2018 saw many athletes vault into national prominence. They included U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka and Los Angeles Angels phenom Shohei Ohtani. Some breakout stars even waited until championship games to make their mark (Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo, now on the Milwaukee Bucks).
Here’s a look at some emerging athletes who appear poised to have breakout performances in 2019.
Trevor Lawrence: While first-year quarterbacks stepping into starting roles upon arriving on campus has become more common than ever, it’s fair to call Lawrence’s debut with Clemson a success on a unique scale. Before the Tigers dominated Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, the true freshman had tossed 24 touchdowns against four interceptions while completing 65 percent of his attempts. Against the Irish, he threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff title game.
Sold as the nation’s top-ranked recruit in last year’s class, Lawrence piloted Clemson’s offense through another dominant regular season and to the doorstep of another national championship. What does the future hold? Come 2019, Lawrence will join Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa as the best young passers in the sport and have NFL scouts and general managers drooling over his place as a once-a-decade sort of quarterback talent. There’s simply no ceiling on Lawrence’s potential. — Paul Myerberg
Zion Williamson: The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Duke forward has gotten the attention of the college basketball world early in the 2018-19 season, and he’s combined with a talented freshman class to make the Blue Devils likely title contenders ahead of the NCAA tournament. After his one-and-done college career, Williamson could be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft, and then the hype will really begin, particularly if he goes to a team that needs a major face-lift (looking at you, Cleveland and New York). Coach Mike Krzyzewski has called Williamson one of the most unique athletes he’s ever coached — Team USA or in Durham — and his ferocious dunks, brute force and motor make him must-watch. Warriors coach Steve Kerr started the LeBron James comparison, and that only fueled expectations for this 18-year-old. — Scott Gleeson
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: On paper, Guerrero was a boy playing against men in 2018. In reality, it was Guerrero who looked down on his foes. The Blue Jays prospect dominated several levels of the minor leagues, culminating in a 30-game stint at Class AAA, against players, on average, eight years older than him. Whatever: Guerrero batted .336, produced a .978 on-base plus slugging and showed he belonged in the major leagues. Alas, baseball’s draconian service-time rules — and teams’ desires to manipulate them — kept Guerrero in the minor leagues. Not to worry: On, say, April 26, 2019, Guerrero will make his debut in Toronto, and baseball may soon thereafter be heralding its next emerging superstar.
The Hall of Fame bloodlines are just the beginning. Guerrero’s father was inducted into Cooperstown last summer. But imagine this: A Guerrero with light-tower power, eye-opening quick-twitch muscles and elite plate discipline to match. Since making his debut as a 17-year-old, Guerrero has posted a .414 on-base percentage, while gradually adding pounds to his frame and home runs to his game. By May, he’ll be where he belongs — and baseball will be the richer for it. — Gabe Lacques
Baker Mayfield: He won the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 overall draft pick, but there was no guarantee that Mayfield would transition to the NFL. Mayfield is the latest in a small list of quarterbacks who have flashed potential, despite being 6-1 or shorter. Drew Brees (6-foot) of the Saints and Russell Wilson (5-11) of the Seahawks are other notable examples. But Mayfield played in an era of college football known for its reliance on concepts of the spread offense.
After the Browns moved on from former coach Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens and the new regime dialed up a philosophy that meshed well with Mayfield’s strengths. Most notably, Kitchens stressed the need to fire quick passes to limit the sacks and pressure Mayfield faced. A revamped running game helped, but Mayfield’s confidence also grew. He delivered pinpoint throws in stride when needed. After years of toiling at the position, the Browns look like they’ve finally drafted a legitimate franchise quarterback. Now all they have to do is put more weapons around him, foster his development and get him to limit turnovers. — Lorenzo Reyes
Jack Hughes: In NHL cities where rebuilding is underway, fans understand the phrase “Lose for Hughes.” Since the start of last season, there’s been a buzz about Hughes becoming the next American star. He’s 5-10, 170 pounds, but he’s expected to have an enormous impact on a franchise when he is chosen No. 1 in next June’s draft. Scouts say there’s no chance anyone will move ahead of him. The boyish-looking Hughes is too fast, too elusive, too clever with and without the puck. The expectation is that he will have an impact similar to Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, a smallish player who can put up numbers with the best in the game. Hughes is currently playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and he is dominating at his age level. He had 116 points in 60 games last season. At last month’s Five Nation Tournament, he tallied 16 points in four games. He could be in the NHL in 2019-20. — Kevin Allen
Luka Dončić: The 19-year-old is playing better than any rookie this season (19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game). He has more than met expectations after being taken No. 3 in the NBA draft after a highly touted European career. The 6-7 Slovenian guard has delivered highlight-reel passing and an array of step-back three-pointers in crunch time for the Mavericks. He’s injected energy into a franchise that had 24 wins last season. What does the future hold? Dončić’s rise in Dallas is eerily similar to Mavericks great Dirk Nowitzki’s when he entered the league in the late 1990s. — Scott Gleeson
Mallory Pugh: In 2016, Pugh, who was then 18, became the youngest player to score for the U.S. women’s national team at an Olympics, with her goal in a 2-2 draw against Colombia. This year, the forward tallied six goals and three assists despite missing several weeks with a right knee sprain. Pugh went to UCLA for one quarter before turning pro and signing with the Washington Spirit in 2017. — Roxanna Scott
Olympics: Track and field
Noah Lyles: The 21-year-old American sprinter held the fastest time in the 200-meter dash in 2018 (blitzing a 19.65-second time in July), as well as one of the fastest 100-meter times (9.88 seconds in June). Lyles’ times were almost identical to Olympic legend Usain Bolt’s times at the same age. With the 200-meter his specialty, Lyles’ consistently excellent times in the event would have beaten Bolt in the Rio Games in 2016. Lyles is also the current 300-meter indoor world record holder with a time of 31.87 — from the 2017 U.S. Indoor Championships. His decision to skip college (he had a full ride to Florida) and compete at the pro level only expedites his rise. In a post-Bolt era of Olympic sprinting, Lyles is poised to ascend to the top for the 2020 Tokyo Games. That means 2019 figures to be a key year. — Nancy Armour and Scott Gleeson