It would have been easy for someone, even an athlete, to point to the tragedies of 2020 and decide “My time can wait ’til next year.”
That’s not how the athletes on this list are wired.
They not only confronted the challenges in front of them, pandemic and all, but rose to new heights. Entering this year, there is a chance you had seen plenty of these athletes, and that he or she had already achieved some level of greatness – at a minimum, the name sounded familiar.
Becoming a breakout star, though, means the name won’t be forgotten. These athletes have officially arrived.
20 FOR 2020:Sports figures who defined courageous and kind, selfish and stubborn
WINNERS, LOSERS FROM 2020:The people, institutions that stood out with calendar upended
While the bulk of his undefeated Heisman campaign took place in 2019, the future No. 1 overall pick and the LSU Tigers won the national championship in the first few days of 2020. He impressed during his first season with his home-state Cincinnati Bengals, demonstrating why he was worthy of the top selection despite a lackluster roster, particularly on the offensive line. A brutal knee injury ended his year early, but he’s already walking again, and will hopefully return near the top of his game in 2021.
Whether he was bat-flipping, taking 3-0 pitches the other way for grand slams, or flashing the leather for another web-gem, Tatis Jr. provided must-watch baseball in 2020. He helped the San Diego Padres reach the playoffs for the first time in 14 years despite an MVP candidacy that faded over the course of MLB’s 60-game season.
The overtime game-winner as time expired against the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs is one of the iconic highlights of 2020. It was another example of how the Dallas Mavericks’ Doncic looks poised to dominate for years to come. His ability to score, distribute and rebound (he averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game last season) allows him to stuff the stat sheet. Could MVP hardware be in the 21-year-old’s near future?
The 2020 NHL rookie of the year, Makar posted 50 points across 57 regular-season games before racking up 15 points in 15 playoff games for the Colorado Avalanche, all while establishing himself as one of the top offensive-minded defensemen in the league at age 22.
Allen led his team to the playoffs a year ago, but the gunslinger took a leap forward in 2020. The Buffalo Bills are AFC East champions for the first time since 1995, and Allen would receive MVP consideration if not for other-worldly play from Aaron Rodgers.
Drafted in the second round of the 2020 WNBA draft, Dangerfield was expected to come off the bench for the Minnesota Lynx. Injuries and depth issues pushed her into the starting point guard role, and she never looked back. The Connecticut Huskies product led the Lynx at 16.2 points per game and took home rookie of the year honors.
Jimmy Butler provides ample leadership and star power, but without the emergence of Robinson and Herro in the bubble, the Miami Heat likely don’t advance to the NBA Finals. Herro set rookie records for most 3-pointers in the NBA Finals (11) and during the entire postseason (48). The 20-year-old’s 37-point outburst against the Boston Celtics in Game 4 also made him the youngest to score 30 or more in the conference finals. Meanwhile, Robinson, 26, established himself as one of the game’s premiere deep threats — making 44.6% of his 8.3 attempts per game from behind the arc.
In July, Morikawa defeated Justin Thomas at the Workday Charity Open in a playoff. Nearly a month later, the 23-year-old won his first major by two strokes at the PGA Championship.
For a player who caught the game-winning pass in a national title game, the Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver has somehow surpassed that height this season. The Heisman finalist could become the first non-quarterback or running back to win the award since 1997. He caught 98 passes for 1,511 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Is he a savant? Or a maniac? Maybe a little bit of both. He passionately defended his decision to bulk up and add 20 pounds of muscle. DeChambeau backed it up by winning. And it paid off: He won his first major at the 2020 U.S. Open and doesn’t appear poised to relinquish his newfound pulpit any time soon.
Reyna debuted for Borussia Dortmund in Bundesliga play in January as a 17-year-old. The son of former soccer players Claudia Reyna and Danielle Egan, the U.S. international player recorded an assist on a game-winning goal in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 in February. He was named U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Player of the Year.
At 21 years old, Kenin became the youngest American since Serena Williams to win a major Grand Slam singles title (2002) when she won the Australian Open last January. Now 22, Kenin also finished as the French Open runner-up and reached No. 4 in the world rankings.
His chase down of Arizona Cardinals defensive back Budda Baker is one of the plays of the year and will forever serve as an example of effort. And 2020 was a season in which Metcalf showed why NFL teams should cringe after letting him slide to the 64th pick in the 2019 draft; he’s now Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s No. 1 target and has caught 80 passes for 1,282 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Taking into consideration the expanded playoff format leading to more opportunities, Arozarena nonetheless made history this October with 10 postseason home runs. Traded by the St. Louis Cardinals during the offseason, Arozarena batted .377 with a 1.273 OPS and 14 RBI during the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League for the first time since 2008, in no small part thanks to Arozarena.
Justin Turner tested positive during Game 6 of the World Series. The NHL set up two hubs — in Edmonton, Alberta, and Toronto — for the playoffs.
The expectation was never to simply “shut up and dribble.” But after the events of 2020 and a revitalized emphasis on justice — racial, social, economic, criminal — players have utilized their platforms to make a statement on issues outside of his or her game.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.