PLAYERS of the YEAR

December 21, 2015

There can be only one Sportsperson, but there is still plenty of individual excellence to highlight across the landscape of sports

MLB

BRYCE HARPER

Feel free to dislike Bryce Harper for almost any reason you want. Hate his hair, hate the bounce with which he walks, hate his turns of phrase (as in his famous retort, "That's a clown question, bro!"), hate the way he pronounces the word meme as "meh-may," hate the facial expression he makes while he's being choked by his closer, hate that he had the temerity to appear on this magazine's cover when he was just 16. It's your right.

One thing you can't do, though, is hate Harper's performance on the diamond in 2015. Yes, his Nationals were baseball's most disappointing team—the preseason favorites finished 83--79, seven games out of a playoff spot—but that was not because of Harper. It was in spite of him. Harper's numbers were even more astounding than the Nationals' collapse. He thrilled Triple Crown traditionalists, tying for first in the NL in homers (42), finishing second in batting average (.330) and tying for fifth in RBIs (99). And he satisfied the staterati: His WAR, 9.9, was the game's highest, and his OPS+, 195, was baseball's best since a jacked-up Barry Bonds turned in a 263 in '04.

Harper also handled opprobrium—not to mention Jonathan Papelbon's clutching fingers—with a grace that belied his years. His age (he turned 23 on Oct. 16) might be his most impressive number. There is no longer any doubt that Harper will prove the luminary that everyone, SI's editors included, believed he would be. Who was this year's best baseball player? You know what kind of question that is, bro.

Ben Reiter

NBA

STEPHEN CURRY

After leading Golden State to a franchise-record 67 wins and the franchise's first NBA championship in 40 years, 2014--15 MVP Steph Curry picked up this season right where he left off last June. As the Warriors were making headlines for winning their first 24 games (page 116), Curry was leading the league in scoring (32.3 points at week's end) and making threes at an unprecedented rate. His current pace—5.1 per game—is more than the Nets are hitting as a team (4.8).

College Basketball

GRAYSON ALLEN

When Grayson Allen and friends played football or basketball or hybrid soccer-lacrosse games at his home in Jacksonville, his parents set up lawn chairs in the driveway. They weren't worried about the children as much as they were worried for them. "[Grayson] plays with such passion," Sherry Allen says. "These little boys, they weren't at that level. If it got too aggressive, we would shut it down: 'All right, let's do the pool. Here's ice cream!'"

So imagine Grayson's frustration last season, when the ultracompetitive 6'5" guard played only a bit role for Duke while freshman classmates and future NBA first-round picks Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow flourished. By the end of the regular season, Allen had scored in double digits just four times, averaging 3.9 points in 9.2 minutes.

Despite his lack of playing time, Allen was often the best guard at practices. "A terror," center Marshall Plumlee says. Allen threw his body around with irritating abandon. The approach helped Allen feel involved and remain positive. He scored 27 points against Wake Forest on March 4, and after a pre--NCAA tournament practice, coach Mike Krzyzewski made a prediction to assistant Jeff Capel: This kid is going to win us a game.

No one expected it to be the biggest game of all. In a 68--63 win over Wisconsin, Allen scored 16 points off the bench—including eight straight after the Badgers had taken a nine-point second-half lead—to lift the Blue Devils to their fifth NCAA title. "I didn't think I was going to be a one-and-done player," Allen says, "but it was still tough. I started putting all this pressure on myself to go out there and play well. And that's when I was playing my worst. Thankfully, I figured it out."

Brian Hamilton

NFL

TOM BRADY

For the past year, Tom Brady has been just about perfect.

Through Week 14 his Patriots have won 14 games in 2015, dating back to last season's playoffs, during which New England won its fourth Super Bowl title and Brady picked up his third Super Bowl MVP. His stats in the past calendar year: 65.2% completions, 5,059 yards, 43 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 102.9.

He was also a winner off the field, successfully appealing his four-game Deflategate suspension last summer. And let's not gloss over the fact that Brady is 38. Most players are preparing to exit the stage at that point. Brady, thanks to a new-age, micromanaged off-field regimen that features treats like avocado ice cream mixed with cacao, has talked about playing for 10 more years. Yes, this month the Pats dropped consecutive games for the first time in three seasons, but don't forget their quarterback is playing behind a makeshift offensive line and lost his top pass catchers to injury. And he's still on target to throw for the most yards and have his best quarterback rating since 2011.

A strong contender to win his third NFL MVP trophy, there's no doubt Brady is the player of the year in the NFL.

Greg A. Bedard

College Football

CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY

Nobody saw this coming. As an undersized freshman in 2014, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey showed flashes of brilliance—he averaged 7.1 yards per carry, and his first career touch resulted in a 52-yard TD reception—but nobody thought he would end his sophomore season as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Stanford didn't even launch a formal Heisman campaign for its star, the son of former Stanford and NFL wideout Ed McCaffrey, until Nov. 10, after the Cardinal had already played nine games.

Better late than never, because the 6-foot, 201-pound McCaffrey put together a season unlike any in college football history. His 3,496 all-purpose yards are an NCAA record for all divisions. He gained 220 or more yards in a game 10 times, culminating in a 461-yard day (207 rushing, 105 receiving and 129 on punt and kickoff returns) in the Pac-12 championship game, a 41--22 rout of USC. Quick, elusive and tough, McCaffrey averaged 5.8 yards per carry and was the only player in FBS to lead his team in both rushing and receiving yardage. "No one can tell me there's a more dynamic player in college football," says coach David Shaw. No argument here.

Mark Beech

Men's Tennis

NOVAK DJOKOVIC

There was little doubt that Novak Djokovic had the best season of any male player in 2015—the only debate was whether or not it was the best season ever. Let us count the ways....

16,585

Ranking points earned, the most ever accumulated and nearly double the 8,945 earned by the No. 2 player, Andy Murray.

82--6

Record in 2015. His .932 winning percentage is the sixth-best ever for a full season. Even more impressive, Djokovic was 31--5 against top 10 opponents and had only one loss to a player ranked outside the top 10.

11

Titles won. Seven came against the No. 2 or 3 player in the world (Murray or Roger Federer), and Djokovic reached the finals in 15 of 16 tournaments, the most of any player. All these victories earned him $21 million, an ATP record.

HUNTER GANDEE

Sports Illustrated

HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETE OF THE YEAR

PRESENTED BY MARINES THE FEW. THE PROUD.®

On a cloudless October day in Temperance, Mich., Bedford High sophomore wrestler Hunter Gandee and his brother, Braden, 9, were perched on top of a brand-new piece of playground equipment designed to look like a giant pirate ship. Hundreds of antsy kids sat cross-legged on the ground waiting for permission to clamber all over it.

Braden has cerebral palsy—a neurological disorder that affects muscle coordination and motor function—and is unable to walk. This new structure, which has wheelchair-friendly rubber flooring and ramps, will allow Braden to join his friends at Douglas Road Elementary at recess for the first time.

Hunter, who made the varsity wrestling team as a freshman and finished 17--3 in the 145-pound weight class, helped raise the money for the playground by embarking on two walks, of 40 and 57 miles, respectively, while carrying Braden piggyback style the whole way. The treks, dubbed the Cerebral Palsy Swagger, were intended to raise awareness of the challenges kids such as Braden face every day. "Having Braden on my back symbolizes the relationship we have and the power we have when people come together," Hunter says.

The Gandees' story moved people all over the country to give. When $16,000 in donations poured in after their first walk, in 2014, the brothers gave it to the University of Michigan's Cerebral Palsy Research Consortium. As the money—more than $200,000—kept coming in, the idea for building an accessible playground was born. "One thing I wanted to show through this walk is the power of the youth in our society," Hunter says. "We saw a problem, we had an idea to create a solution, and the only difference from us and a lot of other kids is that we went out and tried it."

Alexandra Fenwick

NHL

CAREY PRICE

When he took the stage for his third and final acceptance speech at the NHL awards ceremony in Las Vegas last June, Montreal's Carey Price found himself all talked out. "I'll be honest, I'm running out of things to say," he told the crowd. He had already snatched the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender in a landslide, and the Ted Lindsay Award for the league's most outstanding player as chosen by his fellow players. And now he was the first netminder holding the Hart Trophy since Jose Theodore in 2001--02, chuckling and shrugging his shoulders and searching for someone else to thank.

The Canadiens should have thanked Price instead. They ranked 20th in offensive goals per game and 21st in shots allowed, yet they still finished three points shy of the Rangers for the NHL's best record. Price backstopped 44 of Montreal's 50 victories and allowed one or no goals in 29 of his 66 appearances. His nine shutouts were a career high. Price's numbers dipped to ordinary levels during the postseason, when Tampa Bay defeated Montreal in six games during the second round. He blamed himself, but that notion was, like many of his saves, ridiculous.

Alex Prewitt

Innovation of the Year

Technology

VIRTUAL REALITY

In many ways Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is old-fashioned. He handwrites his notes, describes himself as "archaic" and uses a three-ring binder playbook instead of a tablet. So it meant a lot when, after weeks of fighting it last summer, the 35-year-old veteran of 12 NFL seasons got on board with the year's biggest game-changer, virtual reality. "I thought, There is no way this can change the way I play quarterback," Palmer (left) told The MMQB last month, "but I am all in."

Virtual reality is revolutionizing practice and game prep, especially in football. STRIVR, a VR company that works with at least seven NFL teams and 13 college programs, sets up a 360-degree camera during seven-on-seven drills and then stitches together the footage. Later, players and coaches can put on headsets and be transported to the field, where a turn of the head can show them everything from the direction a cornerback is leaning to the quarterback's footwork.

Another VR company, Headcase, aims to give prospective student-athletes and their families a sense of university life, filming the banter in the locker room, the run through the tunnel and the celebrations on the sideline. Fans are getting in on the action as well. In October the Warriors' season opener against the Pelicans became the first sporting event to be streamed live in virtual reality, and three days after Daniel Jacobs TKO'd Peter Quillin, Showtime made the match available for VR download.

VR: It's getting real.

Stephanie Apstein

Giant Splash

Curry already has three of the top five season totals for threes, and he's on pace to smash his own record.

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

261

'13-14

Curry

267

'95--96

Dennis Scott Orlando

269

'05--06

Ray Allen Seattle

272

'12--13

Curry

286

'14--15

Curry

'15--16*

Curry

*

PROJECTED 417

PHOTOPhotograph by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CURRY) PHOTOGREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ALLEN) PHOTOSTEVEN SENNE/AP (BRADY) PHOTOBEN MARGOT/AP (MCCAFFREY) PHOTOBOB MARTIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DJOKOVIC) PHOTOBRIDGET BARRETT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GANDEES) PHOTOMINAS PANAGIOTAKIS/GETTY IMAGES (PRICE) PHOTOCOURTESY OF CARSON PALMER CHART

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)