Breakout Athletes of 2010
Newton torched defenses in a Heisman-winning 2010, totaling 2,589 passing yards, 1,409 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns. He's stayed focused amid a slew of NCAA investigations, leading comeback wins against South Carolina, Georgia, LSU and, most improbably, Alabama. With Newton at the controls, Auburn will play for the national championship against Oregon on Jan. 10.
Strasburg's major league debut, June 8 against Pittsburgh, was everything the Nationals and their fans could have hoped for. Pitching in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Nationals Park, the 21-year-old right-hander met the high expectations placed upon him, allowing two runs over seven innings and striking out 14 without walking a batter. He flashed the entire arsenal, touching 100 mph with his fastball, showing off a sharp curveball and even dropping in a work-in-progress changeup now and then. Unfortunately for the rookie phenom, he injured his right shoulder after a dazzling 5-3 start. He is expected to miss the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The 2010 first overall pick has not disappointed, throwing for 3,065 yards, 17 touchdowns and a 59.4 completion percentage through 14 games of his rookie season. His most important contribution has come in the win column. At 6-8, the Rams already have five more victories than all of last year and are threatening for their first playoff berth since 2004.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant
One could argue that Durant already had his breakout years ago; after all, he dominated in his one year at Texas and was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 2007-08. But consider what he accomplished in 2010: At 21, he became the youngest scoring champion (30.1 points) in NBA history, was the MVP runner-up and teamed with Westbrook to lead the Thunder to a stunning 50-win season; then, as the face and top scorer of a young team devoid of established stars, and with Westbrook by his side again, he led the Americans to the gold medal at the FIBA World Championship. Durant hasn't been quite as good early in the 2010-11 season, but Westbrook has emerged as another OKC MVP candidate as the Thuand another breakout star, Russell Westbrook, have the Thunder competing for a top-four seed in the West.
After a rocky rookie season, the first overall pick of the 2008 NHL draft blossomed into an offensive monster during the 2009-10 campaign, tying Sidney Crosby for the league's goal-scoring lead, with 51. After an offseason of workouts supervised by former NHLer Gary Roberts, a stronger Stamkos picked up where he left off, scoring 24 goals in his first 30 games of 2010-11 and finding his name mentioned in debates about the league's best player.
Thought to be nothing more than a useful utility man, Bautista had never hit more than 16 homers in a season before 2010. But the 30-year-old journeyman put together a monster season for the Blue Jays: He hit a major-league-leading 54 home runs -- 12 more than No. 2 Albert Pujols -- and had 124 RBIs, third most in the bigs. Bautista finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.
One the most exciting players in college football, Robinson generated early-season Heisman hype for his breakout play in 2010. The dynamic sophomore threw for 1,008 yards and ran for another 905 in Michigan's 5-0 start. Though the team has struggled since (it finished 7-5), "Shoelace" propelled the Wolverines to the Gator Bowl against Mississippi State, their first bowl appearance in three years.
Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Texans in 2009, Foster led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns through Week 15. He set the tone for his breakout year with 231 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts in Week 1.
In his first full major league season, the 23-year-old Price went 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 208.2 innings. The Rays' left-hander finished second to Felix Hernandez in the AL Cy Young vote.
Mesut Ozil and Thomas Mueller
Germany finished third at the World Cup thanks in part to contributions from these two youngsters. Ozil, 22, part of Germany's U-21 European Championship-winning side in the summer of 2009, was one of the best playmakers in South Africa. Mueller, 20, who started the season in the Bayern Munich reserves and made his first Germany appearance only three months before the World Cup, was the tournament's Best Young Player and Golden Boot winner with five goals and three assists.
The 31-year-old Irishman and European Tour veteran launched his breakout year by becoming the first European to win the U.S. Open in 40 years. The good run continued when he clinched the decisive point in the Europeans' Ryder Cup victory, and he punctuated his big year by rallying to defeat Tiger Woods in a playoff at the Chevron World Challenge, an unofficial event hosted by Tiger. McDowell, the Golf Writers Association of America's player of the year, will play more on the PGA Tour in 2011.
An afterthought as a Bronco in 2009, Hillis has blossomed into a highly productive battering ram as a Brown in 2010. The former seventh-round pick, acquired by Cleveland in the Brady Quinn trade, ranks among the NFL leaders in rushing yards, touchdowns and receptions for a running back. All this from a player who carried the ball only 13 times under former Denver coach Josh McDaniels two years ago.
The 6-8 Baylor star has been big news, for better and worse. Previously known only within the women's circuit, Griner made highlights around the world when she punched a Texas A&M player in the nose after a physical tie-up during a game in March. Griner, then a freshman, was suspended for two games, but finished the year averaging 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 blocks per game, helping the Bears to the Final Four. Baylor was ousted by undefeated UConn. Early in the 2010-11 season, Griner and Baylor nearly upset the Huskies.
A full-time starter for the first time in his career, Minnesota's third-year power forward is producing eye-opening numbers early in the 2010-11 season. In a Nov. 12 victory against the Knicks, Love had 31 points and a franchise-record 31 rebounds to become the 19th player in NBA history to record a 30/30 game and the first since Moses Malone in 1982. On Dec. 18, Love burned the Nuggets for 43 points (including 5-of-5 from three-point range) and 17 rebounds. Love, who helped Team USA win the FIBA World Championship last summer, led the NBA in rebounding (at nearly 16 per game) and was averaging more than 21 points a game as January approached.
The Reds' first baseman produced solid years in 2008 and 2009, but he became a household name in 2010. Votto, 27, was a near-unanimous MVP after a season in which he finished second in the NL in batting (.324) and third in homers (37) and RBIs (113). He also made his first All-Star team and led Cincinnati to its first playoff berth since 1995.
In only his ninth career fight, the 28-year-old Velasquez stopped Brock Lesnar in the first round at UFC 121 to win the heavyweight title. Velasquez, a former All-America wrestler at Arizona State, became the first Mexican heavyweight to claim a major championship in combat sports.
Jay Monahan (left) took over from Tim Finchem (right) as PGA Tour Commissioner in January.
A force at Nebraska, Suh has been equally effective on the defensive line for Detroit. With eight sacks through Week 15, Suh is a popular choice to take home Rookie of the Year honors. He's even flashed his pass-catching abilities. Suh tipped and reeled in an interception on Oct. 10 against St. Louis, rumbling 20 yards in the Lions' 44-6 rout.
Forced to miss the entire 2009-2010 season because of a stress fracture in his knee, Griffin has been excellent in his much-anticipated NBA debut. Along with averaging better than 20 points and 12 rebounds, Griffin has wowed even his peers with his explosive, high-flying dunks. Tweeted LeBron James: "Man Blake Griffin is the most explosive player in the league! Crazy bounce."
Blackmon has done his part to fill the receiving void left at Oklahoma State with the departure of Dez Bryant. The sophomore amassed 1,655 yards and 18 touchdowns for the high-octane Cowboys, leading the FBS in both categories. Those numbers are enormous improvements from his freshman campaign, when he had just 260 yards and two touchdowns.
After being called up in late May, Posey established himself as one of the best young players in baseball. The catcher hit .305 with 18 HRs and 67 RBIs while helping San Francisco to its first NL West division crown since 2003. Posey's combination of offensive firepower and pitching staff management earned him NL Rookie of the Year honors, though he'll probably remember the season more for the Giants' remarkable run to the World Series title, the franchise's first since 1954.
There were some who thought Hayward should have stuck with tennis. One of those people, for a while, was Hayward himself. Once a puny 5-11, 155-pound-soaking-wet junior mixed doubles star with his twin sister, Heather, Hayward started growing. And growing. Ultimately turning exclusively to basketball, Hayward sprouted nine inches taller in high school and became all-everything. Once at Butler, he became Horizon League player of the year, then exploded onto the national scene by carrying the Bulldogs to the NCAA championship game in April. Hayward was drafted ninth overall by the Utah Jazz in the 2010 NBA draft.
Known primarily for its unforgiving defense, Nebraska has found quite the offensive spark in quarterback Taylor Martinez. His stunning statistics -- 1,578 passing yards, 942 rushing yards -- have many analysts comparing the freshman to NCAA greats like Vince Young and Michael Vick.
San Jose's seventh-round pick (205th overall) in 2003, Pavelski was a key contributor to Team USA's silver-medal performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics. After completing his second consecutive 25-goal regular season in the NHL, the 25-year-old center emerged from the shadows of star teammates Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley to spark the Sharks' charge into the Western Conference final with nine goals and eight assists in 15 postseason games.
McMurray was supposed to become a star after winning his second career race in 2002 while subbing for the injured Sterling Marlin in a championship-contending No. 40 Dodge at Charlotte. It's didn't really pan out ... until now. McMurray started 2010 by taking the Daytona 500 and he added victories at the Brickyard 400 and the Bank of America 500, doubling his career victory total.
The 22-year-old Feliz was a key factor in the Rangers' pennant-winning season, recording a rookie-record 40 saves. He blew hitters away with a fastball that clocked in consistently at 100 mph, something that helped the youngster strike out 71 batters in just 69.1 innings. Feliz was named AL Rookie of the Year for his efforts.
It took him about 15 years, but Demong became an overnight sensation in Vancouver with a record-setting effort also highlighted by a touching show of sportsmanship and even romance. There were a number of failures, lessons and close calls on Demong's way to becoming the first American gold medal winner in a Nordic event. Before winning the individual 10K event, Demong showed much class after his own disappointing effort by cheering course-side as teammate Johnny Spillane won the silver. USA Olympic teammates voted Demong as the flag-bearer for the Closing Ceremonies. After his gold-medal ceremony, Demong proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes.
After averaging 21 minutes per game as a part-time freshman starter in 2008-09, the Stanford forward busted out in 2009-2010 as the Pac-10 Player of the Year and a second-team All-America with averages of 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds. Ogwumike has continued her stellar play to start the 2010-11 season for the highly ranked Cardinal.
The late-blooming middleweight, 35, who didn't pick up the sport until his 20s, is the hottest fighter in boxing. He won the middleweight (160 pounds) title by upsetting Kelly Pavlik in April, and in November he stopped Paul Williams with an electrifying second-round knockout. The win over Williams effectively locked up the 2010 Fighter of the Year award for Martinez.
Long considered a doubles specialist, Stosur dramatically improved her singles ranking in 2009 and elevated it among the elite in 2010. She reached a career-ranking of No. 5 in July, not long after she made her first Grand Slam final, at the French Open. The 26-year-old Australian finished the year at No. 6.
Carlos Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez
The Rockies benefited from two breakout years. Gonzalez, 25, flirted with a Triple Crown run in his first full big league season; he led the NL in batting (.336), ranked second in RBIs (117) and finished fourth in home runs (34). Not surprisingly, Gonzalez was especially effective at Coors Field, where he hit .380 with a .737 slugging percentage and 1.162 OPS. Meanwhile, Jimenez, 26, had a remarkable first half. Before the All-Star break, Jimenez threw a no-hitter, went 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA and allowed 87 hits in 127 innings. Jimenez cooled off in the second half, winning just four more times and pitching to a 3.80 ERA, but he still finished third in the NL Cy Young voting.
The 2008 LPGA Rookie of the Year was the only player, male or female. to win two majors in 2010, at the Kraft Nabisco Championship and Women's British Open. The 21-year-old from Taiwan was the LPGA's player of the year.
In 2009-2010, John Calipari welcomed John Wall (right), DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton. Wall was the headliner and led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, and all four, again led by Wall (No. 1), were first-round picks in the 2010 NBA draft. John Calipari reloaded quickly for 2010-11, bringing in highly touted freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones (left) and Doron Lamb (another celebrated freshman, Enes Kanter, has been ruled ineligible.) Jones, a 6-8 forward, was the early standout this season.
The best story of the 2010 MLS season was an unlikely goal-scoring king who earned such a humble salary ($48,000) that he coached youth soccer on the side to make ends meet. The Earthquakes' Wondolowski, 27, won the Golden Boot with 18 regular-season goals -- no small feat for a player who had seven goals in his first five MLS seasons.
Already acknowledged as a top-flight NHL defenseman, Keith broke through into wider public consciousness with a sterling performance for Team Canada during the Winter Olympics and followed it up with career highs in goals (14) and points (69) for the Chicago Blackhawks, winning the Norris Trophy as the league's top blueliner. A true workhorse (25-plus minutes per game) and leader, Keith will be fondly remembered for losing seven teeth to a puck in the mouth and returning to assist on the goal that clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
His notorious dropped pass against Pittsburgh aside, Johnson, a 2008 seventh-round pick who entered the season with 12 career catches, has had a terrific campaign in his third year in Buffalo. He amassed 72 catches for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns through Week 15, establishing himself as Ryan Fitzpatrick's favorite target. His most memorable performance came against Cincinnati, when Johnson outshined Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco by racking up 137 yards and three scores in a 49-31 comeback win. He further humiliated the duo in the end zone: He lifted his jersey to reveal the writing "Why so serious?" belittling the self-proclaimed Batman and Robin tandem.
This latest version of The Natural didn't exactly come out of nowhere. But it's one thing to have the hype, the tools and the initial splash of rising fast through the system and banging a home run in your first major league plate appearance. It's quite another to meet or exceed expectations every step of the way. The 20-year-old Heyward did exactly that in 2010, finishing with 18 HRs and 72 RBIs in 142 games. What's more, Heyward spearheaded the Braves to a playoff appearance in manager Bobby Cox's final season in Atlanta.
His PGA Championship victory was the headliner (Kaymer joined Bernhard Langer as the only German major champions), but the 25-year-old also won three times on the European Tour, topped that circuit's money list and helped Europe reclaim the Ryder Cup. He finished the year a career-high third in the world rankings.
In a heavyweight division that's been dominated by Eastern European technicians for the past decade, the outspoken Haye has been a breath of fresh air. The London slugger, who captured the WBA heavyweight title in November 2009, defended it twice with an explosive ninth-round knockout of John Ruiz and a third-round stoppage of Audley Harrison. With an undersized frame and outsized personality, Haye hopes to unify the long-fractured heavyweight championship with title fights against the Klitschko brothers in 2011.
Before May 9, Braden was a veritable nobody best known for tugging on Superman's cape. Braden got into a verbal exchange with Alex Rodriguez over the latter's perceived lack of respect, running across Braden's pitcher's mound. But everything changed when Braden mowed down 27 in a row in a perfect game against the Rays. Braden ended the year at 11-14, with an impressive 3.50 ERA. His grandmother, Peggy Lindsay, who raised Braden after his mother died of cancer, even got to tell A-Rod to "stick it" and threw out a first pitch at an A's game.
''Big Buf'' became a huge story during the Blackhawks' run to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years when he was converted from defenseman to power forward and proceeded to score 11 goals and 16 points in 22 postseason games. With Chicago squeezed by the salary cap, the 6-5, 265-pound Byfuglien (pronounced Buff-lin) was traded during the summer to the Thrashers, who raised eyebrows by restoring him to the blueline. But after his first 32 games of the 2010-11 season, Byfuglien's 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) were good for the NHL scoring lead among defensemen and, at plus-five, he was in the early running for the Norris Trophy.