10 Young Athletes Surpassing a Star Teammate for Top Billing

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistDecember 16, 2016

10 Young Athletes Surpassing a Star Teammate for Top Billing

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    Kristaps Porzingis is already surpassing Carmelo Anthony as the New York Knicks' premier player.
    Kristaps Porzingis is already surpassing Carmelo Anthony as the New York Knicks' premier player.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Before rising to the top, every star athlete must eventually take the baton from an esteemed peer.

    Julio Jones started his career as the Atlanta Falcons' No. 2 receiver behind Roddy White. James Harden was at best the Oklahoma City Thunder's third wheel before morphing into the ideal modern offensive weapon. Max Scherzer watched Detroit Tigers teammate Justin Verlander win the 2011 AL MVP award.

    Not every franchise is fortunate enough to have a young talent queued up just in time to soar as an old star fades. And just because emerging players have seized the spotlight doesn't mean the veteran turned into mush.

    Whether by injury, retirement, a star's decline or another star's breakthrough, these franchises are experiencing an altered hierarchy of power. For better or worse, get used to a new headliner guiding the squad as a familiar face takes a back seat.

    No longer content with respecting their elders, these burgeoning young studs are snatching away top-billing honors.

Harrison Barnes (Dirk Nowitzki)

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    An injured Dirk Nowitzki has forced Harrison Barnes to take over as the Dallas Mavericks' top scoring option.
    An injured Dirk Nowitzki has forced Harrison Barnes to take over as the Dallas Mavericks' top scoring option.Glenn James/Getty Images

    While the other members of this list have ascended to stardom, Harrison Barnes has backed into the Dallas Mavericks' top spot by default.

    After striking out in free agency for years—most notably losing DeAndre Jordan due to a change of heart—Dallas gave the former Golden State Warriors forward a max contract over the summer. The weak link in Golden State's Death Lineup during the 2016 NBA Finals is now his new employer's leading scorer.

    Given a much larger role, Barnes has averaged 20.4 points per game with a 46.5 field-goal percentage. Without star teammates setting him up for open looks, his three-point conversion rate has dipped to 33.3 percent.

    The Mavericks probably didn't want him tossed into the leading role immediately, but Dirk Nowitzki has played just five games this season because of an Achilles injury. In his limited time on the court, the 38-year-old big man has mustered a career-worst 35.8 field-goal percentage. His season has gone so bad that he addressed the possibility of retiring following the season.

    "If things don't go so well and it hurts everywhere, it could be that 2017 will be the end," Nowitzki told German magazine Sport Bild, according to Yahoo Sports.

    Having cratered to 6-18 with an old roster, the Mavericks may have no choice but to start over. They'll need to find another headliner, as Barnes is nowhere near equipped to carry a team.

Le'Veon Bell (Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown)

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    Le'Veon Bell has lifted the Pittsburgh Steelers to a four-game winning streak with 823 combined yards.
    Le'Veon Bell has lifted the Pittsburgh Steelers to a four-game winning streak with 823 combined yards.John Grieshop/Getty Images

    Revered as the most important position in sports, quarterbacks usually hog the glory. Yet Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion who is three passing touchdowns away from hitting No. 300 in his career, is not the Pittsburgh Steelers' top offensive star.

    Even after throwing three interceptions last week, the 34-year-old quarterback is having another strong season on par with career norms. He struggled on a snowy day in Buffalo, but the Steelers rolled to victory behind 298 total yards and three touchdowns from Le'Veon Bell.

    Despite serving a three-game suspension to start the season, the 24-year-old running back has recorded 1,616 yards in 10 games. Sustaining that pace over a full season would break Chris Johnson's single-season record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage.

    Big Ben showed his appreciation. Per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler, he endorsed Bell for MVP.

    "I put my vote for [No.] 2-6 any day," Roethlisberger said Wednesday.

    He might have to answer to Antonio Brown, who has garnered an NFL-high 93 receptions for 1,130 yards and 11 touchdowns. If he continues his current pace, he'll finish with 1,390 yards, his worst output since 2012.

    The Steelers arguably boast the NFL's top running back and wide receiver, but another back featured later can challenge for the top spot. While both are pivotal to Pittsburgh engineering a deep playoff run, Bell becomes even more crucial in cold conditions. He has resoundingly answered the call with 620 rushing yards over the Steelers' four-game winning streak, establishing him as at least the team's MVP down the stretch.

Mookie Betts (David Ortiz)

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    With David Ortiz retired, Mookie Betts steps up as the Boston Red Sox's superstar.
    With David Ortiz retired, Mookie Betts steps up as the Boston Red Sox's superstar.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    Boston Red Sox fans have watched David Ortiz crush baseballs since 2003. His 483 home runs with the team finished second in franchise history behind Ted Williams. He not only helped break an 86-year title drought but led them to two more titles for good measure.

    An icon like Ortiz seems impossible to replace, especially when he left wielding a .315/.401/.620 slash line in 2016. Luckily for the Red Sox, they have a young superstar ready to carry on his legacy with a far different formula.

    Anyone who passed Mookie Betts on the street certainly wouldn't envision him as Boston's next superstar. A burly slugger nicknamed Big Papi held the title for over a decade, but it now belongs to a 5'6", 166-pound outfielder with five-tool talent.

    Accounting for his speed and spectacular defense, the 24-year-old already surpassed the designated hitter in 2016. Finishing the year batting .318/.363/.534 with 31 homers, 122 runs, 112 RBI, 26 steals and 7.8 WAR, per FanGraphs, he would have snagged American League MVP honors if not for Mike Trout doing Mike Trout things.

    He's not alone to carry the burden; Xander Bogaerts gives Boston another stud in the making, and Jackie Bradley and Andrew Benintendi join the converted second baseman to form a formidable outfield trio. For now, however, Betts leads the pack as the new face of a franchise expected to compete for a championship next year.

David Johnson (Larry Fitzgerald)

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    David Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage this season.
    David Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage this season.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Larry Fitzgerald hasn't gone anywhere. The 33-year-old wide receiver has recorded 91 receptions for 892 yards, and he recently surpassed Marvin Harrison for third on the NFL's all-time receiving yards list. John Brown, Michael Floyd and J.J. Nelson looked poised to supplant him as the Arizona Cardinals' star receiver, but they have all faltered while the lifelong Cardinal has solidified a regressing passing offense.

    Fitzgerald could set a career high in catches this season, but he's still the team's second-best skill player behind David Johnson.

    In an explosive second season, the running back has registered 1,085 rushing yards, 745 receiving yards and 15 total touchdowns. As noted by Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith, he has the opportunity to become the first back to garner 1,000 yards in each category since Marshall Faulk in 1999.

    Johnson has surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this season, making him 2016's unquestioned fantasy MVP. He would draw actual MVP buzz as well if the Cardinals weren't 5-7-1.

    The season's best running back instead might have to watch Ezekiel Elliott receive the grand honor because of his superior supporting cast.

    If he's struggling to come to terms with dominating on a losing cause, Johnson—who turned 25 on Friday—should seek solace from his elder teammate. From 2012 to 2014, poor quarterback play stifled Fitzgerald's production. The rusher could face a similar dilemma if the Cardinals move on from Carson Palmer after a rough season.

    The 13-year-pro won't stick around forever, so it's fitting for the future Hall of Fame wideout to pass the torch to Johnson.

Nikita Kucherov (Steven Stamkos)

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    Nikita Kucherov has recorded 30 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.
    Nikita Kucherov has recorded 30 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Lightning committed to Steven Stamkos as the face of their franchise when signing the center to an eight-year deal last offseason. According to Spotrac, only eight NHL players have a higher cap hit this season, and the well-compensated star has tallied 20 points in 17 games.

    Since losing Stamkos to a right knee injury, Tampa Bay has dropped three straight games right as the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers have caught fire to widen the Stanley Cup playoff gap. As least the organization has also witnessed Nikita Kucherov blossom into a star.

    In 28 games, the 23-year-old winger has posted 13 goals and 17 assists. Per Hockey-Reference.com, his 1.07 points per game ranks sixth among qualified players, with Stamkos trailing Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid in third.

    A healthy Stamkos is still a stud, but this represents his second notable injury this year. Back in April, a blood clot near his right collarbone forced him to miss the postseason. Kucherov took Tampa Bay to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with 19 points (11 goals and eight assists) over 17 contests.

    In an ideal world, they star in a buddy flick where they're both healthy and treated like leading men. For now, Kucherov assumes the singular spotlight.

Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco (Andrew McCutchen)

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    Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco surpassed Andrew McCutchen as the Pittsburgh Pirates' most productive outfielders.
    Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco surpassed Andrew McCutchen as the Pittsburgh Pirates' most productive outfielders.Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates' undisputed star for years, was the team's third-best outfielder in 2016.

    The former MVP endured the worst season of his eight-year career, hitting .256/.336/.430 with 24 home runs. Those numbers may not seem so bad, but grade them on the scale of a career .292/.381/.487 hitter who swiped single-digit steals (six) for the first time while accounting for a dreadful minus-28 defensive runs saved (DRS) in center field, according to FanGraphs.

    Amid constant trade speculation, the 30-year-old remained with the Pirates through MLB's winter meetings. Per MLB.com's Adam Berry, general manager Neil Huntington doesn't anticipate a move before 2017's Opening Day. 

    "Our intent coming in here was to have Andrew McCutchen in our lineup going forward. No one changed that," Huntington said. "It's unlikely that someone changes that going forward. We're not going to close the door, but we're not going to be making calls."

    As McCutchen regressed, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco inched closer to their peaks. Marte hit .311/.362/.456 with 47 stolen bases, and Polanco crushed 22 homers after accruing 16 in his previous two years combined.

    The two are locked into Pittsburgh's future plans, and prospect Austin Meadows could earn a starting outfield gig by 2018. Even if McCutchen stays, he won't last with the organization for much longer.

David Pastrnak (Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand)

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    David Pastrnak has scored 18 goals early in his second season.
    David Pastrnak has scored 18 goals early in his second season.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    David Pastrnak wouldn't trail Crosby with the second-most goals (19) if not for playing alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The 20-year-old's breakthrough hardly threatens the star veterans' credibility as Boston Bruins stars, instead fortifying their fierce line with an elite scoring option.

    The second-year winger has amassed an NHL-high 15 goals on even strength, which isn't surprising considering how well the trio dominates puck possession. Per NHL.com, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak rank first, second and third, respectively, in five-on-five shot-attempt percentage. The team collectively leads the league.

    While discussing Pastrnak's emergence with BostonBruins.com's Eric Russo, Zdeno Chara gave credit to the organization's established stars.

    "He's made big steps since last year and he's playing with a lot of confidence," Chara said. "I think it obviously helps to have guys like Patrice and Brad on the same line. They're finding a lot of chemistry…you see that when he has the puck, he's a dangerous player."

    Bergeron has topped Boston's point ledger in each of the past two seasons, but the 31-year-old has only mustered four goals and assists apiece to start 2016-17. Marchand instead leads with 27, one above the rising phenom eight years his junior.

    If his scoring outburst proves more than a mere hot streak, Pastrnak will soon take the Bruins' throne. But in the least star-reliant of the major team sports, arguing over billing may amount to semantics.

Kristaps Porzingis (Carmelo Anthony)

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    Porinzgis has leaped to stardom during his second NBA season.
    Porinzgis has leaped to stardom during his second NBA season.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The New York Knicks would eventually transition into Kristaps Porzingis' team. Onlookers figured the change would occur soon enough, but not this season.

    Twenty-five games into the 2016-17 season, Porzingis is the Knicks' best player.

    The 21-year-old big man has made enormous strides early into his second season, averaging 20.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest. As a result of taking 2.5 more shots, Carmelo Anthony still maintains a narrow scoring edge at 22.0 points per game. Yet he wields a 52.6 true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com, compared to Porzingis' 55.7 percentage fueled by superior inside and outside shooting.

    Porzingis also leads the team in win shares (2.5) and value over replacement player (0.7). While the Knicks have a plus-three net rating with him on the court, Anthony is saddled with a minus-two mark.

    The Unicorn is rapidly growing into a valuable interior defender as well, registering 21 blocks in seven December games on the strength of a seven-swat block party against the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday. Anthony, meanwhile, has always made his mark as a lethal scorer who requires the ball in his hands.

    Despite standing at 7'3", Porzingis has yet to reach his ceiling. Given his salivating package of size, shooting and agility, even a jaded Knicks fan will envision MVP upside. For now, he's poised to lead them back into the postseason.

Dak Prescott (Tony Romo)

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    Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has led the Dallas Cowboys to an 11-2 start.
    Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has led the Dallas Cowboys to an 11-2 start.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    With Dak Prescott under center, the 11-2 Dallas Cowboys became the first NFL team to clinch a playoff berth. The rookie holds the league's third-highest quarterback rating (102.7) behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. Nobody who has played every game has tossed fewer interceptions than his four.

    Yet the debate-embracing conversations have turned to benching him because of one off night.

    In Week 14's 10-7 loss to the New York Giants—snapping a 11-game winning streak following their Week 1 defeat against the same opponent—Prescott surrendered picks No. 3 and 4 with a season-low 4.46 yards per pass attempt.

    A rational fan would realize that a neophyte is prone to a subpar game on a cold night on the road against a stout defense. He wasn't even the worst quarterback on display that evening, as the bad version of Eli Manning was lucky to only turn the ball over three times.

    With Dallas boasting a two-game lead for the NFC's top seed, it's not crazy to consider giving Tony Romo some reps to test his back. If all goes well, a strong showing would increase his trade value and give the Cowboys confidence in him as a postseason backup.

    Yet Prescott is obviously the future. Drafted in the fourth round, he is playing on a four-year, $2.7 million contract, per Spotrac. Romo, an oft-injured 36-year-old, has a $24.7 million cap hit next season alone, so it's a financial no-brainer.

    If Prescott was merely a game-managing newcomer benefiting from an elite offensive line and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas would have been wise to hand the keys back to Romo weeks ago. Since he has played above and beyond reasonable expectations, one hiccup isn't nearly enough to make a move.

Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd (Sue Bird)

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    After leading the Seattle Storm for over a decade, Sue Bird will transfer the star spotlight to Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart.
    After leading the Seattle Storm for over a decade, Sue Bird will transfer the star spotlight to Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart.Joshua Huston/Getty Images

    WNBA icon Sue Bird has led the Seattle Storm to two championships since getting drafted with the first pick in 2002. The nine-time All-Star and four-time Olympic gold medalist was recently included in the WNBA Top 20@20 list commemorating the league's top players throughout its 20-year history.

    Around for all but two years of the Storm's existence, Bird has carried the franchise through peaks and valleys. In 2016, the 36-year-old found a second wind as a supporting star to Seattle's new dynamic duo.

    Seattle capitalized on consecutive No. 1 picks by drafting Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, both of whom took home Rookie of the Year honors. Loyd may never match Bird's distribution proficiency, but her 16.5 points per game in 2016 exceeds all of her veteran teammate's yearly averages.

    After guiding the UConn Huskies to four national titles, Stewart looks poised to expand her trophy case at the professional level. The forward dominated during her inaugural campaign, registering 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per contest. According to Basketball-Reference.com, she finished fourth in win shares behind MVP Nneka Ogwumike, Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles.

    Stewart is a superstar in the making, but Loyd has the makings of a star sidekick who will mature into one of the league's most explosive scorers. For as long as she can keep playing, the unselfish Bird will serve as a spectacular veteran leader who will help her younger peers reach title contention.