Yahoo Sports' 25 under 25: Who wins the battle for No. 1?

Yahoo Sports Staff
·23 min read

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 spent the week counting down the athletes. Here are our full rankings.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

25. Karl-Anthony Towns

Averaging 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists, Towns could be one of the 25 best players in the game if he never got a lick better.

Towns sent a tingle down the collective consciousness of the NBA in his rookie season, emerging as the first of the unicorns: big men with perimeter skills who could keep up with the pace of the modern NBA. While his peers have worked to keep up, Towns has leaned in, shooting 7.9 threes per game at a 41 percent clip this season. He’s also one of the most efficient and versatile post players in the NBA, with a slippery first step, moves on moves on the block and an ability to finish with both hands.

His footwork and dexterity, ever apparent on offense, should transfer when he’s chasing guards down in the paint. He sees the game well enough for the Wolves to expect more awareness. The good news is he is indeed doing the hard things more, but the issue is consistency. Towns dominates in fits and sparks.

Operating in cruise control, he’s a talented black hole. At the height of his powers, he could be transcendent. - Seerat Sohi

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

24. Joey Bosa

Bosa is a phenomenal athlete and has a motor most coaches dream of. He had 10.5 sacks in just 12 games as a rookie, making a huge impact for a franchise that hasn’t had many defensive stars since Junior Seau was a Charger.

With Philip Rivers moving on this offseason, Bosa is set up to be the Los Angeles Chargers’ biggest star as they move into a new plush Inglewood stadium. Bosa has 40 sacks through four NFL seasons, is likely to soon join the elite group of defensive players with a $100 million contract and is the most marketable star the Chargers have as they try to get a foothold in Los Angeles.

If Bosa continues on his career trajectory, the former Ohio State star will be one of the top athletes in the second-biggest market in the United States for a long time. - Frank Schwab

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

23. Bianca Andreescu

In June 2019 it was “We the North” that rang out through Canada after the Toronto Raptors captured their first NBA championship. Three months later the nation shifted to “She the North,” throwing support behind 19-year-old tennis star Bianca Andreescu at the U.S. Open.

Reaching No. 1 in the world is obviously the young star’s goal, and she hasn’t shied away from saying it. Andreescu is one of the many up-and-coming talents — eight of the past 12 Grand Slam winners were first-time titleholders — and Williams is still a force to reckon with, making it a tough and intriguing adventure for the Canadian.

Her rise to stardom was so quick that there were few eyes on her during the early rounds of big tournaments. Now it will be must-watch matches against the fellow young stars as she looks to best her second-round finishes at the other Grand Slam tournaments. - Cassandra Negley

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

22. Joe Burrow

The author of perhaps the greatest season by a quarterback in college football history, Burrow is often referred to as a comet who descended magically from the sky early in LSU’s championship-winning campaign in 2019.

But that’s not exactly true. The former Ohio State transfer — who left for LSU only after losing the spring battle against Dwayne Haskins — didn’t even know most of his offensive teammates’ names when he arrived in Baton Rouge two summers ago. He was essentially given three weeks to win the Tigers’ starting QB job — the first major mission Burrow accomplished.

Burrow’s incredible 2019 — winning the Heisman Trophy and leading LSU to an unbeaten championship season — transformed his legacy from try-hard QB to the most devastating passer in program history. He never had so much as a bad game last season, and even longer if you include the end of 2018.

The Cincinnati Bengals believed enough in his breakthrough to make Burrow the first pick in the NFL draft in 2020. Can he bring his magic to the NFL? A downtrodden franchise has turned its lonely eyes to him to do just that. - Eric Edholm

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

21. Ronald Acuña Jr.

When the Braves come to town, make sure you’re in your seat for the first pitch. Because it’s coming to Acuña, and there’s a decent chance it’s headed for the seats. Acuña, still just 22, is fast becoming the kind of must-watch player baseball needs, a brilliant, quick prodigy with a swing far more powerful than you’d expect.

The Braves signed Acuña when he was 16. They watched as he blossomed into the top-ranked player in the minors, and then carried through on that promise. How high are the Braves on Acuña? They signed him to a $100 million deal in 2019 with less than a full year of major-league service.

He responded by playing well enough to make the starting lineup of last year’s All-Star team, and he joined the 30-30 club by early August. - Jay Busbee

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

20. Christian Pulisic

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.

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.

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.

Whenever English soccer returns, there will be no doubt about what Pulisic can do. - Doug McIntyre

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

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.

Matthews has both the ability and the platform to take his celebrity to heights unseen on both sides of the border. - Justin Cuthbert

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

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. - Jack Baer

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

His future is as bright as they come. - Chris Haynes

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

16. Deshaun Watson

Watson is the 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.

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

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

Atlanta should be in good hands for a long time. - Chris Haynes

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

For all he has accomplished so far already, there’s no telling what Mbappe will do for an encore. - Doug McIntyre

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

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

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

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. - Chris Cwik

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

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.

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

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

10. Ja Morant

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

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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. - Jason Owens

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

8. Katie Ledecky

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

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

7. Christian McCaffrey

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

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

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.

And that makes her one of the most exciting young players to watch when sports return. - Cassandra Negley

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

5. Luka Doncic

Luka Doncic didn’t play college basketball in the United States. Many here knew very little about him upon his arrival to the league last year.

Yet in just a season and a half, Doncic has more than transformed himself into a household name — and is well on his way to being a true superstar in the NBA.

The 21-year-old notched the 22nd triple-double of his career in March, setting a Mavericks franchise record in just 122 games. Doncic has 14 this season alone, too, the most in the league. Very few teams can ever find an answer for him on the floor, and are constantly falling victim to the magic he brings to the game each night. - Ryan Young

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

4. Zion Williamson

In terms of electricity, who provides more than Zion? His debut was delayed and the sample size is small, but the confidence in his ability to deliver is second to none — or maybe second to Patrick Mahomes once we realized Zion’s early games were no fluke.

He’s such an anomaly, in a game that’s trending farther away from the basket, Williamson is a magnet to the rim and he’s challenging basketball’s perimeter-oriented conventional.

He brings it, which means he has the makings of an NBA ambassador to carry the league’s flag into the next decade. Who knows if his career is built for the long run or if he’ll be a supernova designed to capture us for just a short period?

But however long it is, it’ll be memorable and unforgettable. - Vincent Goodwill

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

3. Lamar Jackson

“Not bad for a running back.”

With those now-famous words following a Week 1 evisceration of the Miami Dolphins, Lamar Jackson sent a message to the football world: He remembers.

All of those concerns about his arm. All of those suggestions he should consider another position. All of those people who failed to see how one of the most dynamic athletes in college football history could possibly succeed at the pro level. It was all fuel for a man about to take the NFL by storm.

With the benefit of hindsight, the story of Lamar Jackson is clear. He is a football prodigy, just not the kind we’re used to seeing at quarterback. - Jack Baer

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

2. Simone Biles

Imagine being 23 years old and considered the best in the history of your sport. The sport is gymnastics, where anything past 19 is usually considered old, but Simone Biles has sewn up the GOAT title at an age when most of us are still trying to figure out what we’re great at. Or at least what we’re good at.

It’s incredible to think there’s so much power in such a small (4-foot-8) frame, and that it’s possible to do some of the things that Biles does. But what makes her exceptional is that she can do those things with such grace. She possesses fearlessness and willingness to push gymnastics to new levels — she has four skills named after her, meaning she was the first to successfully complete them in a major competition, and are so complicated others haven’t yet been able to do them at a meet. - Shalise Manza Young

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

1. Patrick Mahomes

We didn’t know a lot about Patrick Mahomes when he was drafted in 2017. He was raw, in a pass-friendly offense at Texas Tech. He went 10th in the draft, the second quarterback selected — the Chicago Bears will never live down picking Mitchell Trubisky second overall — and one pick after receiver John Ross went to the Cincinnati Bengals. Mahomes clearly had potential, but nobody knew he’d be a superstar.

Three years later, he’s the biggest athlete in American sports under 25 years old.

Mahomes checks every “face of the league” box. He’s cool yet able to laugh at himself, whether it’s his Kermit the Frog voice or putting ketchup on everything. He’s wise beyond his years thanks to growing up as the son of a major league pitcher. He’s instantly recognizable in a sport that hides its stars in helmets. Oh, and he’s a joy to watch, with his cannon arm and no-look passes. - Frank Schwab