Overhyped or Real Deal: Grading the Top Pro Sports Stars Under 25

Scott Janovitz@@BrainTrain9Featured ColumnistNovember 12, 2014

Overhyped or Real Deal: Grading the Top Pro Sports Stars Under 25

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    Anthony Davis could be the NBA's next great "big".
    Anthony Davis could be the NBA's next great "big".Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The sports world is filled with talented up-and-comers and members of the media love nothing more than obsessing over their every move. At our best, we heap praise and expectations upon future standouts, athletes who truly are the real deal. Sometimes, however, we put the cart before the horse, prematurely showering the undeserved with excessive adulation.

    It’s impossible to know for sure in the moment, but some guys seem like safer bets than others.

    For example, athletes like Anthony Davis and Mike Trout are young but already dominant, nearly certain to reach the goals we’ve set for them.

    Meanwhile, the Bryce Harpers and Robert Griffins of the world shoulder similar hopes yet appear to be standing on shakier ground.

    With these guys and others in mind, we’ve highlighted the Top 14 pro sports stars under the age of 25 and, along the way, have done our best to sift through the piles of praise to answer one basic question: Are they overhyped or the real deal?

Close, but No Cigar

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    Sammy Watkins missed out list this time around, but would likely make it a year from now.
    Sammy Watkins missed out list this time around, but would likely make it a year from now.Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    In confining our list to a Top 14, we've left out some of the sports world's top young stars. As a result, we've decided to honor the best of the rest below: 

Yasiel Puig

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    Yasiel Puig may rub some the wrong way, but his production speaks for itself.
    Yasiel Puig may rub some the wrong way, but his production speaks for itself.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Facts: The case of 23-year-old Dodger Yasiel Puig is a tricky one. He's sometimes careless, both in the field and on the base path, and many of his antics rub others the wrong way.

    With that said, his talent is undeniable.

    Through his first 249 games (he has officially played in 252), the Cuban-born slugger has hit .306 with a .387 on-base percentage and a .504 slugging percentage.

    Among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances since the beginning of last season, Puig ranks eighth in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage, 11th in slugging percentage and ninth in OPS.

    During the same span, his adjusted OPS ranks fifth overall, trailing only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt.

    And if you compare his adjusted OPS through the age of 23 to that of baseball’s greats, you’ll find that Puig, too, is historically elite.

    Of course, Puig’s value on the diamond only grows when you add his tremendous athleticism and rocket arm to his already-special hitting.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal

Patrick Peterson

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    Patrick Peterson may talk a big game, but his play in 2014 hasn't backed it up.
    Patrick Peterson may talk a big game, but his play in 2014 hasn't backed it up.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The Facts: To get a better idea of the type of hype surrounding Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson we should begin with some facts off the field.

    First, note that in July Peterson signed a new five-year deal with the Cardinals worth $70 million, which makes him the highest-paid cornerback in all of football.

    And even before the dollar signs validated his “elite” status, Peterson considered himself the best around, declaring just that last July.

    So if someone says they’re the best and is paid like the best they should probably be the best, right?

    Well, therein lies the problem.

    Peterson has been far from elite since signing the unprecedented deal.

    Through the first five games of the 2014 season, the former LSU Tiger gave up four touchdowns and was called for five penalties (the team lead). It took him nine games to record his first interception of the season and, over the same span, Peterson had just 19 tackles and three pass breakups.

    Worse yet, Peterson's struggles go beyond his suspect play in the defensive backfield. Part of the corner's overall value was derived from his ability to return kicks and punts, but he’s done neither for the Cardinals this season.

    The Verdict: Overhyped.


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    Already great, Neymar has an even brighter future ahead.
    Already great, Neymar has an even brighter future ahead.Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Facts: Neymar has always been destined for greatness. In 2010, at the age of 18, the Brazilian sensation finished third in South American Footballer of the Year voting. Just one short year later, he took home the prestigious award and did the same in 2012 as well.

    More recently, Neymar led Brazil to victory in 2013’s Confederations Cup, scoring in all four games, receiving four man-of-the-match awards and the Golden Ball, which goes to the tournament’s best player.

    In the 2014 World Cup, Neymar again played at a world-class level.

    Before getting hurt in the tournament’s quarterfinal match, the striker proved to be among the world’s best players. He scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in Match 1 against Croatia, and scored twice more against Cameroon in Match 3.

    To no one's surprise, Neymar also knocked home the game-winning penalty shot in Brazil’s Round of 16 defeat of Chile.

    As for his play with world-elite Barcelona, Neymar has been just as deadly, scoring 11 goals in just 12 appearances this year.

    But if you still need more proof of the kid’s profound greatness, do yourself a favor and check this out.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal


Kyrie Irving

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    Though people love to knock him, Kyrie Irving is 22 and already one of the NBA's top PGs.
    Though people love to knock him, Kyrie Irving is 22 and already one of the NBA's top PGs.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Facts: Knocking Kyrie Irving has become the newest craze.

    Irving, however, has been a victim of his own success.

    Upon winning 2011 Rookie of the Year honors at the age of 19 while posting an impressive PER of 21.49, expectations for Irving shot through the roof.

    So when his numbers burst in 2013 after ballooning in 2012, the critics came running. After scoring 22.5 PPG and shooting 39% from three in 2012, Irving’s scoring (20.8 PPG) and shooting (35.8% from three) plummeted a year later.

    If you also consider Cleveland’s 49 losses in 2013 as well as Irving’s overall lackadaisical and porous defense, it’s easy to understand all the disappointment.

    Irving, however, rebounded this summer, helping to lead Team USA to a World Cup championship with all-around strong play and 26 points in the finals win over Serbia.

    He’s playing better for Cleveland again, too, scoring 22 PPG and shooting just under 37% from three early in the season.

    Most importantly, at just 22 years of age, Irving is still learning how to play one of the most difficult positions in all of sports, has plenty of room for growth and is back to trending upward. 

    The Verdict: The Real Deal


Bryce Harper

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    Though Bryce Harper entered MLB with enormous expectation, he has not yet lived up to the hype.
    Though Bryce Harper entered MLB with enormous expectation, he has not yet lived up to the hype.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Facts: Bryce Harper likely has a promising career ahead, and still has the chance to become a legendary-type talent.

    With that said, we have to frame this discussion within the over-the-top expectations and LeBron James-like hype that’s followed Harper since he was a teenager.

    With that in mind, then, Harper’s been good, but mostly underwhelming.

    He has appeared in just 218 games over the last two seasons, hitting .274 and .273, respectively.

    In 2014, hit managed to record only 32 RBI—27 fewer than in his rookie season—and just 13 home runs, which was also a career low.

    At the age of 22, Harper has plenty of time and talent to turn things around. To date, however, he’s fallen well short of lofty expectations.

    The Verdict: Overhyped.

James Rodriguez

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    There's little doubt,  James Rodriguez is one of soccer's top young stars.
    There's little doubt, James Rodriguez is one of soccer's top young stars.Paul White/Associated Press

    The Facts: After stealing the show in the 2014 World Cup, 23-year-old James Rodriguez is one of soccer’s hottest names.

    In just five games played for Columbia—two fewer than the likes of Thomas Mueller and Lionel Messi—Rodriguez managed to win the tournament's Golden Boot with six glorious goals and also contributed two assists to his team’s effort.

    To put Rodriguez’s momentum into better perspective, consider this: Earlier this year, he became the most expensive Colombian in soccer history, moving from Monaco to Real Madrid for a transfer fee of a whopping $108 million.

    The deal made Rodriguez the fifth most expensive player in the history of the sport, trailing only Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez.

    And so far so good, as Rodriguez has continued showing flashes of brilliance despite taking on a bit more defensive role with his new club team.

    Yet the coolest thing of all about Rodriguez is that he’s perhaps an even better person

    The Verdict: The Real Deal.

John Wall

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    Wall still has plenty of room for growth, but his play to date has underwhelmed.
    Wall still has plenty of room for growth, but his play to date has underwhelmed.R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    The Facts: The 24-year-old Kentucky product was selected first overall in the 2010 NBA Draft and has dealt with sky-high expectations as a result.

    Of course, the comparisons to Derrick Rose haven't helped, either.

    On the court, through just over four seasons in the league, the results have been mixed.

    If this young season is any indication, Wall still shoots too many threes (2.4 per game) for a guy who has made just 30.6% over his career and has never averaged 20 PPG in a single season.

    More importantly, he continues to turn the ball over way too much (3.7 TOPG).

    With all that said, his assist numbers are stellar (8.7 APG), his defense remains top-notch, and he continues to get to the line with regularity, shooting more than six free throws per game.

    Though Wall hasn’t nearly lived up to expectations, his ceiling remains uniquely high.

    The Verdict: Overhyped.

Mike Trout

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    Mike Trout is on pace to go down as one of the all-time great baseball players.
    Mike Trout is on pace to go down as one of the all-time great baseball players.Travis Heying/Associated Press

    The Facts: There isn’t much debate when it comes to Angels outfielder Mike Trout. At just 22 years of age—with three full seasons under his belt—he’s already among the top players in all of baseball.

    To be exact, the phenom has made three All-Star appearances—he was the game’s MVP in 2014—has won two Silver Slugger awards (’12, ’13), and finished atop the AL RBI list in 2014.

    He has also surpassed 500 hits, 300 runs, 200 walks and 80 home runs, a feat only Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Fox, Mel Ott, Al Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr. managed to accomplish before age 23. And while none of those guys had stolen more than 60 bases, Trout has stolen 102.

    Of course, as you’d imagine, all that production has helped his team, too.

    Trout ranks first all-time in wins above replacement (WAR) through the age of 22. His 28.2 WAR is nearly three full games better than Ty Cobb’s second-place total of 25.5. And it’s an impressive list for Trout to lead, with “ordinary” players such as Williams (23.6), Ott (23.5), Alex Rodriguez (22.9) and Griffey Jr. (21.3) closing out the top six.

    To put it simply, Trout isn’t just “the real deal”, he’s on pace to go down as one of the best to ever play baseball.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal.

Josh Gordon

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    Josh Gordon had an incredible 2013 football season, but hasn't played since.
    Josh Gordon had an incredible 2013 football season, but hasn't played since.Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Facts: In 2013, at the ripe old age of 22, Josh Gordon was the best receiver in all of football.

    He led the league in receiving (1,646) by almost 200 yards as well as in average yards per catch (18.9).

    And, at 6’3”, 225 pounds, Gordon looked good doing it.

    It all sparked Hall of Fame widout Michael Irvin to go googoo for Gordon:

    "He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal talent,” said Irvin. “We’re going to look at Megatron and certainly he’s a beast of a player, but if you ask me right now, the wide receiver MVP of the 2013 season is Josh Gordon. It is Josh Gordon. Period. He can be a 2,000-yard receiver and I’m not talking about one season of it.”

    That’s awfully high praise from a guy who knows what it takes to succeed at wide receiver.

    Gordon, however, hasn’t played since, struggling with the law and the NFL's substance-abuse policies.

    And, as the brilliant Keanu Reeves teaches in his fantastic movie Hardball, one of the most important things in life is showing up.”

    So while we recognize Gordon’s immense talent, we can’t legitimately promote his play until he gets back to "showing up".

    The Verdict: Overhyped.


DeMarcus Cousins

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    DeMarcus Cousins has many critics, but seems to have turned the corner.
    DeMarcus Cousins has many critics, but seems to have turned the corner.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Facts: Over the last few years, the 24-year-old behemoth they call Boogie has received more criticism than praise.

    His temperament, both on and off the court, has done him no favors.

    But while playing with Team USA this summer, and through the first few weeks of the 2014 NBA season, one thing seems clear: Boogie has turned the corner.

    Sure, he’s still not going to win any awards for best behaved. But everyone knew that—including the Sacramento Kings—when he was selected fifth overall in the 2010 NBA Draft.

    He's now finally starting to prove the reward outweighs the cost, however.

    Through his team’s first seven games, Cousins is averaging an impressive 23 PPG to go along with 11.1 RPG and 1.4 BPG. His gaudy player efficiency rating—28.29—ranks third among all NBAers who play at least 15 minutes per game.

    Most importantly, Boogie is by far the best and most valuable player on a 5-2 Kings team that preseason was considered one of the worst in the league.

    It may be early but, thanks in large part to Cousins, the Kings have wins over Portland, the Clippers, Denver twice and Phoenix, and would make the playoffs as the West's fifth seed if the season ended today.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal.

Steven Stamkos

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    At just 24 years old, Steven Stamkos is the best goal scorer in hockey.
    At just 24 years old, Steven Stamkos is the best goal scorer in hockey.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Facts: Even at a young age—just 24 years old—Steven Stamkos has an impressive resume.

    He was selected by Tampa Bay first overall in the 2008 NHL Draft. He is a two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner (2010, 2012) as the league’s top goal scorer—he likely would have won a third last season if not for suffering a broken leg—and is a two-time NHL All-Star (2011, 2012).

    It’s worth noting, the Canadian-born star’s 60 goals in 2012 is a Tampa Bay Lightning franchise record and he’s off to another stellar start this season, sitting second in the league in goals scored with 10.

    Most of all, his hard work is finally starting to pay off: Tampa had the NHL’s eighth-best record in 2013 and currently sports the league’s best record in 2014.

    As a result, TSN Hockey ranks Stamkos as the third-best player in the world while The Hockey News has him one back at No. 4 overall.

    In the end, Stamkos is already the most dominant offensive force in hockey and the youngster's only getting better.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal


Robert Griffin

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    After a sensational season in 2012, Robert Griffin has struggled to stay healthy.
    After a sensational season in 2012, Robert Griffin has struggled to stay healthy.Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    The Facts: Coming out of college in 2012, Robert Griffin was considered better than Russell Wilson and on par with Andrew Luck. And, after taking home Rookie of the Year honors, many argued he’d have a better career than both.

    Since then, however, it’s been all down hill for RG3.

    Appearing in just 16 games since 2012, Griffin has struggled and sat more than he’s starred.

    When he has managed to take the field, he’s been mostly average—Griffin threw for 16 TDs and 12 INTs in 13 appearances in 2013 and has one TD pass and one INT in three games played this year.

    Inspired by his struggles, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski has questioned the quarterback’s mechanics, arguing they’ve “regressed in the fundamental way of throwing the football.”

    Unfortunately, though, Griffin can’t stay healthy enough for any such “football talk” to matter, as his reckless approach to the game and inability to avoid hits leaves little hope for the future.

    The Verdict: Overhyped.

Eugenie Bouchard

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    At the age of 20, Eugenie Bouchard is already ranked Top 10 in the world.
    At the age of 20, Eugenie Bouchard is already ranked Top 10 in the world.Joseph Nair/Associated Press

    The Facts: While tennis is a sport made for young athletes, Eugenie Bouchard is still a relative newcomer at just 20 years of age.

    Despite her youth, however, the Canadian product has already climbed all the way to No. 7 in the WTA tennis rankings.

    Bouchard has handled her business more with demeanor than skill, approaching every point like it’s the last while remaining completely oblivious to notions of pressure.

    The great Chris Evert refers to herself as a “Genie believer” and describes the young star as “tough as nails,” while Martina Navratilova counts Bouchard as “one of only a handful of players who have the potential to make it to No. 1.”

    The mental edge so often attributed to Bouchard is her greatest asset to date and it helped her become the first Canadian ever to reach the finals of a Grand Slam (2014 Wimbledon).

    In what was a memorable year, Bouchard also made it to the semifinals of the 2014 Australian Open and the 2014 French Open.

    And though she hasn’t yet gotten over the proverbial hump, we’re betting her hunger and drive will persist until she does.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal.


Anthony Davis

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    Anthony Davis is presently playing better than anyone in basketball.
    Anthony Davis is presently playing better than anyone in basketball.Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    We end our tour with New Orleans forward Anthony Davis, who is arguably the brightest star of all.

    At Kentucky, Davis had a glorious, albeit short college career, joining Kevin Durant as the only two freshmen ever to win both the Naismith and Wooden awards.

    Of course, he also led his ‘Cats to a national title and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, becoming just the third freshmen to do so in the last 70 years (Carmelo Anthony and Pervis Ellison were the other two).

    Since college, The Brow has only continued his assault on the basketball world.

    In his rookie season, one hampered by injury, Davis still managed to post the best PER ever by a 19-year-old and repeated the feat as a 20-year-old, when he averaged 20.8 PPG. In the past three decades, the only post player to average more points at the same age was Shaquille O’Neal, who scored 23.4 PPG as a 20-year-old rookie.

    Of course, since then Davis has only continued to improve.

    He led Team USA to a World Cup championship over the summer and has firmly cemented himself among the NBA's elite talents.

    “I know how good he’s going to be,” said Kevin Durant after USA Basketball practice last summer. “I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He’s an MVP-caliber player. So he’s next.”

    And through the first six games of the 2014 NBA season, Davis has been even better than Durant expected.

    He leads all qualified players in PER (35.79) and win percentage and is second in win shares per 48 minutes and in plus-minus.

    And while his offensive production was supposed to be his biggest weakness, Davis is quietly averaging 24.8 PPG while shooting better than 51 percent from the floor.

    It's really rather simple: If he continues his upward climb toward becoming an elite scorer, and remains among the best rebounders, defenders and shot blockers in the game, Davis won’t just be the real deal, he will go down as one of the all-time greats in NBA history.

    The Verdict: The Real Deal

    Follow Janovitz on Twitter @BrainTrain9