2020 was far from a memorable year in sports. Or maybe, it was extremely memorable, depending on which way you look at it.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted the sports world in mid-March, forcing professional leagues to play in bubble cities and fans to watch from their own home. However, a number of professional athletes — those from the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA, PGA and even soccer and tennis — burst onto the scene.
Perhaps they were named Rookie or the Year, or maybe they just blossomed after a breakout campaign. So, before we look ahead to 2021, we’ll look back on 20 athletes who didn’t let the circumstances get the best of them.
Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
Allen, a third-year quarterback, put together a breakout campaign for the AFC East champion Bills. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl and has already won the most games of his career. Allen eclipsed 4,000 passing yards in just 14 games — nearly a 1,000 more yards than his sophomore season and double his rookie-season output. He won’t win 2020 NFL MVP, but he should be in the running.
Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
All early indications point to the Chargers striking gold with the selection of Herbert at No. 6 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. The first-year quarterback is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after compiling a 28-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 14 starts. He’s eclipsed 4,000 yards while completing 66 percent of his passes.
Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
If there’s one player to beat out Herbert as the Offensive Rookie of the Year, it’d likely be the Minnesota receiver. Jefferson broke the Vikings franchise record for receptions by a rookie, which was previously set by none other than Randy Moss. Jefferson’s 1,267 receiving yards entering Week 17 ranks fourth in the league behind only DeAndre Hopkins, Travis Kelce and Stefon Diggs.
James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars running back has been one of the league’s best undrafted success stories in 2020. The 22-year-old Illinois State product has eclipsed 1,400 yards of offense for the one-win Jaguars. He has seven games with 100 or more total yards, passing the 1,000-yard rushing threshold with 10 touchdowns. With Robinson and the No. 1 overall pick in 2021, the Jags could start changing the narrative in Jacksonville.
Jake Bailey, New England Patriots
The Patriots second-year punter was arguably the team’s best player in a down 2020 campaign. Bailey was named to his first Pro Bowl and looked like one of the best players at the position in the entire league. The 23-year-old Stanford product was a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and it’s a selection that looks well-earned.
Chase Young, Washington Football Team
Washington got exactly what it was hoping for with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The freakish defensive end, who was selected to the Pro Bowl, is the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year after his inaugural campaign. He’s compiled nine tackles for loss, 6 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown in 14 starts.
Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays
The rookie outfielder was the breakout star of the 2020 postseason. He set various MLB records, which was most home runs in a single postseason (10), en route to claiming the ALCS MVP Award. It was the first time a rookie had won the award, and his play helped the Rays to the World Series.
Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners
The Mariners centerfielder claimed the AL Rookie of the Year honor after compiling 54 hits in 206 at-bats for a .262 batting average. The 2016 first-rounder added 11 home runs and 29 RBIs.
Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Williams was named NL Rookie of the Year after dominating in the bullpen for Brewers. The 26-year-old right-hander recorded 53 strikeouts in 27 innings, adding a 0.33 ERA with a 4-1 record in 22 games.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Admittedly, Doncic was well-received before 2020 as he previously earned Rookie of the Year honors, but still took major jump in his sophomore stint. Doncic was named both an All-NBA player and first-time NBA All-Star for the 2019-20 season. It came after the Mavericks star drastically increased his point average, finishing with 28.8 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant took home Rookie of the Year honors in 2019-20. It came after the Grizzlies first-rounder averaged 17.8 points on 14 shots per game. He added another 7.3 assists for the Grizzlies, who finished 33-34 in the pandemic-shortened season.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Similar to Doncic, Tatum was on the NBA scene prior, but he put together a real breakout season in 2019-20. The Celtics wing earned All-NBA honors, was named to his first All-Star Game and even won the league’s Player of the Month award before the pandemic halted the season. He registered career-bests in points (23.4), rebounds (7.0) and assists (3.0).
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Williamson was dealt a tough blow to begin his NBA career, but returned to health and played in 24 games. Early signs clearly depict the Duke product’s talent and above-the-rim play. The 2019 No. 1 overall pick averaged 22.5 points on just 15 shots and under 28 minutes per game.
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche
The 2017 first-rounder burst onto the scene in a big way last season, claiming the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. The right-shot defenseman contributed 50 points on 12 goals for the Avalanche, and enters his age-22 season in January.
Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes
Svechnikov took a monumental step forward for the Hurricanes in his second NHL campaign. The first-round winger more than doubled his assist total in a pandemic-shortened season. He finished with 61 points in 68 games during his sophomore campaign.
Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx
The second-round pick out of Connecticut shocked those around the WNBA by winning the league’s 2020 Rookie of the Year award. Dangerfield averaged 16.2 points and 3.6 assists per game and helped the Lynx to a 20-14 record and postseason berth.
Betnijah Laney, Atlanta Dream
It’s not often a professional athletes puts together a breakout campaign in his/her fifth season, but that was the case with Laney’s first year in Atlanta. The 27-year-old won the WNBA’s Most Improved Player Award after setting career bests in points (17.2), rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and minutes.
Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool
The 22-year-old continued to reach new heights during the 2019-20 season, scoring a career-best four goals, quadruple his previous career-high and double the two previous seasons combine. Alexander-Arnold also led Liverpool with a team-high 13 assists, which was second in the Premier League, as well.
Scheffler was named the 2020 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year after finishing fifth in the FedExCup, only the second-ever rookie to do so. Scheffler recorded seven top-10 finishes (six in the top five) in just 23 starts. The 24-year-old Texan had back-to-back fourth place showings at the PGA Championship and The Northern Trust at TPC Boston.
The 22-year-old was voted 2020 WTA Player of the Year after a season which saw her play in two Grand Slam finals with two titles. Kenin won the Australian Open, reached the French Open final and finished the season ranked No. 4 in the world.