MVPs. All-Stars. Gold Medalists. Champions. The highest levels of the sports world are being dominated by young athletes as much as any time in history. With most athletes still sidelined by current events, we thought it was a good time to take a step back and appreciate the best emerging talents the sports world has to offer. Yahoo Sports staff voted on a basic question: “Which under-25 athletes are we most excited to see once sports come back?” There are countless ways to answer that question. Some will heavily weigh an athlete’s current resume, while others will look more at future potential. Star power comes in many forms, and this is how our staff saw it shaking out.
We’ll be unveiling five athletes each day this week until we crown the best of the best on Friday.
See the rest of our rankings:
10. Ja Morant
Forget the blistering athleticism and herky-jerky creativity that makes him a nightly “SportsCenter” highlight reel.
What’s special about Morant is that, despite being a rookie, he has already taken the step from taking what the defense gives him to dictating what he wants and prying it out of his opponents’ hands. Plenty of players can leverage the defense by getting to the rim at will. Morant’s sleight of hand — the look-aways and ball-fakes — tilts opponents the direction he wants them to go, while he fires the ball the other way.
But forget his tactical savvy for a moment.
What’s special about Morant is his ability to walk into Memphis, at 20 years old, and take command of the city. Morant’s arrival and his quick and easy chemistry with teammates Jaren Jackson and Dillon Brooks have revitalized the identity of the rebuilding Grizzlies and led them to the No. 8 seed in the playoff hunt. Plenty of players can master the intricacies of the pick-and-roll. Morant, forgive the semi-spiritual aside, carries with him a magnetism that can change how a franchise sees itself and how a city sees a franchise — the kind of swagger that can make a team full of kids want to kick veteran Andre Iguodala’s ass for not wanting to play with them.
Morant is a few years and a lot of polish away from superstardom, but the glimmers are apparent. On the surface, Morant is a fun, electrifying young prospect. The more you peel back the layers, the more there is to get excited about. - Seerat Sohi
9. Saquon Barkley
It wasn’t that long ago that drafting a running back in the top five wouldn’t get you laughed out of the room. Saquon Barkley was the reason why.
A weight-room champion with 4.4 speed and wide receiver skills out of the backfield, the Penn State standout was as close to a sure thing as there is coming out of Happy Valley. He more than lived up to the hype during his 2018 rookie campaign after being selected with the No. 2 overall pick.
Barkley earned Rookie of the Year honors, tallying 2,028 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns on a middling New York Giants offense. He was a real-life and fantasy star out of the gate. During an injury-shortened sophomore campaign, he still managed 1,441 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 2019. Most of that production was gained after returning from a high-ankle sprain suffered in Week 3.
Injury is the only real threat to Barkley producing at a Pro Bowl level while he’s in his physical prime. How long that will be for an NFL running back is anyone’s guess. But at 23 years old, he’s already proven his athleticism and skill set as elite at the NFL level. He’s a threat to break open a game at any moment, even with all eyes of a defense focused on him. And they will be on an offense led by quarterback Daniel Jones.
That he makes the Giants worth watching may be the biggest testament to his electric ability and star power. - Jason Owens
During the 2012 Olympics 800m women’s freestyle, a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky took her lane alongside world record-holding favorite Rebecca Adlington and got off to a fast start.
BBC commentators began the race focused on Adlington and assumed the upstart teenager would fade as the race went on. A few laps later, that teenager was leading by an entire body length. More laps, and she was still on a world-record pace.
By the end, an athlete who simply hoped to make it to London entering 2012 had crushed the Olympic field like it was a high school swim meet.
Now at 23 years old, Ledecky’s greatness has only become more clear.
With four gold medals and a silver in Rio de Janeiro, Ledecky was the most decorated female athlete of the 2016 Olympics when she was still below drinking age. She won the 400m and 800m freestyle golds by a total of 10.45 seconds. By comparison, the winners of the equivalent male events prevailed by a combined 1.36 seconds.
Who knows what could have happened in Tokyo this year with four more years of experience, especially since the Olympics added the 1500m freestyle — an event Ledecky won by a comical 18 seconds at the 2017 World Championships — to its program for the first time.
No athlete in the world is more obviously dominant than Ledecky when she spends a quarter of a minute lounging at the end of a pool while watching the rest of the world’s best swimmers compete for second. Even at the highest levels of distance swimming, she has shown no one comes close when she’s on. - Jack Baer
7. Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey was far from a sure thing in the 2017 NFL draft. A game-breaker at Stanford, he didn’t exactly scream durability for an NFL running back weighing in at just 200 pounds. Especially when lined up next to draft-mate and LSU bruiser Leonard Fournette, who looked every bit the part of a pro.
While Fournette, who went No. 4 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, has had his ups and downs as an NFL back, McCaffrey has established himself as a bonafide star three seasons after the Panthers rolled the dice to make him the No. 8 pick.
After a solid rookie campaign with 1,086 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in 2017, McCaffrey broke through as a one-of-a-kind talent during his second year as a pro. He tallied 1,098 yards while averaging five yards per carry on the ground and catching an astonishing 107 of 124 targets out of the backfield for 867 receiving yards. He crossed the goal line 13 times in the process.
Playing in an NFC featuring Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley all producing spectacular numbers, McCaffrey went down as an all-time Pro Bowl snub that season. That wasn’t a problem in 2019 when he upped his production to 1,387 rushing yards, 1,005 receiving yards on 116 catches and 19 total touchdowns as pretty much the entirety of the Panthers offense.
McCaffrey single-handedly won fantasy seasons and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors for the effort. A 23-year-old dual threat out of the backfield like the NFL’s never seen, McCaffrey has already twice set the record for catches by a running back. And having played 16 games in each of his three seasons, those durability concerns are long forgotten. - Jason Owens
6. Sabrina Ionescu
The 2K-1K-1K club in NCAA Division I basketball is a group of one. One woman.
Sabrina Ionescu, the New York Liberty’s first overall pick in last month’s WNBA draft, has been a headline player ever since she was ranked fourth in the 2016 recruiting class. She lifted the Oregon Ducks to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a dozen years, eclipsed the NCAA Division I triple-double record before conference play even got underway her junior year and had Oregon favored to win the 2020 NCAA championship, a feat the Ducks have never achieved. In doing all of that, she turned the heads of some of the game’s greatest players from Diana Taurasi and her Team USA cohort to the NBA’s Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Ionescu, 22, has the talent for a long WNBA career and enters the league — COVID-19 postponement aside — at a time when excitement, momentum and player movement has arguably never been higher. While she won’t be piling up triple-doubles like she did in college, and she won’t have the numbers that she did there, either, she will dazzle in a Liberty system built to allow her to shine. No. 1 draft picks typically go on to prolific professional careers and she will be no different. Her potential, though, is limited by a new, young roster and a first-year head coach. It creates a cloud of questions about how much impact she’ll have on the league in her first season, whenever that may be — ah, another question.
And that makes her one of the most exciting young players to watch when sports return. How will she handle the defensive pressure of professionals every night? What will her “new normal” offensive contribution be in the stat box? How will that push the notoriously competitive star? And just what impact will she continue to have on the game as a whole with James, Curry and a growing list of NBA names in her corner? - Cassandra Negley