New York's brightest sports stars for 2021
Newsday’s fifth annual list of top New York sports stars entering the new year features the usual comings and goings, this time in the wake of a sports year upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s to a 2021 that is more . . . normal.
The same rules apply as always as we look ahead through the lens of these 20 big names: Current athletes only. No coaches, executives or radio hosts. And only players based east of the Hudson, other than the Jets and Giants.
Also, as usual: Ability and accomplishments obviously count, but star power is the deciding factor.
1 – Gerrit Cole, Yankees
After signing a nine-year, $324-million contract with his favorite childhood team late in 2019, Cole mostly lived up to expectations in the truncated 2020 season, going 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA and finishing fourth in AL Cy Young voting.
2 – Jacob deGrom, Mets
DeGrom fell short of winning a third consecutive NL Cy Young, but not by much. He finished 4-2 with a 2.38 ERA and led the National League with 104 strikeouts while walking only 18. He finished third in the Cy Young vote.
3 – Kevin Durant, Nets
Following Durant’s 18 months of recovery from a torn Achilles tendon, the Nets are poised to reap some benefit from the four-year, $164-million deal to which they signed the veteran star. Will he still be at his peak at 32? TBD.
4 – Pete Alonso, Mets
Things got a tad icy for the "Polar Bear" in his sophomore season, including a drop in home runs from his rookie record 53 to 16 – in far fewer games, of course. But Alonso remains a fan favorite and is a face of the franchise.
5 – Aaron Judge, Yankees
The oft-injured Judge was limited to 28 regular-season games, then in the postseason he had three homers but went 4-for-30 with 10 strikeouts. Fans are starting to wonder about the long-term verdict on their ostensible superstar.
6 – Kyrie Irving, Nets
The mercurial guard certainly made an impression in his 20 games as a Net before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, averaging 27.4 points and 6.4 assists. Now comes the real test: making magic with Kevin Durant.
7 – Trevor Lawrence, Jets?
The Jets’ upset of the Rams in Week 15 damaged their chances for the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. But if somehow the Jaguars accidentally win a game, the Jets still might get their hands on the Clemson quarterback, who will become their latest would-be Joe Namath.
8 – Daniel Jones, Giants
It is too soon to say whether Jones will be the quarterback who returns the Giants to postseason success. But it is not too soon to say that he has the requisite skill set to do so after he led a late, improbable 2020 playoff push.
9 – Saquon Barkley, Giants
Barkley has the talent and personality to be a superstar, but he is a running back, so the clock is ticking on his NFL production window. Now he must prove that he can come all the way back from an ACL tear that cost him most of 2020.
10 – Sabrina Ionescu, Liberty
The pandemic denied Ionescu a chance to lead Oregon to an NCAA title, then an ankle injury ended the No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick’s season after three games. Not to worry, though. She scored 33 points in her last full game.
11 – Artemi Panarin, Rangers
Panarin was a huge hit in his first season after choosing the Rangers over the Islanders in free agency and signing a seven-year, $81.5-million contract. He had 32 goals and 63 assists in 69 games and finished third in MVP voting.
12 – Mathew Barzal, Islanders
In his third full season, Barzal continued to display both dynamic, daredevil skills and sometimes maddening lapses en route to 19 goals and 41 assists in 68 regular-season games and five goals and 12 assists in the playoffs.
13 – DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
All the soft-spoken LeMahieu did in his second year with the Yankees is lead the majors with a batting average of .364, lead the American League with an OPS of 1.011 and finish third in AL MVP voting. He’s a free agent, though.
14 – Luke Voit, Yankees
The old-school, fan-friendly, slugging first baseman hit 21 home runs in 510 plate appearances in 2019, then hit a major league-leading 22 in 234 PAs in 2020. In the ALDS against the Rays, Voit was 2-for-18 with six strikeouts.
15 – Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees
Stanton might never regain his 2017 NL MVP form, but he flashed what he still can do by hitting six home runs in the first five games of the ‘20 playoffs, one fewer than in his injury-marred 2019 and ’20 regular seasons combined.
16 – Michael Conforto, Mets
Conforto had a strong 2019 with 33 homers and 92 RBIs but rounded out his game – and stayed healthy – during a 2020 season in which he batted .322 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs. A contract extension might be in order.
17 – Luis Severino, Yankees
After losing most of the past two seasons to injuries, including Tommy John surgery that ended his 2020 before it began, a return of Severino to his standout 2017-18 form would be a huge boost to the Yankees’ starting rotation.
18 – RJ Barrett, Knicks
The Knicks remain star-starved, but one short-term hope is Barrett, who after being drafted No. 3 overall in 2019 improved over the course of his rookie season and showed promise in averaging 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds.
19 – Aroldis Chapman, Yankees
OK, so giving up the ALCS-winning home run in 2019 and ALDS-winning home run in 2020 was not a great look for Chapman’s brand. The question, as he turns 33 in February: Has wear and tear caught up to his fearsome fireball?
20 – Alexis Lafreniere, Rangers
We’re looking forward here, so let’s give a nod to Lafreniere, age 19, who as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft should be another piece for the rising Rangers. He finished his junior hockey career by totaling 112 points in 52 games last season.