Young Sports Stars Who Have a Real Shot at Immortality

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2017

Young Sports Stars Who Have a Real Shot at Immortality

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Anthony Davis could become a sports legend. Mike Trout is probably already there.

    These 10 athletes are all 25 years old or younger. They are all superstars. You have heard all their names.

    And yet, it's one thing to be a superstar. It's another to be immortal. Remember fictional Babe Ruth's quote from The Sandlot? "Heroes get remembered, but legends never die." On point. 

    Indeed, sports immortality is not an easy feat. It is only achieved by the best of the best—those who reach the highest echelons of individual stats, awards and championships.

    It's almost impossible to become a sports immortal at all, let alone at age 25 or younger. (Kudos to Simone Biles for doing it.)

    Sports fans haven't seen a lot of these young stars, but they have seen enough to realize legendary, Hall of Fame careers are possible, even likely.

Bryce Harper

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    Despite a significant slump in 2016 (.243 batting average and 24 home runs compared to .330 and 42 in 2015), Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is still one of baseball's brightest young stars. He took home the National League Rookie of the Year award in 2012 and hit an astonishing .330/.460/.649 in 2015, his MVP year.

    In April (pre-slump), David Schoenfield of ESPN.com opined Harper might be a better player than Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout and wrote, "Bryce Harper is not just the straw that stirs the drink, the brash character not afraid to challenge the status quo, the most interesting, must-watch player in the game. He might now be the best player in the game."

    There were rumors of a shoulder issue in 2016 (perpetuated by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci and denied by Nationals officials, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post) that might have helped explain the slump. Injury or not, however, Harper will need to regain his footing in 2017 to remain on the immortality track.

    Adding to Harper's lore is the possibility of a record-breaking contract in 2018, again, if he can rebound from a disappointing 2016 campaign.

Breanna Stewart

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    Age: 22

    Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart is the only athlete on this list with just one year of professional experience in the books. That said, she is a four-time college champion. Not only did her Connecticut Huskies win four consecutive titles, but she was also named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four each time.

    Stewart is already immortal in UConn sports history, and she has a shot to add to that lore as a pro. 

    Jack Maloney of the Step Back called Stewart's freshman campaign "one of the finest rookie seasons the WNBA has ever seen."

    She averaged 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals per game en route to the Rookie of the Year Award.

    Brian Kotloff of WNBA.com pointed out, "The only other players to average at least 15 points, five rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal were Tamika Catchings (2002) and Candace Parker (2008). Stewart easily surpassed those thresholds."

    It's early, but the future looks bright for the college legend.

Le'Veon Bell

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    Age: 24

    NFL running back is a difficult position from which to gain immortality in sports.

    Through his first four NFL seasons, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell has averaged 86.1 yards per game. In 2016 alone, however, he averaged 105.7 yards per game on the ground. He had six 100-plus-yard rushing performances in 12 regular-season games, including a Steelers' record 236 against the Buffalo Bills in December.

    Though Bell's 2015 and 2016 seasons were shortened by drug-related suspensions, he remains one of the league's most explosive backs. Earlier this month, he set a record for most rush yards in his first two career playoff games with 337 (167 and 170, respectively).

    After the Steelers' 30-12 wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com wrote, "Big Ben might not need his best if Bell carries the Steelers all the way to February. Bell has been nothing short of brilliant this season, with an average of 158.3 total yards per game in the regular season and postseason."

    If Bell can stay healthy and on the field, he has a chance to become a perennial producer at running back, not something you see every day.

Connor McDavid

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Age: 20

    Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid has been the subject of all kinds of hype since even before he was drafted at No. 1 overall in 2015.

    He was even lauded as the "Next Great One," not exactly a low bar.

    A collarbone injury limited McDavid to just 45 games his rookie season, but he still managed 48 points and scored brilliant goals like this one.

    In October, the Oilers made him the youngest captain in league history, and as of January 15, McDavid led the NHL in points with 50.

    In December, Wayne Gretzky, the Great One himself, said Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby is the best player in hockey. He added, however, per Craig Custance of ESPN.com, "Is Connor a great player? Absolutely. Does Connor have an opportunity to be the next Crosby? Absolutely."

    Earlier this month, Jonas Siegel of the Canadian Press listed Crosby as his midseason pick for the Hart Trophy but gave McDavid runner-up honors. That's pretty good company for a 20-year-old.

Kris Bryant

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant has just two big league seasons under his belt, but in that short time, he already has a National League Rookie of the Year Award, MVP and a World Series title.

    A two-time All-Star, Bryant hit .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs and 102 RBI en route to the MVP Award in 2016.

    Not only has he put up impressive individual numbers, but Bryant also plays for the Cubs, a newly crowned World Series champion built for lasting success.  

    If Bryant continues to play a pivotal role in the winning ways of a perennial playoff team, his chances at immortality will only rise. Earlier this month, David Schoenfield of ESPN.com predicted Bryant would be the next Cub to make the Hall of Fame.

    In November, Matt Snyder of CBS Sports wrote, "As I've said to people regarding Mike Trout for years, if you are tired of hearing about Kris Bryant, you're in for a long decade-plus of baseball fandom. In all likelihood, we're only seeing the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. … it could derail. My bet is it doesn't."

Jordan Spieth

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    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Jordan Spieth was PGA Tour's 2013 Rookie of the Year, but things really took off in 2015. He became the second-youngest player ever to win the Masters and followed that up with a win at the U.S. Open. He also took home the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus that went with it.

    Spieth had a disappointing 2016 by comparison, but he still won two events and placed in the top 10 eight times (including a tie for second at the Masters).

    Luke Kerr-Dineen of For the Win wrote:

    Think of it this way: Tiger Woods was maybe the best golfer ever, and he competed at a time when there were only a few all-timers (Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els) and a handful more very good players. Spieth, [Jason] Day and [Rory] McIlroy are all the best in the world at the moment, but they’re the best at a time when golf is stocked with challengers.

    Even if he never evens Woods' major total of 14, Spieth can still pen his name into golf legend with a long and successful career.

    On comparisons to Woods, Spieth said, per Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press (via PGA.com), "I just think it's premature, but I'll say that probably my entire career. There's just such an age gap that I understand the comparisons are going to be there. I hope they continue to be there. That means I'm still being in the same ballpark as he is."

Anthony Davis

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    Anthony Davis, playing in his fifth NBA season, is already a three-time All-Star. As of January 15, the New Orleans Pelicans big man is averaging 29.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and a league-leading 2.6 blocks per game.

    Here is what he did on opening night: 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks.

    In November, he became one of just 10 players in NBA history to record at least 300 points and 100 rebounds in the first 10 games of a season. The list includes the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, and all but Davis are Hall of Famers.

    The Pelicans gave Davis a five-year, $145 million extension in 2015, but the team hasn't quite held up its end of the bargain in the win department (just 30 wins in 2015-16).

    Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said, per Sekou Smith of NBA.com, "There is nothing he can't do out there. He's got it all. I really believe that he does all that he can possibly do and it's just a matter of us, and I'm thinking if we're healthy and winning, he's for sure supposed to be in the MVP talk."

    Davis certainly has the talent to become a Hall of Fame player, but playing for a contender probably wouldn't hurt his chances, right?

Katie Ledecky

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    ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

    Age: 19

    American gymnast Simone Biles would be on this list, except she has already achieved immortality as the most decorated American gymnast in history.

    Her teammate in Rio, swimmer Katie Ledecky, isn't quite there, but she is certainly on her way. Ledecky won her first Olympic gold medal in 2012, but she really put herself on the map in 2016, taking home four golds and one silver. She became just the third American female to win four gold medals in one Games.

    She broke two of her own world records in Rio (she currently holds three total) and won the 800-meter freestyle by an absurd 11-second margin over the second-place finisher.

    With Michael Phelps' post-Rio retirement, there is a vacancy in the "most famous active American swimmer" department.

    Phelps himself said, per S.L. Price of SI.com, "What she's doing in the sport is ridiculous. She gets in the water and pretty much gives every world record a scare."

    Ledecky is still just 19 years old and swimming at Stanford. After Rio, she indicated she wants to continue to participate in Olympic competition.

Neymar

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    David Ramos/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    In November, Neymar scored his 50th international goal for Brazil, becoming the fourth youngest player to reach that milestone for his country. He is already among Brazil's all-time leading goal scorers, trailing only Pele (77), Ronaldo (62) and Romario (55).

    Neymar has helped Brazil win a Confederations Cup title and Olympic gold medal. He has also played his club football for FC Barcelona, one of Europe's premier clubs, since 2013.

    Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba told ESPN Brazil (via ESPN FC), "Neymar is the future. He's the present and the future. A player who makes you enjoy. You know I'm a player, but when I look at him I see him enjoy his football. This guy is the man because of his skills, it's like he's dancing. He's scoring goals, he's assisting—he plays for himself, but he also plays for everyone."

    It's easy to see the path to immortality for Neymar. Earlier this month, he appeared at No. 1 on the CIES Football Observatory list (via BBC Sport), meaning he would hypothetically command the highest transfer fee of any player in the world.

Mike Trout

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    It's hard to believe Mike Trout is still just 25 years old. And yet, the sports immortality of the Los Angeles Angels outfielder already seems about set.

    Even if his career ended today, Trout has already achieved more than most baseball players do in a long career. He has made five All-Star teams and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2012. He has two MVP Awards, and there are those who believe he should have even more than that.

    Trout has a career line of .306/.405/.557 with 168 home runs and was identified by Statcast (via Mike Petriello of MLB.com) as one of just a few true five-tool players in the bigs.  

    Earlier this month, Richard Justice of MLB.com wrote:

    Maybe the most amazing thing about Mike Trout's brief career is that he may already have punched his ticket to Cooperstown. Roll that one around in your brain a time or two. At the very least, Trout has done enough to be in a discussion about who does or doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, and shouldn't that remind us how lucky we are to get to watch this guy play baseball?

    Justice also pointed out that, at age 25, Trout has a career WAR of 48.5, a number higher than Hall of Famers Jim Rice and Lou Brock.