The Biggest Surprise Stars of 2011
The best part about sports is that there is always another play, another game, and if you're lucky, another season.
For these 25 stars, whether it be the beginning of their careers or the beginning of their primes, they have risen to the top of their respective sports.
2011 was a good year for these athletes. The question remains, who's next?
25. Eric Gordon
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In his third season, Gordon increased his scoring average by five points, despite the emergence of Blake Griffin.
Gordon has become one of the best shooting guards in the NBA and continues to improve each year. Between he and Griffin, the Clippers actually have a future they can be proud in.
24. Alex Gordon
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It took far longer than the Royals franchise thought it would, but it appears as if Alex Gordon has turned the corner.
When he first came up, Gordon was revered as the next big hitter in the game, someone who could turn the Royals' fortunes around and bring Kansas City out of the cellar. In 2011, he hit 43 points higher than any of his previous four seasons, and set career highs in every offensive category.
I wouldn't buy World Series tickets yet, but Royals fans have reason to be encouraged.
23. Kevin Love
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In Kevin Love's first full season as a starter, his stat lines needed to be double and triple checked each night to ensure accuracy. He averaged 20.2 points and 15.2 rebounds every night, despite being marked by his opponents as the only legitimate rebound threat on the T-Wolves.
Love went from a very good player to one of the premier big men in the game.
I don't know how he improves from here, but I'm looking forward to seeing him try.
22. Jordy Nelson
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Nelson had a coming out party in last year's Super Bowl, and hasn't stopped partying since. When you are playing with the best quarterback in the league, there is plenty to go around. Nelson has become a benefactor of Donald Driver's decline while being a sure target.
He is 12th in the league in receiving yards, with nine touchdowns (his previous high was two), and will easily set a career high in receptions.
It already appears that Nelson is far from a flash in the pan and should remain a favorite target of Aaron Rodgers for time to come.
21. Tyler Wilson
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Filling Ryan Mallett's shoes is not an easy task. Tyler Wilson has reached and exceeded people's expectations for the 2011 season.
Seeing that his only losses this season were on the road at Alabama and at LSU, the junior quarterback has proven that he is not only one of the best QBs in the SEC, but also the nation.
20. Ryan Vogelsong
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There must be something in the water, because San Francisco pitchers seem to be shutting everyone out.
Ryan Vogelsong had a career 10-22 record before joining the Giants' staff and resurrecting his game. The All-Star went 13-7 with a 2.71 ERA this season after having terrible fortunes in Pittsburgh.
He proved that maybe you can get better by just hanging around Tim Lincecum.
19. Fred Jackson
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Before he became the guy on your fantasy team that you picked lucky, Jackson was a member of the Sioux City Bandits and the Rhein Fire. Never heard of them? That's OK, because neither of these teams come close to the NFL.
After a successful backup role and eventual starter for the Buffalo Bills, Jackson hit his stride in 2011. The undrafted star out of Coe College has a career high in yards per carry and receiving yards, before breaking his leg and ending his season early.
Jackson was one of the main reasons for the resurgence in Buffalo, despite already being 30.
18. Blake Griffin
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Blake Griffin? How did he make this list?
Here is my logic. By no means could we have ever thought he was going to be this good, this early, coming off of a serious knee injury.
His rookie season was off the charts. 22.5 points per game and 12.1 rebounds per game don't tell the whole story. At times, he was dominating; his athleticism alone was enough to intimidate other big men around the league, and his ferocious dunks made it to Sportscenter every night.
He exceeded all rookie expectations on his way to stardom.
17. Tim Tebow
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This will be the second time that Tim Tebow has emerged as a hero; the first was his national championship run at the University of Florida and the second is his resurgence with the Denver Broncos.
Now that Tebow is the starter, and winning games, the quarterback has risen as an NFL star. Nobody, including myself is going to sit here and say that he is a great quarterback. What I will say is that he is a great football player and a winner. All the rest is semantics.
16. Craig Kimbrel
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The Braves closer and the NL rookie of the year set almost every rookie closing record. The All-Star set the record for saves by a rookie with 46 and was the fastest Braves pitcher to 100 career strikeouts.
Considering that the closer position is one of the least secure in baseball, it looks like Atlanta is set at the back end of their bullpen for some time to come.
15. Lance Berkman
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Based on his body of work, nobody should have been surprised to see Lance Berkman have the season that he did.
That being said, Berkman drove in 94 runs, his most since 2008, and was an integral part of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals. He finished seventh in the MVP voting after an unproductive 2010 campaign split between the Astros and the Yankees.
Now, at 35, he hopes to remain a productive veteran in the Cardinals lineup.
14. Jimmer Fredette
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If I would have told you this time last year that a small shooting guard from BYU would captivate the nation, you probably would have told me I know nothing about sports.
A year later, we can all agree that the nation's leading scorer from a year ago did just that. Jimmer Fredette never meet a shot he didn't like, and more importantly, he couldn't hit.
Now waiting in the wings of the NBA, Jimmer hopes to show us even more magic in the pros.
13. Collin Klein
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The Kansas State Wildcats were not considered a preseason team to watch out for. At 9-2, they have Collin Klein to thank for their surprising success.
The Junior quarterback has accounted for 36 touchdowns (25 rushing) and only five interceptions, leading the team to their unexpected No. 11 ranking.
12. Ivan Nova
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When the Yankees entered 2011, they were worried who would be their fourth and fifth starter. By midseason, they were wondering who would be their number two man behind CC.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ivan Nova rattled off a 12 game winning streak and took the Bronx by storm. It looks like the Yankees are no longer worried about the second man in their rotation; now they are wondering when he gets to pitch next.
11. Derrick Williams
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The No. 2 overall pick in last spring's draft jumped onto everyone's radar after consistently dominating on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
The former Arizona Wildcat was impressive throughout the season and earned himself the Pac-10 player of the year honors. Williams and his teammates were defeated in the Elite 8 by the eventual champion UCONN Huskies, but not before staking his claim as one of the best prospects in the country.
10. Michael Morse
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The Washington National's thought that Jayson Werth was going to be the big right handed bat in the middle of their lineup who would turn their organization around.
Little did they know, the man they were looking for already worked for them. Morse finally got the at-bats needed to make an impact on the team, setting career highs in every major offense category.
He figures to be the centerpiece of their future plans alongside Ryan Zimmerman and Werth.
9. Novak Djokovic
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The world's No. 1 tennis player has had the best year of his professional life. After taking a back seat to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal over the last three years, Djokovic has made it clear that he is now the best in the world.
After winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and seven other tournaments, it is fair to say that Novak Djokovic is untouchable right now.
8. Melky Cabrera
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Two Kansas City Royals on one list that has nothing to do with blunders should bring shock and awe. Newly acquired San Francisco Giant Melky Cabrera also had his first big season, much to Yankee fans' chagrin.
Cabrera was considered an underachiever for most of his career, acting as more of a defensive asset than offensive threat.
Two-hundred-and-one hits and a .301 average were only a few of the stats that stood out for the promising outfielder.
7. Jimmy Graham
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Jimmy Graham is part of a long line of former basketball players turned tight end. The fad started with Tony Gonzalez and has come full circle.
The New Orleans Saints second year star is fifth in the NFL in receiving yards and tied for sixth in targets. For as much firepower as the Saints have, Graham has given the team a new dimension by working the middle of the field.
I suppose LeBron might have a future in the NFL.
6. Jacoby Ellsbury
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Red Sox nation knew better than us. They knew Ellsbury would put it together, if he could stay healthy. The rest of the league was just waiting for him to finally break out and make every pitcher's life hellish.
It all came together in 2011. While the Red Sox crumbled, Ellsbury shined, finishing second in the MVP voting. Along with his MVP love, Ellsburg was an All-Star, gold glove winner and silver slugger recipient.
He finished the season as a 30/30 guy. He is hoping to get even better.
5. Andy Dalton
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Cam Newton might be the flashier prospect and have better statistics, but at 6-4, Andy Dalton has led the Bengals to playoff contention in the daunting AFC North.
The second round pick came into a confusing situation in Cincinnati. He was there to move forward after the Carson Palmer era flamed out. Now, fans and ownership are saying Cason who?
4. Victor Cruz
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The rookie's 800 receiving yards are certainly impressive. What makes it even better is that it is through only nine games that he accumulated stats, playing behind the likes of Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks.
Cruz has capitalized on injuries to his teammates, and taken the job of deep threat and Eli Manning's favorite target. You can only wonder now what took so long for the Giants to get this guy in the game.
3. Ian Kennedy
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Kennedy was one of the Yankees' prized prospects, until a trade for Curtis Granderson made him expendable. Both teams are surely happy with the deal, as Granderson finished fourth in the MVP voting and Kennedy finished fourth for the NL Cy Young.
As Arizona's opening day starter, the ace did not disappoint, finishing with 21 wins, 12 more than 2010, solidifying himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball.
His breakout 2011 campaign leads us to believe that he will be a great pitcher over the next decade.
2. Robert Griffin III
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Now a junior, Robert Griffin III used 2011 to show everyone that he was a more complete quarterback, who showed his best during the team's biggest moments.
After beating TCU on opening night in epic fashion, the Bears' quarterback also defeated Oklahoma on a last minute drive for the ages. He has set career highs in yards, completion percentage, and touchdowns, relying less on his legs.
What makes him special is his ability to take his team down the field when it matters most. Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller has ranked Griffin the second highest prospect on his big board.
1. Cam Newton
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Statistically, Cam Newton might as well end up the best rookie quarterback ever. The Panthers and their signal caller have some growing up to do, but Newton has surprised every nay sayer out there.
Thus far, he has 21 combined throwing and rushing touchdowns, displaying some of the magic that won him a national championship a year ago.
Once he learns how to actually play football, the league is in trouble.