Assessing the Nominees for the 2021 ESPYS Best Breakthrough Athlete

By Nick Sterling in Sports
| June 29, 2021 4:48 am PDT

Every year in sports, we see a handful of athletes take the next step in their development. They go from good to great, or great to superstar.

But how about the athletes that take their greatness from the amateur level to the pros? It’s hard to excel as a rookie, but these four athletes showed it can be possible.

With the 2021 ESPYS set to honor some rising stars, let’s break down the Best Breakthrough Athlete nominees, and come away with a prediction.

LaMelo Ball, PG, Charlotte Hornets

LaMelo Ball didn’t take the usual path to becoming an NBA player. He left high school before his junior season to play basketball in Lithuania. He went to the Junior Basketball Association just five months later.

His father, LaVar Ball, founded the league. Ball went back to high school for his senior season at SPIRE Academy. His final stop before the NBA was an Australian basketball team.

All of the previous experience paid off, as the Charlotte Hornets selected Ball with the third overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

It was a solid start to the season for Ball. He recorded his first triple-double against the Atlanta Hawks on January 9. His stat line was 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. He became the youngest player to ever record a triple-double.

Ball even won Rookie of the Month in January by averaging 12.6 points per game.

The month of February is when Ball really elevated his game. His scoring average went from 12.6 to 20.1. A big reason for this is his three-point shooting. After shooting just 25 percent in January, he shot 40.7 from beyond the arc in February.

Ball scored a career-high 34 points against the Utah Jazz on February 5. He won Rookie of the Month for the second consecutive time.

Ball continued to become a better shooter in March. Ball shot 48.6 percent from the field and 46.5 percent from three-point range.

Unfortunately, he suffered a fractured wrist on March 20 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite the injury, Ball earned his third straight Rookie of the Month by averaging 18.5 points per game.

While the expectation was he’d be out for the remainder of the season, Ball returned to action on May 1. He showed some rust with his shooting taking the biggest hit. His three-point percentage plummeted to 24.4 percent in May.

Despite the struggles, the Hornets made the play-in game as the 10 seed in the East. The Hornets lost that game 144-117 to the Indiana Pacers. Ball struggled with 14 points on just 4-14 shooting.

Ball finished the season with 15.7 PPG, 6.1 APG, and 5.9 RPG. His great rookie campaign won him the 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year award.

With Ball’s 6’ 6” height and elite passing ability, I believe he can become a real triple-double threat like Russell Westbrook. I think Ball needs to work on being a more consistent shooter if he wants to evolve his game.

Crystal Dangerfield, PG, Minnesota Lynx

Following a standout four-year career at UConn, the Minnesota Lynx drafted Crystal Dangerfield in the second round of the 2020 WNBA Draft.

Dangerfield didn’t do much in her first three games of the season, but she really began to take off in the month of August.

She started in all 13 games, averaging 18.1 points. She also shot 48.0 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three-point range. Dangerfield scored a career-high 29 points on August 9 against the Los Angeles Sparks.

Her strong performance earned her Rookie of the Month honors for August.

The strong play continued into the month of September for Dangerfield. She scored over 13 points in all five games of the month, including 24 points in the regular-season finale. She won Rookie of the Month for the second straight month by averaging 17.4 points per game.

The Lynx made the playoff after finishing the regular season with a 14-8 record. They beat the Phoenix Mercury to advance to the semifinals. However, they were no match for the eventual champs. The Seattle Storm swept the Lynx in three games. Dangerfield averaged just 10 points in the series.

Dangerfield led the Lynx with 16.2 PPG and 3.6 APG. Her terrific season won her Rookie of the Year honors. She became the lowest drafted player to win Rookie of the Year in WNBA history.

It looks like the Lynx got a steal by drafting Dangerfield in the second round. Look for the 23-year-old to continue to evolve her game.

Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

Justin Herbert had a very successful career at Oregon University. He capped off his college career by winning Rose Bowl MVP.

The Los Angeles Chargers drafted their quarterback of the future by taking Herbert with the sixth pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.

People didn’t expect much of Herbert in his rookie season. The initial plan was he would sit behind starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor so he could learn. That plan went out the window when Taylor missed the second game of the season with a chest injury.

On short notice, Herbert started against the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs and showed out. He threw for 311 yards and one touchdown. He also had a rushing touchdown. The Chargers lost the game in overtime, but Herbert impressed everyone.

After two more impressive showings by Herbert, the Chargers officially named him the starting quarterback.

The Chargers quarterback went on an impressive seven-game run from October 4 to November 22. Herbert threw 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions in that span. He also passed for a career-high 366 yards in the final game of that span.

Even with Herbert’s excellent rookie campaign, the Chargers were just 2-9 in his first 11 starts. He was doing his part, but poor execution just always seemed to get in the way of them winning more games. For reference, seven of those nine losses were one-possession games.

Despite being out of the playoff picture, Herbert led the Chargers to four consecutive wins to end the season. Herbert cleared 240 passing yards in each game.

His final season totals were 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Those 31 touchdowns were also good for a rookie record. Herbert tacked on 289.1 passing yards per game and 396 completions, as well.

A record-breaking rookie season earned Herbert the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Brandon Staley replaces Anthony Lynn as head coach of the Chargers. A lot of people attributed some of those late-game miscues to Lynn, so hopefully the Chargers will be more efficient with a new head coach.

If everything goes according to plan, we could see Herbert lead the Chargers back to the playoffs.

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Chase Young, EDGE, Washington Football Team

Chase Young won numerous awards in his three years at Ohio State University. His outstanding collegiate career put him in position to be a top draft pick.

The Washington Football Team drafted Young second overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

His career immediately got off to a great start. Young had four tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a crucial forced fumble in Washington’s week 1 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Young recorded four tackles and a sack the following week, but his production slowed after that.

Washington struggled through the middle portion of the season. They went 1-4 from week 5 to week 10. In turn, Young recorded just one sack in those five games. The season turned around in week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The season completely changed for both Young and Washington with a win over the Bengals. Young recorded his first forced fumble since week 1. He also had his first career pass defended.

It was a Thanksgiving Day feast for Washington as they blew out the Dallas Cowboys on Turkey Day. Young picked up his first sack in four weeks.

The best game of Young’s career came on December 13 against the San Francisco 49ers. He had a career-high six tackles. His first career touchdown came in this game on a 47-yard fumble return at the end of the first half.

The Football Team’s final game of the season was a must-win game. They had to defeat the Eagles to win the NFC East. Young came to play with an early sack and late fumble recovery to seal the win for Washington.

Young won defensive player of the month in December.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a pretty good job limiting Young in Washington’s lone playoff game. Young had three tackles, but no sacks or forced fumbles. Washington lost the game 31-23.

His final season stats were 42 tackles, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and a touchdown. The great season earned Young NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He also made the Pro Bowl.

For the first time in a while, there’s hope in Washington. Fans believe they’re playoff contenders with a top-five defense. Young is the driving force behind that elite defense.

2021 ESPYS Best Breakthrough Athlete Prediction

For me, this comes down to one basketball nominee vs. one football player. Crystal Dangerfield gets the nod over LaMelo Ball because she had better numbers and led her team farther into the playoffs.

While Chase Young’s team made the playoffs, they finished with the same record as Justin Herbert’s Chargers. Herbert’s record-breaking season beats out Young’s.

We’re down to two players who broke records. Dangerfield became the lowest drafted rookie to win Rookie of the Year, while Herbert had the most passing touchdowns for a rookie.

In the end, I’m going with Herbert. I think his record-breaking season trumps Dangerfield leading her team to the postseason. Had Dangerfield led her team to the finals, I would have considered her more.

Every player on this list had fantastic seasons. I can’t wait to see how they all develop into potential superstars.

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