Sports Stars Who Deserve More Love in 2017

Zac Wassink@https://twitter.com/ZacWassinkFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2017

Sports Stars Who Deserve More Love in 2017

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    Professional athletes can be underrated in a variety of ways. 

    Houston Texans tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz does not dominate like New England's Rob Gronkowski, nor is he known for flashy celebrations as is Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. Fiedorowicz evolved into a solid option for the Houston offense during his third season in the NFL, however, and we can only wonder how much better he could've played in 2016 with a better quarterback leading Houston's offense. 

    Bradley Wright-Phillips is underrated because he plays in a league largely ignored by casual fans. Jessica Andrade may not be underrated for long if she's given a chance to fight for a championship before the upcoming summer comes to an end. It turns out Evgeni Malkin is both a respected superstar and also an underrated player. 

    Some of the best athletes of this generation were, at one point or another, underrated. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry come to mind.

    Can any of the 10 individuals featured in this piece reach such heights during their careers?  

Jermain Defoe

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    We don't appreciate striker Jermain Defoe as we do other top-tier Premier League forwards for whatever reasons. 

    Defoe isn't a well-known international superstar featured on the covers of video games like Wayne Rooney. He was never as talented as Thierry Henry during Henry's best years. He also hasn't routinely featured in Champions League competitions. 

    Defoe is, however, one of the greatest and unappreciated scorers in league history. 

    Per the official Premier League website, Defoe currently sits seventh all-time in league tallies (155), and he's fifth in goals (12) and only three behind league-leading Diego Costa for the current campaign as of the second day of February. The English front man who can launch rocketed shots off his right foot turned 34 years old last fall, and he doesn't appear to be slowing down. 

    Defoe was often overshadowed by stars such as Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and Gareth Bale during his Tottenham Hotspur tenure, and his brief stop in Major League Soccer as a member of Toronto FC ended after a single season. The veteran nevertheless continues to prove himself on the pitch in England's top flight, and it's past time we appreciate all he's accomplished.

Isaiah Crowell

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    Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell was quietly one of the most consistent backs in the NFL this past season. 

    Crowell ended the campaign with 958 rushing yards on 198 carries. He found the end zone seven times for a team that finished the season with a 1-15 record, and he caught 40 passes while playing alongside the likes of Robert Griffin III, Cody Kessler, Josh McCown and Charlie Whitehurst. 

    For reasons that made little sense at the time, Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson and his staff routinely abandoned the team's rushing attack during contests. Crowell, thus, averaged under 13 carries per game. What's remarkable, and frustrating for Cleveland fans, about this is Crowell picked up 4.8 yards per carry, good for ninth in that category this past season, per ESPN

    No wonder the Browns only won once. 

    Crowell turned 24 years old earlier this year, and he may be able to leave the Browns if the club allows him to test restricted free agency. It's not crazy to suggest we haven't yet seen his best on-the-field production. 

Nikola Jokic

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    Is Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic an underrated talent because of his employer? 

    Unlike Kristaps Porzingis, Jokic doesn't play home games at Madison Square Garden. He isn't perceived to be part of any "process" as is Joel Embiid. Denver sits at 21-27 as of the afternoon of February 2, meaning fans on the East Coast may feel they have no reason to stay up late to watch the majority of the team's contests.

    You should start watching Jokic sooner rather than later. 

    Jokic, who turns 22 years old later this month, has increased his scoring average by 5.5 points per game (10.0 to 15.5) from his rookie campaign. As Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post pointed out, Jokic's scoring average may be even higher at this stage of the season had Denver realized sooner the big man was the team's top offensive threat. 

    According to Basketball-Reference.com, Jokic averaged 23.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per contest in the first month of 2017, and he shot over 60 percent from the field in January. 

    Zach Mikash of Denver Stiffs recently compared Jokic's numbers for 2016-17 to those produced by former great Denver players, including Carmelo Anthony. Jokic may not yet be a superstar worthy of starting for an NBA All-Star Game squad, but he's well on his way to earning such notoriety. 

Christian Yelich

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    Unless you are a passionate baseball fan or somebody who actively follows the Miami Marlins throughout a season, you probably missed much of Christian Yelich's breakout year. After all, the Marlins finished the season 79-82 and 15.5 games behind the Washington Nationals in the division standings. 

    Yelich won a Gold Glove back in 2014, but he added some much-needed power to his swing during the 2016 campaign. He blasted 21 home runs last season, an impressive feat considering he began the year with a total of 20 homers on his resume. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the left fielder finished 2016 with career highs in RBI (98), hits (172) and OPS (.859). 

    Yelich landed 19th in National League MVP voting. 

    The lefty turned 25 years old this past December, meaning he shouldn't be underrated for long. You fantasy baseball players may want to take a flier on Yelich when drafting your teams. 

Bradley Wright-Phillips

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    New York Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips is underrated for multiple reasons. 

    For starters, Wright-Phillips plays in Major League Soccer, a league still without a solid foundation of casual fans two decades into its existence. Unlike so many others who have played in MLS over the years, Wright-Phillips wasn't a recognized superstar before joining the league. 

    He never played for Barcelona in the Champions League. He isn't an American with a history of scoring goals in World Cup competitions. He isn't Thierry Henry, David Beckham, David Villa or Clint Dempsey. 

    Wright-Phillips is merely one of the greatest scorers in MLS history. 

    As Jeff Krause of MLS Soccer explained last July, Wright-Phillips became the franchise's all-time leading scorer last summer. Per the official league website, Wright-Phillips will begin the 2017 campaign with 69 goals scored across 107 MLS contests. He will likely break into the top 20 of all-time MLS scorers at some point later this year. 

    Wright-Phillips is currently averaging roughly .645 goals per MLS contest. To compare, United States Soccer icon Landon Donovan, the league's all-time top scorer, averaged .426 goals per game (145 goals in 340 matches) during his career. 

C.J. Fiedorowicz

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    Houston Texans tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz enjoyed somewhat of a breakout 2016 season. 

    Fiedorowicz began the summer known as a reliable blocker, per Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle, and the third-year pro then proved himself a solid contributor for a lackluster passing attack. The 25-year-old caught 54 passes, good for 16th among tight ends last season, via NFL.com, and he finished the campaign with four touchdowns. 

    Fiedorowicz started September 2016 with two career scores.

    Unlike Travis Kelce, Dennis Pitta, Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen and Jason Witten, Fiedorowicz did not play alongside dependable QBs this past season. Brock Osweiler lost his job to Tom Savage, an unproven commodity, for a time, and Osweiler then threw three interceptions in Houston's playoff loss to the New England Patriots this past January. 

    Per SpotracFiedorowicz can enter free agency following the 2017 season unless he and the Texans agree to a new contract. Escaping the Texans a year from now may be the wisest move for his career's future. 

Jessica Andrade

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    UFC strawweight Jessica Andrade won't be underrated for long if she has any say in the matter. 

    The 25-year-old experienced a down year in 2015, as she lost two of three UFC bouts via submission. Andrade bounced back last year, however, as she notched victories over Jessica Penne and Joanne Calderwood after making the move from bantamweight to strawweight, and she earned Performance of the Night for her win over Calderwood this past September, per her official UFC page

    Andrade currently sits fifth in the UFC rankings, and she also serves as a reminder the promotion's rankings are, in some cases, cosmetic. As Damon Martin of Fox Sports explained in early January, the UFC offered Andrade an opportunity to fight strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, which unofficially makes Andrade, at worst, one of the top contenders in the division. The Brazilian instead elected to take one more fight before facing "Joanna Champion." 

    Andrade is scheduled to face Angela Hill on February 4, and a title shot will be in her future if she wins her first fight of 2017. 

Bartolo Colon

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    What comes to your mind when you first think about Atlanta Braves pitcher Bartolo Colon? 

    Do you chuckle as you envision the big man striking out as he swings wildly at a pitch? Maybe you remember watching Colon enjoy a (slow) trip around the bases after hitting a home run against the San Diego Padres last May. 

    That's a shame, as some may fail to realize what Colon meant to the New York Mets during his tenure with the club. 

    As Brett Bodner of the New York Daily News explained after Colon signed with the Braves this past November, the 43-year-old was a favorite among New York players and fans. Colon was also the club's most reliable pitcher last season. During a year in which injury woes affected Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey, "Big Sexy," as he is affectionately known, led the Mets in wins with 15. 

    New York likely would've missed the playoffs last fall without Colon, and that's one reason Mets fans will miss him. 

Kyrie Irving

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    What else does Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving need to accomplish to receive the respect he deserves? 

    Before the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, Sports Illustrated listed Irving 25th among the best players in the league. Carmelo Anthony, who is reportedly being shopped by the New York Knicks, per Dan Feldman of ProBasketballTalk and others, was above Irving, as were second-year pro Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry. 

    Who, among those players, scored at least 30 points in three straight games in the 2016 NBA Finals? Who scored 41 points in a must-win contest when his team trailed the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in those same Finals? Who hit a go-ahead three-pointer in the face of a two-time NBA MVP in the last minute of Game 7 of that series? 

    Irving did all of that. 

    Irving, who will start in this year's NBA All-Star Game, gets overshadowed because he plays alongside LeBron James, but the 24-year-old should be recognized as, at worst, a top-15 star. 

Evgeni Malkin

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    Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin isn't underrated in the eyes of at least some fans, but Malkin makes this list because one panel failed to give him his due. 

    According to NHL.com, a supposed "Blue Ribbon panel" selected 100 players, past and present, for its list of the league's all-time greats that was released before the 2017 NHL All-Star Game. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, Malkin's longtime teammate, made the list, but Malkin was snubbed. 

    Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote why Malkin belonged among the league's greatest 100 players: 

    Malkin has been to seven All-Star Games and is a three-time first-teamer, but here’s where the conversation should have started and ended.

    Malkin, along with Lemieux and Bobby Orr, are the only three players in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup, the Art Ross, Hart and Calder trophies and the Ted Lindsay Award.

    Per NHL.com, Malkin made history in the spring of 2009 when he became the first Russian in history ever to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Malkin, not Crosby, was Pittsburgh's best player during that run to a Stanley Cup victory. 

    Malkin may not be as complete a player as Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, but his achievements and resume earned him a spot among the 100 greatest NHL players.