Youth is always served in sports. Players in their mid-to-late-twenties tend to dominate more often than not. However, it's always fun seeing younger players not bother to wait their turn, and excel right from the start. With that in mind, let's take a look at the 25 best athletes 25 and under across all of sports.
Acuna was a sensation when he burst onto the scene in 2018, winning the National League Rookie of the Year and slugging 26 home runs in just 111 games for the Braves. He topped that with a 41-homer season in 2019, while also leading the league in runs scored and steals. So far, Acuna's OPS in 2020 is hovering just under .900, but the center fielder is still just 22, and hasn't even come close to tapping into his full potential. That is very exciting news for Braves fans, and very bad news for all of their opponents.
Just 23, Barkley already has an impressive resume. The second overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Penn State, he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage as a rookie, despite playing on a Giants team that had very little help around him. Barkley missed three games during his second season, but still managed to put up 1,441 yards from scrimmage. If second-year quarterback Daniel Jones improves enough to keep defenses honest, and can give Barkley more room to maneuver, his third season could be his best yet.
Bellinger just turned 25 in July, and already he has racked up several impressive accolades. He is the reigning National League MVP, already a two-time All-Star, and was also the 2017 National League Rookie of the Year. Oh, and he also managed to bag a Gold Glove in 2019, to boot. Bellinger is off to a slow start this season, but he figures to be a cornerstone piece for the Dodgers, as well as one of baseball's best players, for several years to come.
Antetokounmpo is going to be 26 in early December, so his time in the 25 and under fraternity is drawing to a close, but he still has to be mentioned. He's the reigning NBA MVP, one of the most freakishly dominant athletes in basketball history, and still has significant room for improvement, despite his gaudy numbers (29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game). Antetokounmpo's story has been one of steady improvement, and at worst he is one of the three best players in the NBA, and at this point maybe the very best, particularly if he leads the Bucks to an NBA title.
Doncic only turned 21 during the middle of the 2020 season, but already he has established himself as one of the best all-around talents in the NBA, and possibly the league's next transcendent star. He was the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year, and followed up on that campaign by bumping his scoring from 21.2 to 28.8 points per game, his rebounds from 7.8 to 9.4, and his assists from 6.0 to 8.8. Doncic can do it all and score against anyone in the NBA, and is one of the league's most creative playmakers as well.
He might play in Connor McDavid's shadow, but Edmonton's Draisaitl is quickly establishing himself as a hugely impressive talent in his own right. He was leading the NHL in points with a whopping 110 when the season ended prematurely, and coming on the heels of a 105-point season, this year stands as his breakout. Draisaitl was always solid, and could always score goals, but the last two seasons have shown that he might have true superstar potential. Some of what he does will always be attributed to his more famous teammate, but Draisaitl, still only 24, is terrific in his own right.
Still just 24, Godwin spent his first two seasons in Mike Evans' shadow, but he broke out in 2019, catching 86 passes for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns. Godwin was particularly dangerous after the catch. Among wide receivers, only New Orleans' Michael Thomas had more yards after the catch than Godwin's 577. Considering the fact that Thomas was catching most of his passes from Drew Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback in league history, and Godwin was catching his from Jameis Winston, it makes his overall performance that much more impressive.
Ionescu was the top overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, going to the New York Liberty, and with good reason. She is the only D-1 college basketball player - men's or women's - to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in a career. Ionescu was so dominant for Oregon that she even spearheaded a victory for the Ducks over the U.S. women's national team in November of 2019, scoring 25 of her 30 points in the second half of a 93-86 win. Fans of other WNBA teams should brace themselves; Ionescu is only 22, and it looks like she'll spend a long time atop the league.
Through two NFL seasons, the 23-year-old Jackson has answered all questions about his ability to play quarterback in the NFL, and has done so in emphatic fashion. Jackson is the reigning NFL MVP, having thrown for a league-leading 36 touchdowns while running for 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns, and leading the league with a 6.9 yards per carry average. The Ravens have twice tasted playoff disappointment, with last year's loss to Tennessee a particularly bitter pill, but Jackson has them poised to be great for years to come, and is one of the most unique, dynamic talents to come into the NFL in many years.
Unfortunately for him, MacKinnon is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. You may have heard of another famous hockey player from that town. Guy that goes by the name of Sidney Crosby. Still, MacKinnon is more than making a name for himself. He's the best player on an Avalanche team that currently looks unstoppable, and could well bring a Stanley Cup to Denver. MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie in 2013-14, after being the first overall pick in the 2013 Draft, and though he hasn't yet cracked 100 points in a season, he was on pace to shatter that mark this past year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Just days away from turning 25, MacKinnon is a top-3 player in the league, and he might be second only to Connor McDavid.
Two seasons as Kansas City's starter. One NFL MVP Award. One Super Bowl MVP Award. A thrilling comeback to win the Super Bowl. A 50-touchdown season. Mahomes already has a Hall-of-Fame resume, and he won't turn 25 until mid-September. What's his ceiling as a football player? Try greatest ever, period.
Even some of the NHL's best defensemen take a few seasons before they come into their own and start to dominate. Makar has been phenomenal since his first day in the league. In 57 games, the 21-year-old racked up 12 goals and 38 assists and was a dominant, game-changing force for the Avalanche. The fourth overall pick in the 2017 Draft, Makar is a fabulous skater with outstanding offensive gifts, and he's a more than capable defender as well. The Avalanche already have one of the league's best forwards in Nathan MacKinnon, and in Makar, they might have its next great defenseman.
Were you to create the perfect running back for the modern NFL in a lab, the 24-year-old McCaffrey is probably what you'd end up with. Equally dangerous as a runner and a pass-catcher, the Carolina star led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2019, with a whopping 2,392. He also led the league in touches, with 402, leading some to wonder about his long-term health, but he has so far not missed a game. McCaffrey also became just the third running back in league history with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a season, joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig.
At 23 years old, McDavid is the unquestioned best player in hockey, having taken that tile from Sidney Crosby a few years ago. He was headed for his fourth consecutive 100-point season until the coronavirus pandemic halted the season, but already has one Hart Trophy and two scoring titles to his credit. McDavid is also incredibly fun to watch. If Crosby is the league's most skilled grinder of all time, McDavid is one of its most electrifying skaters. He is breathtakingly fast, and uses pure speed to blow past defenders and score highlight-reel goals. If the NHL was looking for a worthy successor to Crosby, they found one (now all they need to do is get him out of Edmonton).
The spindly, explosive second overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft has almost nothing in common physically with Zion Williamson, the man selected ahead of him, except for one thing; explosiveness. Like Williamson, Morant is a breathtaking athlete, and despite his relatively slender frame, attacks the hoop with the kind of gusto that thrills crowds and inspires his teammates. Everything Morant does for the Grizzlies is fun to watch, and having just turned 21, he's only scratching the surface of his potential. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 assists this year, but Grizzlies fans can should expect much more - and soon.
Morikawa is just 23 and already looks like the next big thing on the PGA Tour. He shot a sizzling final-round 64 to come from out of the pack to win the PGA Championship in early August. Morikawa has two other wins - 2019's Barracuda Championship and the Workday Charity Open, which he won in a thrilling playoff over Justin Thomas. While his putting stats are pedestrian, Morikawa is getting better in that regard, and is already one of the tour's best ball-strikers, and plenty long off the tee. If his putter continues to improve, the tour might have its next superstar.
Must be nice to be talented enough as an athlete to pick between committing to baseball after being a first-round pick, or rolling the dice and playing football, and ending up as the number one overall pick. That's what happened with Murray, who spurned a chance at professional baseball with the Oakland Athletics and instead has focused his efforts on football. Despite being just 5'10", Murray is one of the league's most dynamic athletes, and possesses a strong, accurate arm. Though Arizona was just 5-10-1 in his rookie season, he threw 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions, and improved as the year went on. With DeAndre Hopkins in the fold, the Cardinals look much improved, and Murray might make the leap to true stardom.
Ogunbowale made a huge mark on women's basketball before she started her senior year at Notre Dame. As a junior, Ogunbowale hit buzzer-beating shots to beat Connecticut in the national semi-final, and Mississippi State in the 2018 national championship game. After finishing her career with the Irish, Ogunbowale was the fifth pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft by the Dallas Wings. She was the league's third-leading scorer as a rookie, averaging 19.1 points per game, and at just 23 years old, has a very bright future ahead of her.
"American-born soccer star" is not a phrase that gets typed often, if ever, but that's exactly what Pulisic is. Just 21 years old, Pulisic is making waves at the highest levels of European soccer. He started his career with Borussia Dortmund of the Bundesliga, making it to the senior team when he was just 17, and is currently playing with Chelsea of the English Premier League, where he had nine goals in 25 appearances. Pulisic's accomplishments at such a young age have caused many veteran soccer observers to crown him the best American-born soccer player of all time, despite his career being in its infancy.
Soto burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old in 2018, hitting 22 home runs for the Nationals and posting a .923 OPS. He did not have any kind of a sophomore slump the following season, slugging 34 homers and posting a .949 OPS, and saving his best play for the biggest moments. Soto hit three home runs in the World Series, and batted .333 while knocking in seven runs. Soto is still only 21, and while there are a host of other young talents in the sport, it isn't hyperbole to say that he may well be the best one of them all.
While you're probably very familiar with Tatis Jr. these days because he had the audacity to swing at a 3-0 pitch and hit a grand slam in a game his team was leading by seven runs - hold on, let me stop to laugh at how sad it is that anyone is mad at him for that - he's also one of baseball's brightest talents. Tatis is only 21, and was outstanding in 84 games last season, hitting 22 home runs with a .969 OPS. This year he's leading baseball in runs, home runs and RBI at just under the halfway mark of the season, and his six steals top the league as well. He, along with Soto, could be a standard-bearer of the sport for years to come.
Watson, who won't turn 25 until mid-September, isn't exactly a forgotten man - he's put up gaudy numbers and been one of the league's better quarterbacks since entering the league in 2017 - he's just not Patrick Mahomes. Still, Watson looks like he'll be one of the best passers in the NFL for a long time, so long as the Texans' offensive line can keep him upright. He might not be as sublime a pure passer as Mahomes, but Watson is thrilling to watch when the play breaks down, and has electric arm talent. The sky is the limit for Watson, so long as his coach, Bill O'Brien, doesn't screw things up.
This discussion wouldn't be completely without Williamson being mentioned. Will his body hold up long term? What exactly will he be in the NBA, particularly as he gets more experience under his belt? Those are both valid questions, but what's inarguable right now is that Williamson is a freak among freaks, one of the most uniquely gifted athletes to come into the NBA in some time, and a major attraction wherever he goes. Williamson has adjusted nicely to the pro game, managing 22.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game despite battling injuries for most of the year. Williamson is just 20, and his future looks incredibly bright.
You might know him more as the guy with the funky-looking swing, but at 21, Matthew Wolff is already one of the PGA Tour's brightest lights. Despite his odd-looking move, Wolff is one of the tour's longest hitters, and his swing, for all its quirks, is very repeatable for him, and has served him well. Wolff has just one victory thus far, last year's 3M Open, but he finished tied for fourth at the PGA Championship and only turned professional last summer. Along with Morikawa, he looks like a good bet to lead the "next wave" of tour stars - even though the current wave is largely in their mid-to-late-twenties or early-thirties.
Young and Luka Doncic will forever be connected, since they were traded for one another, and while Doncic has garnered much of the attention, Young has blossomed into one of the NBA's elite scorers. He averaged 29.6 points per game this season, up from 19.1 his rookie year, and his assists jumped from 8.1 to 9.3. Young is only 21 years old, and as his body fills out a little more, he should be even better equipped to handle the rigors of the NBA. Young isn't recognized as one of the league's truly elite players just yet, but that figures to be a matter of "when," not "if."
Chris Mueller is the co-host of The PM Team with Poni & Mueller on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan, Monday-Friday from 2-6 p.m. ET. Owner of a dog with a Napoleon complex, consumer of beer, cooker of chili, closet Cleveland Browns fan. On Twitter at @ChrisMuellerPGH – please laugh.