10 Current Sports Stars We Should Never Have Doubted

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2017

10 Current Sports Stars We Should Never Have Doubted

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    Aaron Rodgers is in decline? Something is wrong with him?

    Pssh. We should have known better.

    Yes, it made perfect sense to wonder if the 33-year-old quarterback was entering the initial decent of his career when he struggled through the beginning of the 2016 season.

    But hindsight is 20/20, and in hindsight, we should have either A) known he would get things together or B) given him the benefit of the doubt.

    Such is the case with Rodgers and the rest of the following 10 sports stars. Each has faced his share of skepticism in the recent past, and each has performed well enough to prove the doubters wrong.

    Some are perennial All-Stars, veterans like Rodgers who have earned a few second chances. Others are newcomers who faced skepticism simply because they had not yet had an opportunity to prove themselves.

    Listen, a healthy amount of doubt is vital to the sports world—what else are folks going to talk about? These 10 stars simply proved us wrong in ways that, perhaps, we should have seen coming. 

Julian Edelman

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    New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman got off to a slow start in 2016. 

    In a mid-October piece titled "What's wrong with Julian Edelman?" Henry McKenna of Patriots Wire wrote, "He's leading the team in targets but is third in receiving yards and seventh in yards per reception. He's never been a big yards-per-reception receiver, but his 9.6 yards per catch is the lowest since 2011 when he had only four receptions."

    But hey, sometimes a guy just needs to shake off an old injury before he can return to peak form. McKenna cited a foot injury as well as the four-game absence of quarterback Tom Brady as possible factors in Edelman's early slump. 

    The Providence Journal's Brian MacPherson noted Edelman's offseason foot surgery as well and wrote, "He didn't appear to get back to full strength until after the season was underway. He didn't catch more than eight passes in a game until late October, and he didn't amass more than 80 receiving yards in a game until November."

    Edelman has bounced back, to say the least. The 30-year-old finished the season with 1,106 receiving yards—a team and career high—and 11.3 yards per catch.

Joel Embiid

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    Just as one should refrain from doubting a proven veteran too swiftly, one should also think twice before making judgments about an athlete who hasn't yet had a chance to prove himself.

    Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is a perfect example. Drafted in 2014, Embiid missed two full NBA seasons due to injury. It would have been easy during those two seasons to wonder if Embiid's injury issues would effectively end his career before it began. Concerns over his weight and maturity level didn't help either.

    In 2015, FanSided's Josh Wilson wrote, "Overall, Embiid was an exciting pick for Philadelphia. Unfortunately, things haven't gone even close to plan and seem to be eerily similar to the days of Greg Oden's devastating career. Let's hope Embiid isn't as big of a bust."

    Finally healthy and playing in his rookie season in 2016-17, Embiid is proving doubters wrong.

    In the first 25 games, the big man is averaging 19.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in a limited 25.0 minutes per game and even getting a little All-Star talk.

Paul Pogba

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    Manchester United made some big splashes in 2016 with the hiring of manager Jose Mourinho and acquisition of big-name stars Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

    Pogba—transferred from Juventus for a record €105 million fee—struggled a bit out of the gate. The 23-year-old scored just one goal in seven club matches in August and September. And after a 4-0 loss to Chelsea in October, Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville called Pogba "confused" on his podcast (via ESPN FC).

    Simon Stone of BBC Sport wondered in this headline: "Is France midfielder Man Utd's most expensive mistake?"

    ESPN FC's Arindam Rej wrote, "Paul Pogba was attracting criticism at the start of the season but now has many pundits purring after an upturn in fortunes at Manchester United, culminating in a dramatic, late winner for him against Middlesbrough on New Year's Eve."

    Indeed, Pogba has appeared to settle in after a shift to the lineup. Retired English footballer Steven Gerrard told BT Sport (via Alex Richards of the Mirror), "I think he's gotten better and stronger week by week. He's obviously a phenomenal talent."

Joey Votto

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    Slumps are a thing in baseball. They happen, and they don't mean the affected player is necessarily on some kind of irreversible downward spiral.

    For example, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto bat .229 in April and .200 in May.

    In May, Leo Howell of ESPN.com wrote:

    Joey Votto finished the first month of the season with career lows in batting average, OPS and strikeout percentage in the month April, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Combine this with a recent statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer, when Votto said that he would rather quit baseball than play 'at a poor level,' and there is definite cause for concern for the veteran Reds first baseman.

    To say the 33-year-old, four-time All-Star snapped out of it would be an understatement. After batting .252/.386/.446 in the first half, Votto exploded to put up a .408/.490/.668 line after the All-Star break. He was the first player to hit over .400 in the second half since Ichiro Suzuki in 2004, and he ended up seventh in the MVP voting.

    Votto said in October, per Mark Sheldon of MLB.com, "I didn't doubt that I would come back from the start. I was frustrated and I was in disbelief, but I knew that physically I felt good. My mind didn't waver."

Harrison Barnes

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    Harrison Barnes was a key role player with the Golden State Warriors on their road to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. They allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent in July, however, making room for Kevin Durant to join the team. Barnes signed a four-year, $94 million max deal with the Mavericks shortly thereafter.

    Not surprisingly, there was skepticism regarding Barnes' transition to a leading role.

    Blake Cockrum of Keeping it Heel wrote, "Even Mavericks fans scoffed at the notion that a player of Barnes' caliber could be worth the amount of money being thrown around in preliminary conversations."

    And yet, Barnes had not yet had a chance to prove himself on that stage. Now that he has, he's showing up, averaging 20.6 points in 36.0 minutes per game as of January 8.

    Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in late December:

    Barnes' emergence as a reliable go-to scorer has been one of the few positives for a Mavericks club that sits tied for last with Phoenix in the Western Conference standings. After four seasons as a complementary piece with Golden State, he is preparing to take over Dallas' franchise-player title from the 38-year-old Dirk Nowitzki.

Andrew Luck

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    The Indianapolis Colts drafted Andrew Luck to a firestorm of hype in 2012, and in 2016, they made him the highest-paid NFL player ever.

    The 2015 season was a tough one for Luck, though. Injuries plagued the quarterback and limited him to just seven games. He threw for 1,881 yards on a 55.3 percent completion percentage and 12 interceptions. Will Brinson of CBSSports.com called it a "nightmare season."

    Granted, many don't seem to have ever doubted Luck and recognized his struggles as injury-related.

    Still, in June, Chris Wesseling of NFL.com noted Luck's No. 92 ranking on the NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2016 countdown. Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles came in at No. 56.

    Wesseling wrote, "Should Bortles be ranked higher than Luck, who has authored a series of definitive, come-from-behind victories and led a flawed team to the AFC Championship Game? Of course not. Luck's preposterously low ranking is merely the latest example of voters struggling to rank an injured star…"

    And while the Colts missed the playoffs once again in 2016, Luck played in 15 games and threw for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. One could easily argue he was one of the few reasons the Colts stayed in playoff contention as long as they did. 

Novak Djokovic

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    Sometimes athletes simply set the standards too high. Novak Djokovic won all four major tournaments consecutively in 2015 and '16, capturing his first career Grand Slam and holding all titles at the same time.

    In 2016, he only managed to win the Australian and French Opens (gasp!). He went out in Wimbledon's third round, dropped his first-round match to Juan Martin del Potro at the Olympics and lost his No. 1 ranking to Andy Murray in November.

    The Telegraph's Charlie Eccleshare asked, "Just what is wrong with Novak Djokovic at the moment?" but later offered, "The slight decline he is suffering looks to be the result of the inevitable emotional come down that has happened after finally completing the career Grand Slam, something he had openly admitted he was desperate to achieve."

    Djokovic also cited a nagging injury when he announced he would miss the Cincinnati Masters in August, per Eccleshare.  

    After a few weeks off, Djokovic is off to a good start in 2017. Though he did not regain his No. 1 ranking, the Serbian did defeat Murray in the Qatar ExxonMobil Open final in January.

James Harden

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    The Houston Rockets fired their coach 11 games into the 2015-16 season. And it would seem guard James Harden—just months removed from finishing second in the 2015 NBA MVP voting—was partly to blame.  

    Per FoxSports.com, "Harden's scoring average was fine in those first 11 games (27.3 points per game), but he made only 37.2 percent of his field goal attempts—a deplorable number—was extremely careless with the ball and resembled a splintered screen door on defense."

    Harden's apparently strained relationship with then-teammate Dwight Howard probably didn't help matters.

    Harden was an All-Star in 2015-16, and the Rockets did make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed (though were promptly eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the first round). Still, the season could certainly be described as disappointment after a trip to the conference finals in 2014-15.

    In 2016-17, however, Howard is in Atlanta and Harden is flourishing and inspiring MVP talk once again.

    As of January 8, Harden is averaging 28.2 points per game and leading the league with 11.8 assists per game. He dropped 40 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds on the Toronto Raptors in a 129-122 win that extended the NBA's longest active win streak to eight.

Henrik Lundqvist

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    New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was pulled from 11 games in 2015-16, including the final two. And upon his team's playoff elimination at the hands of the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Steve Petrella of Sporting News wondered if Lundqvist's Stanley Cup window had closed.

    Fast-forward to December, and the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner was benched four consecutive times in favor of the younger Antti Raanta. Coach Alain Vigneault said, per Justin Tasch of the New York Daily News, "It's as simple as (Raanta) deserves to play."

    Was it the beginning of the end for Lundqvist in New York?

    In short, no. Upon his return from those aforementioned scratches, Lundqvist gave up just three goals in 90 shots. More recently, the 34-year-old netminder made 30 saves in an important 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in early January.

    Puck Daddy's Ryan Lambert wrote, "It's very probable, let alone possible, that whatever was wrong with him (nothing) is now in the rearview mirror and Lundqvist is back to being basically unstoppable."

Aaron Rodgers

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    Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers got off to a bit of a rocky start in 2016. Through the first five games of the season (in which they went 3-2), Rodgers failed to record a 300-yard passing game, and there were questions about his accuracy.

    After a loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6, Dan Graf of FoxSports.com wrote, "As Aaron Rodgers' play has gone from inconsistent to downright lackluster over the past year, everyone seems to have an opinion on what's wrong with the Green Bay Packers' two-time MVP quarterback."

    The Pack endured a four-game losing streak in October and November but bounced back and have now won seven straight games on the back of their Hail Mary-machine QB.

    Rodgers threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns in the Packers' wild-card win over the New York Giants on Sunday and also threw his third Hail Mary in just over a year. And, in the past eight games, including that playoff win, he tossed 22 TD passes and no interceptions.

    Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, "He has spoiled all of us around here for a long time."

    Indeed.