorded 32 assists and a team-high 24 goals. The Sabres, however, have a lot of work to do around their young star. Currently tied with the New York Islanders for an Eastern Conference-low 32 points, they're likely to miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season.

    At least they have a marketable star, even if he takes a back seat to McDavid. An offense that has scored just 2.1 goals per contest badly needs his shooting skills to rise back to relevancy, but it won't matter where he's playing at his peak. NHL fans will all notice.

Mike Evans

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    Mike Evans has reeled in 91 receptions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.
    Mike Evans has reeled in 91 receptions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Not always mentioned in the same class as Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans has operated on par with those elite wide receivers this year.

    The 23-year-old's 1,256 receiving yards trail T.Y. Hilton and the trio above for fifth in the NFL. Only Jordy Nelson—whom he's tied with for fifth with 91 catches—and Brown have compiled more receiving touchdowns than his 11. 

    Following an underwhelming sophomore season, Evans has claimed his spot as an elite NFL wideout. Last year's three touchdowns may say more about rookie quarterback Jameis Winston learning the ropes.

    The young duo has developed a strong rapport this season for the 8-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose playoff hopes dwindled after a Week 16 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Regardless of what happens during the final weekend, they have still secured their highest win tally since 2010.

    Perhaps the high-profile pairing will vault Tampa Bay to higher status. It hasn't worked yet, as the franchise has drawn the fifth-worst average home attendance this season, per ESPN.com.

Rudy Gobert

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    Rudy Gobert makes the Utah Jazz a dangerous Western Conference sleeper.
    Rudy Gobert makes the Utah Jazz a dangerous Western Conference sleeper.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    The Utah Jazz are trying to defy all modern NBA conventions. In addition to contending without a top-tier superstar, they rely on their defense bullying smaller adversaries.

    Per Basketball-Reference.com, they play at the league's slowest pace. They also relinquish an NBA-low 95.2 points per contest while ranking among the top 10 in offensive (No. 10) and defensive rating (No. 5).

    They don't possess a major superstar, but Rudy Gobert is getting close.

    The 24-year-old center has anchored Utah's defense with 2.6 blocks—second behind Anthony Davis—and 11.9 rebounds per contest. He's no offensive slouch either, wielding an NBA-best 69.8 field-goal percentage on his limited shot attempts. His 5.4 win shares, per Basketball-Reference, rank sixth in the Association.

    Despite a three-game losing streak, the 18-13 Jazz currently hold the Western Conference's No. 7 seed with the NBA's seventh-highest average point differential (plus-3.9). As Gobert told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe earlier in December, the young team is not content with simply snapping a four-year playoff drought.

    "I'm not curious anymore," Gobert said. "I'm sure we can be a top team. Top four in the NBA. I feel like we could beat everybody. Why not?"

    He's setting the bar a tad high, but Utah could move up the standings and win a first-round series with The Stifle Tower clogging the paint.

Travis Kelce

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    Travis Kelce leads all tight ends in receptions and receiving yards this season.
    Travis Kelce leads all tight ends in receptions and receiving yards this season.Jason Hanna/Getty Images

    With Rob Gronkowski unable to defend his throne, Travis Kelce stole the title of top tight end on Christmas.

    Late in the first quarter of Week 16's 33-10 win over the Denver Broncos, the 27-year-old broke a bubble screen for an 80-yard touchdown. Per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star, his 158 receiving yards set a team record for most in a game by a tight end.

    This is a franchise that employed Tony Gonzalez for 12 years.

    Finally realizing the annual breakout predictions, Kelce now leads the position in catches (84) and receiving yards (1,117). He has tallied triple-digit yards in five of the last six games, all while setting up rushing touchdowns from Alex Smith and Tyreek Hill with key blocks.

    "He's the premier catching tight end in the league," Smith said after Sunday night's win, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher. "To have two huge blocks like that to spring guys...he does a lot for us. Obviously catching the football is the main thing but helping us win any way he can, that's just the kind of team we have."

    His dating show, Catching Kelce, may also award him mainstream attention for a different reason, but let's forgive his foray into reality TV. Because of his emergence as a superstar tight end, everyone must take the 11-4 Chiefs seriously as a championship contender. 

Francisco Lindor

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    Francisco Lindor jumped into the national spotlight during the 2016 MLB playoffs.
    Francisco Lindor jumped into the national spotlight during the 2016 MLB playoffs.Elsa/Getty Images

    Winning fixes everything. One of baseball's least-appreciated young studs in the summer, Francisco Lindor earned universal acclaim during the fall.

    According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, the Cleveland Indians haven't finished the season above No. 20 in payroll since 2002. Per ESPN.com, they netted the third-worst average home attendance despite winning the American League pennant in 2016.

    With so few eyes on him, the shortstop couldn't win over casual MLB fans. After losing a hotly contested 2015 AL Rookie of the Year race to Carlos Correa, he hit .301/.358/.435 with 15 homers and 99 runs scored in 2016. On the strength of his Gold Glove-winning defense at a premium position, his 6.3 WAR, per FanGraphs, rated eighth among all position players.

    He still finished tied for ninth with Miguel Cabrera, who posted 4.9 WAR, in the AL MVP voting conducted before Cleveland reached the World Series.

    Lindor demonstrated his immense value in the big spotlight by batting .310/.355/.466 with more spectacular fieldwork throughout the playoffs. Everyone now better respect his talents entering 2017, especially since the Indians should remain prominent contenders after reportedly signing star slugger Edwin Encarnacion, per Jordan Bastian of MLB.com.

Wil Myers

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    Wil Myers tallied 28 home runs and 28 stolen bases for the San Diego Padres in 2016.
    Wil Myers tallied 28 home runs and 28 stolen bases for the San Diego Padres in 2016.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    After floating around small-market teams early in his career, Wil Myers has found a home at his third stop.

    Before the highly touted prospect reached the majors, Kansas City Royals flipped him to the Tampa Bay Rays. Although the move drew some weary glances at first, critics ate crow when James Shields offered two strong seasons and Wade Davis closed the door on a championship.

    Besides, Myers fizzled in Tampa Bay, prompting another trade to join Shields on the San Diego Padres. Injuries wiped out most of his 2015 welcoming, but he finally made good on his hype by staying fit for the entire 2016 campaign. In his first full season, he hit .259/.336/.462 with 28 home runs and 28 stolen bases.

    Petco Park has developed a pitchers'-park reputation, but he did his best work at home, where he notched a .954 OPS and 18 dingers. Despite fading down the stretch with a .223/.316/.381 second-half slash line, the 26-year-old finally showed what all the fuss was about.

    The 68-94 Padres netted baseball's worst team batting average (.235) and on-base percentage (.299), per FanGraphs, and they will enter 2017 with a gutted payroll after unloading Shields and Matt Kemp last season. At least the Friars found one strong building block in Myers.

Jalen Ramsey

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    Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey has shut down opposing wideouts throughout his rookie season.
    Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey has shut down opposing wideouts throughout his rookie season.Bob Levey/Getty Images

    The Jacksonville Jaguars were supposed to improve this year. They will instead, at 3-12, enter Week 17 fighting to preserve a top-five draft pick.

    Their disappointing season, caused largely by a regressing No. 26-ranked offense, hides a quietly potent No. 4 defense led by rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey. After wasting several early first-round choices over the years—see Blaine Gabbert, Justin Blackmon and Luke Joeckel—they hit a home run with 2016's No. 5 overall selection.

    He left his fingerprints all over Week 16's 38-17 upset over the Tennessee Titans, recording four tackles, four passes defended and a pick-six. The previous week, he snagged his first career interception and forced a fumble.

    As shown by Big Cat Country's Zach Goodall, the 22-year-old broke up passes in the end zone during both games.

    Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner also highlighted Ramsey's dominance on Twitter. In the last four games, opponents have mustered a 34.5 completion percentage and 145 yards against the highest-graded cornerback over that stretch.

    While the Jaguars must decide if they have their franchise quarterback, they know they scooped up an elite defender who has fortified a previously poor defense.