10 Sports Newcomers Poised to Make an Impact in 2017

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2017

10 Sports Newcomers Poised to Make an Impact in 2017

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    Leonard Fournette is expected to go early in the 2017 NFL draft's first round.
    Leonard Fournette is expected to go early in the 2017 NFL draft's first round.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    A new year begets a new crop of fresh faces itching to make their mark.

    Some future superstars successfully joined the sports circle in 2016. After a two-year delay, Joel Embiid has delighted fans on both the basketball court and social media. Auston Matthews didn't waste any time, announcing his NHL arrival with a four-goal debut.

    In addition to unanimously winning National League Rookie of the Year honors, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager finished third on the MVP ballot. Newcomers Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will also play prominently into both the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year and MVP races as they look to lead the Dallas Cowboys back to the Super Bowl.

    No can't-miss superstars have caused any major sports organizations to tank for a top 2017 pick. Nevertheless, plenty of talented prospects are poised to make a noteworthy impact upon turning pro.

    Watch out for these guys to take over this year.

Jonathan Allen

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    Jonathan Allen is one of the upcoming NFL draft's safest top prospects.
    Jonathan Allen is one of the upcoming NFL draft's safest top prospects.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Jonathan Allen will audition for the 2017 NFL draft's No. 1 pick during the Alabama Crimson Tide's NCAA national championship game against the Clemson Tigers. The defensive lineman has anchored Nick Saban's steadfast defense with 9.5 sacks, 15 tackles for losses and three fumble recoveries.

    After spending four years in college football's gold-standard program, the 291-pounder flaunts a higher floor than his fellow top prospects. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, who pegged him as the No. 4 overall pick in his latest mock draft, praised the well-rounded senior.

    "One of the safest players in this year's draft class also happens to be one of the best," he wrote. "Alabama's Allen is a force as a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end. He's athletic, smart, disciplined and could be the best defender Nick Saban has put into the NFL at Alabama."

    Other recent Crimson Tide alums currently competing in the NFL: Marcell Dareus, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Dont'a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Landon Collins.

    In a class with few obvious top picks, Allen should stabilize mock drafts as a top-five mainstay. Rather than reach for a quarterback, the Chicago Bears or Jacksonville Jaguars can augment improving defenses with an interior linchpin capable of contributing in Week 1.

    He's not as flashy as whichever quarterback inevitably shoots up everyone's board in a vicious groupthink cycle, but Allen can produce in any defensive scheme.

Lonzo Ball

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    Freshman guard Lonzo Ball has averaged 8.1 assists per game for UCLA.
    Freshman guard Lonzo Ball has averaged 8.1 assists per game for UCLA.Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

    UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball already looks like a seasoned veteran. While leading the Bruins to a 14-1 start, the point guard has averaged 8.0 assists to just 2.3 turnovers. Despite concerns of his unorthodox shot release, he has drained 37 of his 90 three-point attempts.

    If the 6'6" prospect can maintain his early-season perimeter prowess, a bright future awaits. The 19-year-old already possesses uncanny court vision and above-average rebounding skills (5.6 per game) for a guard. Throw in strong defense for good measure and he's a probable top-five draft choice.

    Few guards excel in all those areas. He should never need to challenge for a scoring title, but efficient points and the occasional triple-double will delight whoever lands the oldest of three standout siblings.

    He'd especially look good alongside the Philadelphia 76ers' other recent lottery selections or on a deep Boston Celtics roster. (They own the Brooklyn Nets' pick. But hey, at least Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce took them to the second round.)

    Curious fans still have plenty of time to watch in 2017 before he likely declares for the NBA draft. Barring a major decline, the No. 4 Bruins will enter the NCAA tournament as a high-seeded favorite. A strong showing could create distance from fellow freshman guards Markelle Fultz and Malik Monk.

Andrew Benintendi

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    Andrew Benintendi posted an .835 OPS in 118 big league plate appearances.
    Andrew Benintendi posted an .835 OPS in 118 big league plate appearances.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    After logging 118 MLB plate appearances last season, Andrew Benintendi retained his rookie eligibility entering 2017. During his brief call-up, the 22-year-old outfielder showed the ability to make a substantial first-year impact.

    The 2015 first-round pick sprinted through the minors, hitting .312/.392/.540 with 20 home runs and 26 stolen bases over 151 games. Boston saw enough to promote him straight from Double-A, and he rewarded their trust with a .295/.359/.456 slash line.

    Talent evaluators took notice. In a survey conducted by MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, general managers and scouts selected Benintendi as baseball's top hitting prospect entering 2017. He beat out Yoan Moncada, whom the Red Sox sent to the Chicago White Sox in a package for ace Chris Sale.

    A knee injury halted his stellar debut, but the lefty will rejoin Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. in a stacked Red Sox outfield. He won't make an MVP push like Betts or pile up as many "Web Gems" as Bradley, but he's a polished, disciplined hitter who should provide solid defense in left field.

    No one player can replace the retired David Ortiz, and Benintendi certainly doesn't boast the same power. He should, however, help ease the loss by giving last year's top offense another above-average starter.

J.P. Crawford

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    J.P. Crawford should debut for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017.
    J.P. Crawford should debut for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017.Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Among MLB.com's top-five prospects, J.P. Crawford is the only one who didn't dip his feet into the big league waters last year. Following a strong start in Double-A, the shortstop stayed stuck in Triple-A, where he posted a disappointing .244/.328/.318 slash line.

    Eighty-seven supbar games aren't enough to write off the Philadelphia Phillies' top prospect, who will turn 22 before Opening Day. Despite his offensive slump, he maintained an excellent plate approach with a 13.1 walk percentage between both levels.

    Besides, scouts were never expecting another Seager or Manny Machado at the plate. Fielding doesn't garner the same attention as dingers, but a plus defender derives considerable value at shortstop.

    Baseball America's Ben Badler examined Crawford's defensive acumen:

    In the field, Crawford shows plus defense, a mixture of athleticism, actions and instincts. With average speed, he isn’t a burner, but he has a quick first step and reads the ball well off the bat, providing him with plenty of range. He’s a fluid defender who can make plays to either side with his plus arm, which plays up because of his fast hands and quick transfer.

    Contact and power don't always instantly transfer to the majors, but plate discipline and fielding are bankable skills that will elevate Crawford as a significant asset whenever he debuts for the Phillies.

Sam Darnold

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    Sam Darnold will enter the 2017 season as a Heisman favorite after his historic Rose Bowl performance.
    Sam Darnold will enter the 2017 season as a Heisman favorite after his historic Rose Bowl performance.Harry How/Getty Images

    Sam Darnold represents the only person on this list not in the minor leagues or widely expected to go pro in 2017. After wrapping up his redshirt freshman year in grand fashion, the USC quarterback will enter the next season as a premier Heisman Trophy candidate.

    Following a 1-3 start, the Trojans closed the regular season with eight straight wins. Darnold, who replaced Max Browne after three games, amassed 24 passing touchdowns during that winning streak, which earned the team a Rose Bowl bid.

    He shined in a wild 52-49 shootout, going 33-of-53 for 453 yards and five passing touchdowns. USC head coach Clay Helton marveled at the performance, per ESPN.com's Kyle Bonagura.

    “I love the quiet confidence about him,” Helton said after the Rose Bowl win. “You never saw his demeanor change tonight. Whether he was throwing a touchdown or whether we got stopped on offense, you just never saw his demeanor change."

    The first freshman ever to receive the Archie Griffin Award started the year on a remarkably high note. Can he match this memorable week during a full season as USC's starter? After the 19-year-old quarterback's bowl-game heroics, he'll be a top prospect to watch.

Leonard Fournette

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    Leonard Fournette scored 40 rushing touchdowns in three seasons with the LSU Tigers.
    Leonard Fournette scored 40 rushing touchdowns in three seasons with the LSU Tigers.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    NFL fans have waited three years for LSU prospect Leonard Fournette to turn pro. Even after amassing 1,110 fewer rushing yards than 2015's 1,953 in seven 2016 games, he remains the incoming draft class' unquestioned top running back.

    As proven in the last two years, teams won't penalize elite talent at the devalued position. If most projections hold up, he'll join Todd Gurley (No. 10) and Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4) as the third straight rusher to get drafted in the opening round's top 10.

    The widely contrasting 2016 campaigns from those young backs demonstrate the importance of the New Orleans native finding the right environment to optimize his immediate impact. Miller may have found the best possible spot when he predicted the Carolina Panthers create a lethal backfield duo of Cam Newton and Fournette with pick No. 8.

    With mock-draft season gearing into overdrive, Emily Kaplan of The MMQB won't be the last analyst to call him "a once-in-a-generation RB talent." Through his three years bulldozing defenders with the Tigers, the 6'1", 235-pound ball-carrier has drawn numerous comparisons to Adrian Peterson. Like the Minnesota Vikings star, Fournette presents the full package of power, speed and patience. 

    If he lands with the Panthers, New York Jets or even back home on the New Orleans Saints, he'll start the season as a runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite. He won't join the MVP discussion like Elliott without Dallas' forceful offensive line, but he's someone whom fantasy players will immediately appreciate.

Markelle Fultz

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    Markelle Fultz has flaunted a full offensive arsenal during his freshman year.
    Markelle Fultz has flaunted a full offensive arsenal during his freshman year.Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    An NBA team hasn't taken a point guard with the No. 1 pick since the Cleveland Cavaliers snagged Kyrie Irving in 2011. Markelle Fultz may change that this year.

    The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks claimed the Washington freshman could wind up becoming the best incoming point guard since Irving. He began with a direct overview of what he believes is the ideal package for a modern NBA 1. 

    "Washington freshman Markelle Fultz has everything NBA teams are looking for in a point guard," he wrote in an early December scouting report. "It doesn’t take long to see why he’s considered the early front-runner to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. He’s big, he’s fast, he can shoot and pass the ball, and he has a good feel for the game."

    The 6'4" teenager has the size to make the pro transition, and he's a far greater offensive threat than the position's recent prospects. 

    As noted by Tjarks, many recent lottery point guards (Marcus Smart, Kris Dunn, Dante Exum) have limited shooting abilities. Fultz, meanwhile, has converted 26 of his 60 three-point attempts in 14 games. 

    He has stuffed the stat sheet for the 7-7 Huskies, averaging 22.3 points, 6.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest. For those concerned about the level of competition, he registered 25 points and 10 boards on the road against undefeated Gonzaga.

    His ability to shoot, create his own shot and play either guard position makes Fultz a desirable lottery prize. In a class full of freshmen, a steep learning curve won't necessarily impede his Rookie of the Year chances.

Myles Garrett

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    Myles Garrett is the early front-runner to get selected first in 2017's NFL draft.
    Myles Garrett is the early front-runner to get selected first in 2017's NFL draft.Butch Dill/Getty Images

    While there's uncertainty atop NFL draft boards, Myles Garrett never strays too far from the leading spot.

    There's no No. 1 consensus entering the postseason. ESPN Insider Todd McShay tabbed Allen for the Cleveland Browns' first overall choice. Miller, however, called Garrett "the clear-cut top player in the draft class."

    Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke shared a similar sentiment, calling the Texas A&M pass-rusher "the best, most dominant player available." He also noted that the Browns, who have stockpiled 13 picks, have plenty of opportunities to target a much-needed quarterback later.

    Their analytically inclined front office will likely want the best prospect available, and Garrett—who officially declared for the draft at the end of 2016—boasts the highest upside. This is a lineman who compiled 4.5 sacks, a defended pass and forced fumble. In one game.

    NFL teams love physical, agile athletes who explode off the edge. Garrett fills the bill as a major disrupting sack artist who shouldn't fall despite not fulfilling the hype during his junior season.

Nolan Patrick

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    The T-word hasn't surfaced much during the 2016-17 season. Spoiled by Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Matthews over the last two years, nobody from 2017's draft class has inspired mass tanking.

    That's not meant as a slight to Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings, who is widely expected to go No. 1 despite playing six Western Hockey League games due to an upper-body injury. As Mark Seidel, chief scout for North America Central Scouting, explained to the Toronto Star's Kevin McGran, the Canadian prospect is a great get without a superstar ceiling:

    He’s a great solid 200-foot guy who can score, who can skate, he’s strong. He checks all the boxes. But I don’t think he’s got that extra ‘sells-tickets’ skill. He’s not going to go through guys. I don’t think he’s going to rack up 110 points. He’s one of those guys coaches want, a big centre down the middle who can make plays, be good defensively.

    At the NHL level I see him as being a real good player, but not at the superstar level.

    Guys like McDavid wouldn't be once-in-a-generation prospects if one popped up every other year. Patrick doesn't possess the pedigree of other No. 1 choices, but he also shouldn't go down as a bust if fans of whoever wins the lottery temper expectation.

    For his sake, the Las Vegas Golden Knights hopefully won't receive the top choice and expect the 18-year-old to lead the expansion franchise. Even if he's not a leading man, Patrick should contribute immediately in the right setting.

Alex Reyes

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    Alex Reyes recorded 52 strikeouts in his first 46 MLB innings.
    Alex Reyes recorded 52 strikeouts in his first 46 MLB innings.Jon Durr/Getty Images

    In a limited sample size, Alex Reyes showed why he's one of baseball's most-hyped pitching prospects.

    Through 46 big league innings with the St. Louis Cardinals, the 22-year-old righty registered a 1.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts. He especially dominated when employed from the bullpen, but he should begin 2017 back in the starting rotation.

    Reyes induced whiffs in bunches en route to the majors, accruing 12.1 strikeouts per nine minor league innings. He also, however, struggled with control, issuing 4.6 walks per nine. Those problems persisted on the highest level, where he allocated 23 free passes.

    If he can't find the strike zone, St. Louis could always transform him into a shutdown reliever. Of course, it'd much rather a front-line ace.

    For now, the Red Birds should settle for an exciting fireballer who will keep scoring to a minimum and stockpile strikeouts in short starts. His electric fastball and lively curve flummoxes hitters at all levels. As long as he doesn't beat himself with wild command, he will help the Cardinals return to playoff contention this year.