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Top 8 Rising Stars to Watch in 2019

Browns DE Myles Garrett pointing during warmup.
Cleveland Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett has taken his game to a new level in 2018, living up to the hype that comes with being a first-overall pick. Photo by Erik Drost (Wiki Commons) [CC License].

The exploits of one Patrick Mahomes have wowed NFL fans all season. From no-look passes to 40-yard bombs on the run, the 23-year-old is changing the way the quarterback position is played, leading his Kansas City Chiefs to top spot in the AFC in the process.

He’s far from the only youngster making an indelible impression on his league, though. Below, we take a closer look at Mahomes and seven other striplings taking their sports by storm.

As the calendar ticks into 2019, expect to see these faces in a lot of highlight packages and more than a couple award ceremonies.

NFL

Patrick Mahomes (QB, Kansas City Chiefs)

Some NFL pundits questioned the wisdom of trading “Mr. Reliable” Alex Smith to make room for untested second-year QB Patrick Mahomes.

It took all of one game for them to quiet down. Mahomes threw for 4 TDs against the division rival Chargers in Week 1 and never slowed down. He set an NFL record with 13 TD passes in the first three games of the year and has two six-touchdown games this season.

With the Chiefs poised to earn the #1 seed in the AFC, the Texas Tech product is neck and neck with Drew Brees in the 2018 NFL MVP odds.

Myles Garrett (DE, Cleveland Browns)

With 7.5 sacks in 11 games and an 80.0 rating from Pro Football Focus, Myles Garrett had a decent rookie season, but not really one that was worthy of the #1-overall pick.

But the freak athlete has taken his game to a new level in his second year as a pro. He’s racking up the sacks so quickly that our graphics department can’t even keep up! He now has 12.5 sacks in 13 games and an 85.1 PFF grade.

If it wasn’t for a certain defensive lineman in Los Angeles, Garrett would have a real chance at winning his first Defensive Player of the Year award.

Cleveland fans can count on him being in the DPOY conversation year-in and year-out for the foreseeable future as he takes aim at every sack record in the Browns’ record book.

NBA

Giannis Antetokounmpo (F, Milwaukee Bucks)

When Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the NBA as an 18-year-old, he was raw, untapped athleticism. He was the dictionary definition of “potential.”

While he averaged just 6.8 PPG as a rookie, the signs were there that he was a star in the making.

He nearly doubled his scoring average the next year and has more than doubled it again since that time. He’s also increased his rebounding every year in the league (averaging double digits in 2018-19) and refined his playmaking (upping his assists from 1.9 APG as a rookie to 5.4 APG last season).

A torrid start to the 2018-19 campaign, plus the Bucks’ emergence as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender, had the Greek Freak first in the 2019 NBA MVP odds in early December. Fourteen teams now feel very stupid for passing on Giannis in the 2013 draft. (Orlando would get a pass for taking Victor Oladipo at #2, but they traded him for Serge Ibaka, thereby losing all their smartness points.)

Donovan Mitchell (SG, Utah Jazz)

In a year or two, it’s pretty likely that 12 teams will feel just as stupid for passing on Donovan Mitchell, the #13 pick in 2017.

A somewhat lackluster sophomore season at Louisville (15.6 PPG, 2.7 APG, 35.4 3P%) belied what was to come for the 6’3 guard. After failing to hit double digits in five of his first 11 games as a pro, he was only held under 10 points four times the rest of the season. He quickly became the go-to scorer Utah needed with Gordon Hayward gone, leading all NBA rookies in scoring at 20.5 PPG.

Over the course of the year, Mitchell emerged as the most valuable player on a playoff-caliber Jazz team, and when the postseason rolled around, he got even better. During Utah’s 4-2 win over favored Oklahoma City, Mitchell poured in 28.5 PPG, including dropping 38 in the deciding game.

Even though Utah is off to a slow start in 2018-19, something tells us Mitchell has a certain clutch gene that will kick in when needed.

MLB

Ronald Acuna (LF, Atlanta Braves)

The Atlanta Braves have long been known for their ability to develop young pitchers. The meteoric rise of Ronald Acuna shows they’re more than capable of fostering young bats, as well. Acuna and Washington’s Juan Soto went back-and-forth as NL Rookie of the Year favorites in 2018, but in the end, Acuna could not be matched.

Even though he only played in 111 games (due to both injury and starting the year in the minors), he led all NL rookies in home runs (26), WAR (4.1), and stolen bases (16). He was also second in doubles, third in RBI, and third in triples.

Acuna’s .552 SLG and .917 OPS were the highest on the Braves. Reminder: Freddie Freeman is on the Braves.

Acuna’s play was a big part of getting Atlanta — a team that won 72 games in 2017 — back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The only bright spot in their brief, four-game loss to the Dodgers in the NLDS? A Ronald Acuna grand slam!

Kyle Freeland (SP, Colorado Rockies)

Colorado, more specifically Coors Field, usually chews up and spits out young pitchers. Kyle Freeland is anything but “usual.” The 22-year-old’s sophomore season was overshadowed by the historic campaign of the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, but don’t sleep on this kid. In the toughest pitching environment in the majors, he went 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA (8th-best in the majors), a 1.25 WHIP, and 7.7 K/9.

He quickly emerged as the ace of the Rockies staff, and in a year when the bats weren’t really getting the job done in the thin Denver air, his performance was the biggest contributor to Colorado’s playoff push.

In Donovan Mitchell-like fashion, he was at his best in the postseason, throwing 6.2 shutout innings against the Cubs in the Wild Card game. As the Clayton Kershaws and Max Scherzers of the world start to ebb, count on a steady flow of Kyle Freeland in your Cy Young ballots.

NHL

Mitch Marner (C, Toronto Maple Leafs)

The narrative around the Maple Leafs this summer centered on how potent their offense would be once John Tavares teamed up with Auston Matthews.  Overlooked in that discussion was third-year pro Mitch Marner, who quietly led Toronto in scoring last season (69 points in 82 games) and is doing so again this year.

What Marner lacks in size compared to Tavares and Matthews, he more than makes up for in speed and vision. Think Sabres-era Danny Briere. #ThrowbackThursday.

Like a lot of the young stars on this list, Marner inspired a lot of confidence with his postseason performance. In Toronto’s heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Bruins in the first round last year, Marner was by far the best Leaf. He scored nine points in seven games, four more than any of this teammates.

Mikko Rantanen (RW, Colorado Avalanche)

The Colorado Avalanche thought they were set-up for longterm success once they paired Nathan MacKinnon with Gabriel Landeskog. They hoped the pair would turn into the next iteration of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. But the Avalanche didn’t get out of the Western Conference basement until they turned their dynamic duo into a “Big 3” by adding Mikko Rantanen.

The Finnish winger has the same hyper-elite playmaking skills as Marner and similar speed. But he’s also a g**damn giant. Standing 6’4 and weighing in at 215 pounds, Rantanen is an exceedingly rare combination of size, speed, and hands.

When he teamed up with MacKinnon last year, he was borderline unstoppable, recording 84 points in just 81 games. This season, he’s left that border in the rearview mirror. He leads the entire NHL in scoring and assists.

The line of Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Landeskog has unquestionably been the best in the NHL this year and, unlike last season when MacKinnon got most of the credit (finishing second in Hart Trophy voting), Rantanen is now the one making his linemates better. (Not that they weren’t phenomenal to start with.)

His current pace of 1.68 PPG puts him on track for 137 points in 82 games. That would be the most since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96. For a little perspective, Sidney Crosby has never scored more than 120. Connor McDavid’s career high is 108.

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