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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 who we ranked 25-21 on Monday and 20-16 on Tuesday.
15. Trae Young
In just his sophomore campaign, Young emerged as one of the elite point guards in the NBA. His soaring popularity led to him being voted in as an All-Star starter, becoming the first Atlanta Hawks player since Dikembe Mutombo in 1998 to receive the honor.
His long-range distance, dribbling artistry and signature nutmegs have catapulted him to must-see status. He was fourth in the league in scoring (29.6) and second in assists (9.3) during the 2019-20 season at the age of 21.
But with his electric play, there’s an edge to the 6-foot-1 guard. He doesn’t shy away from engaging in trash talk with the opposition, and his nutmegs have rubbed his much larger opponents the wrong way at times. But not one to back down, he said he’ll continue breaking out the move.
He plays with a fire, one that gets ignited at any form of a slight. He saves articles and tweets of media members criticizing his game.
Furthermore, Young will always be linked to Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, who is excelling personally and collectively with his team, something Young hasn’t experienced thus far. Young is obsessed with proving people wrong, and that’s no exception when it comes to proving who got the better end of their draft-day swap.
Young’s star potential is through the roof. Once he’s surrounded with talent that will move the needle, he could blossom into not only the league’s best point guard but a top-five talent. The Hawks haven’t had a franchise-caliber player like Young since Dominique Wilkins was throwing down tomahawks.
Atlanta should be in good hands for a long time. - Chris Haynes
14. Kylian Mbappe
Before he was even out of his teens, more than a billion people saw what Kylian Mbappe is capable of.
It was June 15, 2018. The World Cup final in Moscow between Mbappe’s France and Croatia. Mbappe, the youngest player on Les Bleus and the second-youngest of the 736 players who traveled to Russia for the tournament, had already made his mark on the global stage, scoring three times heading into the final, including two goals in a 4-3 win over Lionel Messi and Argentina in the Round of 16.
There were whispers afterward that Mbappe could one day replace Messi as the best player on the planet. The finale, however, is where legends are really made. Mbappe didn’t disappoint.
With France leading in the second half and a global TV audience of 1.1 billion watching, Mbappe fired home an insurance goal that sealed his country’s second World Cup win. In the process, Mbappe became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele did it 60 years earlier.
Since then, Mbappe has led Ligue 1 in scoring twice. Days before play across Europe was halted in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, he helped PSG qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
A summer transfer to Real Madrid could be in the cards next, likely for a fee that would rival the record $200 million-plus PSG paid Barcelona for Neymar in 2017. (Mbappe’s $140 million move from Monaco to Paris a year later is already the second-highest in history.)
It would buy both performance and potential. For all he has accomplished so far already, there’s no telling what Mbappe will do for an encore. - Doug McIntyre
13. Connor McDavid
It isn’t just that hockey fans are losing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s also that they’re missing out on something they’re never assured to see: the single greatest player on the planet involved at the time the sport is played at its highest level.
As proven repeatedly in the NHL, it’s not good enough to merely boast the league’s singular talent, and no player has more accurately underscored this fact than Edmonton Oilers superstar center Connor McDavid.
This is a player that covers distance unlike ever before seen in the history of the sport, an absolute terror for defensemen that have started into their backpedal — no matter how talented they are. And yet, the unforgivable failures of the organization that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015 has limited McDavid to just a single postseason appearance — and one series victory — in his half-decade in the league.
This season, however, the Oilers played themselves into an unfamiliar position — ahead of schedule after hiring accomplished executive Ken Holland to turn over a failing roster. With superstar running-mate Leon Draisaitl submitting an MVP-type season and anchoring a dominant scoring line all on his own, McDavid suddenly and unexpectedly had the support he needed to lead the chase for a division crown, and the Oilers seemed primed for a playoff run.
You have missed some unbelievable moments if you haven’t been paying much attention to Connor McDavid over the last five seasons. But what you haven’t missed out on is meaningful hockey.
For maybe the greatest talent the sport has ever seen, those opportunities are almost exclusively ahead of him. And that’s what’s so exciting, even if we’re being forced to wait a little longer. - Justin Cuthbert
12. Cody Bellinger
In his first three seasons in the majors, Cody Bellinger has passed nearly every test. Rookie of the Year award? Check. Multiple All-Star appearances? Check. Gold Glove award? Check. Silver Slugger award? Check. MVP? Also check.
At this point, the only thing eluding the 24-year-old Bellinger is a World Series ring. And while that’s a significant accolade, Bellinger has the ability to single-handedly will a team to success. After a promising first two years in the majors, Bellinger announced himself as one of the game’s elite talents in 2019. Fueled by an approach that drastically reduced his strikeouts, Bellinger hit .305/.406/.629, with 47 home runs, winning his first MVP award.
If that performance is sustainable, Bellinger stands to become the National League’s version of Mike Trout. Playing under the brighter lights just up the freeway — 15 minutes from Hollywood — should make Bellinger one of the game’s most marketable stars, something that, despite his on-field performance, Trout hasn’t become.
Sure, Juan Soto (No. 18 on this list) has the ring and Ronald Acuña Jr. (No. 21) has a more exciting style of play, but Bellinger has the best chance of becoming baseball’s next Derek Jeter, a superstar who gets plastered on billboards, plays for one of the most successful franchises in the sport, hosts “Saturday Night Live” and gets his own line of cologne. - Chris Cwik
11. Naomi Osaka
For many, the first memory of Naomi Osaka is a strange one: in her greatest tennis moment, she was in tears, the little sister we wanted to comfort. Osaka beat Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final, a match marred by controversial umpiring.
It was a dream scenario — Osaka grew up watching Williams, and she beat her idol for her first Grand Slam title — but there she was that night, apologizing to the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd for her win while Williams hugged her and implored those in the stands to celebrate Osaka instead of booing chair ump Carlos Ramos.
Osaka has continued to blossom since, delivering on the promise that she could be the future of women’s tennis: she won the 2019 Australian Open, a title that put her atop the WTA rankings for the first time, and held onto the world No. 1 spot for about half the year, winning the Pan Pacific Open and China Open later in the schedule. Her aggressive style includes perhaps the best service return in the game and a powerful forehand.
Her on-court approach belies her personality off it. Osaka recently declared on Twitter that she’s done letting her shyness cripple her, citing a desire to let her opinion be heard and saying she had been putting a “limiter” on herself. She noted that she’ll likely still be quiet in nature, but “won’t pass on opportunities to speak my mind anymore.”
That could be great for the rest of us. Osaka’s Japanese-Haitian ancestry and American upbringing give her an outlook and global appeal few others can offer, which could be a boon to her bank account, but her grace and humility are even more attractive. - Shalise Manza Young