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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.
20. Christian Pulisic
It’s not like Christian Pulisic was some untested rookie when he made his much-publicized move to Premier League giant Chelsea last summer.
In almost four seasons as a regular with German titan Borussia Dortmund, the Pennsylvania native established himself as not just the most promising American soccer player in Europe, but as one of the best attacking prospects anywhere in the sport.
At 17, the skinny, lightning-quick winger became the youngest player ever to score multiple goals in the Bundesliga. He made his debut in the Champions League before turning 18. A few months later, he became Dortmund’s youngest scorer in the world’s top club tournament, his sublime chip helping BVB eliminate Portugal’s Benfica and advance to the quarterfinals.
Injuries limited the U.S. national team front man to just 20 Bundesliga appearances and four goals last season, but that didn’t stop Chelsea from dropping $73 million — almost four times the previous high for a USMNT player — for his services in early 2019. Still, when Pulisic arrived in London ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, he had to prove himself all over again.
After an up-and-down start to life in the Prem, Pulisic found his feet. He scored five goals in three league games in the fall, including a “perfect” hat trick — left foot, right foot, header — against Burnley. He added a goal and three assists in the group stage of Champions League, helping the Blues reach the knockout stage.
An adductor injury forced Pulisic to miss the first few months of this year; he was close to returning to action when the coronavirus pandemic halted play in March.
Whenever English soccer returns, there will be no doubt about what Pulisic can do. - Doug McIntyre
19. Auston Matthews
When it comes to Auston Matthews, there is a truly unique cross-section at work.
This is both the most talented U.S.-born hockey player of his generation and among the handful of most famous and influential athletes in Canada. He started on his improbable ascent from the grassroots programs of a foremost non-traditional hockey market in Arizona to star in the mecca of hockey as the face of the franchise with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has swagger, a little attitude, he’s one of the highest-paid players in the league and doesn’t mind showing it. You might even find him live on Instagram with Justin Bieber.
Matthews is supremely skilled, a true superstar, and maybe the next-most prolific goal scorer in the sport after Alexander Ovechkin. And the weight of a proud and tormented franchise that has endured a half century of failure and disappointment rests on his shoulders.
The Maple Leafs have more than 100 years of history to look back on, and it might not be hyperbole to suggest that Matthews could trump it all by leading the Maple Leafs to their first Stanley Cup since 1967.
In addition to that, should international hockey ever return at its highest level, and Matthews is granted the same opportunities that his predecessors had (Beijing, hello), he will be the foundational piece that USA Hockey builds around in its efforts to win its first best-on-best tournament at the men’s senior level since 1996.
Matthews has both the ability and the platform to take his celebrity to heights unseen on both sides of the border. - Justin Cuthbert
18. Juan Soto
In Game 6 of the World Series, 2019 Cy Young winner Justin Verlander threw a high-and-inside fastball to Juan Soto. The pitch was correctly called a ball, leading to chirping from Verlander and his catcher.
Soto responded by calmly nodding his head, grabbing his groin and staring at the pitcher. After that, he stepped back into the batter’s box, smiled and confirmed to the ump that it was a ball.
And then he devoured Verlander’s soul.
JUAN SOTO!! He gives the Nats the lead!!
(He also carried his bat to first 👀) pic.twitter.com/f9QT30bkQP
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 30, 2019
That right there is a 21-year-old blasting an upper-deck homer off one of the greatest pitchers of a generation. Just like he did against Gerrit Cole earlier in the MLB playoffs. And Clayton Kershaw. And Hyun-jin Ryu. Oh, and he had that game-winning hit against Josh Hader too.
With that one at-bat, you can see why Soto’s patience and power have already made him the future of the Nationals. 19- and 20-year-olds aren’t supposed to have an on-base percentage anywhere close Soto’s career .403 mark, and they’re also not supposed to hit the ball that far in the World Series.
The playfulness that came before and after the mammoth homer — the smile, the bat carry — also shows why Soto is the kind of star that MLB needs to evolve for the future.
In a sport where even the most basic expressions of joy have been systematically suppressed for decades, the homer-mashing, shuffling, crotch-grabbing, constantly smiling Soto represents how the next generation of baseball stars can break through the wall of unwritten rules and decorum.
The kid who hits like a veteran but acts like, well, a kid is already one of the sport’s brightest stars with a ring in hand. What comes next could be even more exciting. - Jack Baer
17. Jayson Tatum
When you think of talented young players, the Boston Celtics forward is near the top of the list. It’s because rarely do you see a 6-foot-8 player utilizing guard skills. His offensive repertoire has been compared to those of Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
There’s nothing he can’t do with the basketball in his hands and he has the work ethic. His numbers in all major statistical categories have improved in each of his first three seasons. He was named an All-Star reserve at 21 this season, averaging 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals.
Solid numbers, but they don’t burst off the page because he has yet to have his own team. Kyrie Irving in the past and Kemba Walker currently holds that role with the Celtics. But in all likelihood, it’s going to be Tatum’s team in a short time — and everyone seems to know it.
It appears the 2017 NBA draft will be remembered as the year Tatum fell to Boston at No. 3. He has thoroughly outplayed Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz and New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball, who were both drafted before him.
The Celtics have a long history of star talent, with 22 retired jerseys hanging in their rafters. But with the exception of the great Larry Bird, no Celtics player in the last four decades has been considered one of the two or three faces of the league. Tatum has the type of star potential and charisma to be that player.
His future is as bright as they come. - Chris Haynes
16. Deshaun Watson
You dream about big moments as a kid, coming through at the last moment to lead your team to victory. But you’d have to dream really big to come up with a scenario more terrifying than the one Deshaun Watson faced in the 2017 national championship.
One yard to go, one second on the clock. The mighty Alabama defense across the line. And all Watson did was step back, thread a pass to Clemson teammate Hunter Renfrow in the end zone, and boom, championship won. Just like that.
Watson is that rarest of athletes, the guy who started winning big as a kid and kept on winning at every level, no matter how tough the competition grew. He started for his high school team in Georgia as a freshman, and would go on to set multiple state records for yardage and touchdowns. He led Clemson to the national championship game as a sophomore, losing to Alabama, then got his revenge the next year with that Renfrow throw.
A true dual-threat quarterback, he’ll spend the next decade-plus torturing Chicago fans after the Bears picked Mitchell Trubisky over him in 2017. He’s only played three seasons in the NFL, but already has three playoff appearances, including a victory over the Bills in last year’s wild card round.
That game saw the signature play of Watson’s pro career: a miraculous escape of a certain sack in overtime that Watson flipped into a huge gain, setting up the game-winning field goal. Maybe three quarterbacks in the NFL could have made that play; maybe just one.
Yes, the Texans own a permanent slot in the Saturday afternoon wild-card game, the NFL playoff equivalent of an opening act. But Watson has given NFL fans a reason to tune in; when he’s under center, you never know when you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. -Jay Busbee