10 Underappreciated Athletes

Matt Haupert@@matthaupFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2014

10 Underappreciated Athletes

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Why is it that the same guys keep getting all the love?

    It seems these days that every story about the NBA revolves around LeBron James, every story about golf revolves around (a washed up) Tiger Woods, every story about baseball revolves around Derek Jeter and Mike Trout and every story about the NFL revolves around some kid in Cleveland who hasn’t played a single snap yet.

    Are these really the only athletes we care about? Are they the only athletes that matter?

    In a world dominated by superheroes, the men and women who fall short of greatness all too often fall through the cracks.

    But let me clarify: underappreciated is not necessarily synonymous with underrated.

    The athletes on this list will fill one of two categories:

    1. Athletes who don’t get any attention when they rightfully should.

    2. Athletes who are overly criticized—victims of lofty expectations who don’t get recognized for their accomplishments.

    Now put your hands together and show a little love for a few athletes who hardly get any love at all.

Lavonte David

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Five interceptions: Good for fifth in the NFL.

    144 tackles: Good for sixth in the NFL.

    20 tackles for loss: Good for third in the NFL.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David's 2013 season?

    Not good enough for the Pro Bowl.

    As Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation points out, this snub was largely due not to the fans or the media, but his fellow players:

    The most jarring aspect of his snubbing is that Lavonte David came in fifth in fan voting, per ESPN. This wasn't due to the fans' lack of passion or some other nonsensical storyline like that. It wasn't due to media disrespect, as the media voted him a first-team All-Pro (they don't get a Pro Bowl vote). Had it been up to either the fans or the media, David would be travelling to Hawaii. No, Lavonte David was snubbed because NFL players and coaches didn't think he had a good enough season to go.

    Lavonte David is far from a household name—apparently even among NFL players. I'm not sure what exactly he is supposed to accomplish to garner a little more respect, but since the NFL failed to recognize the budding star, the least I can do is recognize him here.

Sonny Gray

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    Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    For a team with a dominant 63-38 record and an incredible +163 run differential, the small-market Oakland Athletics don't get nearly enough attention.

    They're by every measure by far the best team in the Major Leagues, and while they were rewarded as such with six selections for this year's All-Star Game, their best pitcher and most important player was left off the roster.

    Don't doubt it: Sonny Gray is the best pitcher on the best team in the league, and he should be a legitimate Cy Young contender if he keeps up the pace he has set this month.

    After a pretty brutal June—the cause for his All-Star snub—Gray has quietly turned in a ridiculously dominant July, as aptly described by ESPN.com's Katie Sharp:

    Gray endured the worst month of his young career in June and went 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA while allowing nearly 35 percent of batters to reach base. But since the calendar turned to July, he has been a different pitcher.

    He has won all four of his starts and has a 0.95 ERA with 26 strikeouts over 28 1/3 innings this month. It is his longest win streak through his first 30 starts, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the A's, who are trying to fend off a pesky Angels team that will not go away in the AL West race.

    Sonny may have watched the All-Star Game from the comfort of his own home, but if the A's do go on to win the World Series, it will be because Mr. Gray is standing on the hill.

Offensive Linemen

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Here’s to you, offensive lineman.

    You, with no position in fantasy football. You, who nobody chooses to control while playing Madden. You, with no place in a conversation about NFL statistics. You, with no glory, no big jersey sales, no celebrity.

    Without you, we would have no great running backs or quarterbacks. Without you, we would have no offense.

    To the most thankless position in all of sports: We salute you.

Mike Conley

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    As an athlete, it can be hard to get noticed when you're not playing in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or wherever LeBron is calling home at the time.

    It's especially hard to get noticed when you're playing in Memphis.

    Like Sonny Gray and so many other underappreciated players who won't appear on this list, Conley falls victim to the "small market, no exposure" curse that haunts many players across the league.

    Despite being one of the most all-around productive and efficient point guards in the league, Conley has failed to ever be selected to an All-Star game. Let's compare his 2013-14 stats with the game's MVP, universally accepted star Kyrie Irving, courtesy of ESPN.com.


    Kyrie Irving       



    .430 20.14
    Mike Conley17.2                6.0     .450                



    While Conley doesn't quite have the scoring prowess of Irving, his shooting percentage is higher, and his player efficiency rating is nearly identical.

    In addition, Conley is a superb defender and was the cornerstone of a Memphis team that made the playoffs with a 50-32 record in the challenging Western Conference.

    In the next conversation you have about the most important point guards in the NBA, you'd be wise not to leave out a little guy in Memphis who isn't getting nearly the attention he deserves.

Bryce Harper

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    Chris Schneider/Associated Press

    Anything Bryce can do, Trout can do better.

    Thanks to his unrealistic expectations and his constant connection to Mike Trout, who entered the Majors around the same time, Bryce Harper will never be considered anything short of a disappointment.

    And because of that, fans will never appreciate what Harper brings to the game.

    So far in his short career, Harper has never hit more than 25 home runs or batted better than .275. He’s also never hit less than 20 home runs (though he will this year after missing time for injury) or batted below .270.

    He hasn’t yet been the MVP that everyone predicted, but at only 21 years old—two years younger than Trout—he’s already one of the top performers on one of the top teams in baseball.

    Don’t expect Bryce Harper to be the next Babe Ruth. Don’t even expect Bryce Harper to be the next Mike Trout.

    The solid career that he has already started to establish should never be diminished by the unfair expectations that he never asked for in the first place.

Tony Romo

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    Cowboys fans are tough to please.

    Romo is laughed at and criticized perhaps more than any other player in the league, remembered more for his blunders in the playoffs than the incredible play that puts his team in contention every single year.

    Well, Cowboys fans, you might want to start appreciating Romo while he's still around, because you've got yourself one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and perhaps the best Cowboys quarterback of all time.

    As Sharief Easterling of the Huffington Post points out, Romo is "statistically the best pass thrower in Cowboys history." And beyond Dallas, Romo's 95.8 passer rating is "higher than [the ratings of] Joe Montana, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Dan Marino."

    Last season was devastating in Dallas. The team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, embarrassingly, for the fourth consecutive season.

    One of the bright spots last year? Tony Romo, who finished the season with 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 3,828 passing yards and a 96.7 quarterback rating.

    And how did they miss the postseason?

    By losing their last game, which Romo missed with a back injury. One week earlier, he led the team to a thrilling comeback win against the Washington Redskins to keep the team's playoff hopes alive.

    You're welcome, Dallas. Now start showing some thanks.

Rory McIlRoy

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    Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

    Ever since Tiger Woods' scandal derailed his career and his legacy just a few short years ago, golf has been desperately searching for a new superstar to carry the sport.

    After winning the U.S. Open in 2011, Rory McIlroy was supposed to be that guy. The next Tiger Woods.

    After a couple entirely disastrous years, however, it became clear that McIlroy was not, in fact, the next Tiger Woods. No one ever will be.

    At that point, the criticism started rolling in.

    Unfortunately, unfair expectations caused people to fail to see what was right before their eyes: a very talented young golfer putting together a very nice career.

    After winning the British Open last weekend, McIlroy inched within one Major victory of a career Grand Slam at the age of 25.

    McIlroy isn't going to catch Jack Nicklaus. He probably won't catch Tiger Woods.

    But that doesn't mean he doesn't have a career worth celebrating.

Dwyane Wade

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    In conversations about the Miami Heat, LeBron James is usually pegged as the star who came in and willed Miami to two Finals victories and four straight appearances.

    Chris Bosh is billed as the underappreciated big man, the most important piece of the puzzle even when he flies under the radar on the stats line.

    Dwyane Wade? Oh, he's hurt and washed up now. His poor play cost Miami a third straight title.

    One of the league's brightest stars since he entered the league, Wade's legacy does not seem to get all the respect that it deserves, and fans fail to appreciate one of the most dazzling shooting guards the league has ever seen.

    Ryan Smith of Fansided argues that "for reasons unclear, [Wade] has never truly been appreciated nationally the way a Tim Duncan has."

    Smith goes on to point out that when Wade led Miami to the 2006 title, people wanted to focus instead on the fact that Dallas collapsed. When he helped them win it again in 2012 and 2013, people wanted to focus on his teammates.

    Let's take a moment and just consider one fact: Dwyane Wade was able to win a title without LeBron James. Up to this point, LeBron hasn't been able to do it without Wade.

Anthony Rizzo

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    He wasn't invited to the Home Run Derby. He only squeaked into the All-Star Game thanks to the final vote. You won't hear his name mentioned in the same breath as beloved sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton.

    And yet, very quietly, 24-year-old Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has become one of the game's biggest sluggers.

    After hitting his 24th and 25th home runs on Tuesday night, Rizzo became the National League leader in home runs, with two more than Stanton and more than twice as many as the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig.

    Think Rizzo would have failed to hit a single ball out of the park during this year's Home Run Derby?

    Think again.

Female Athletes

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    Bruce Yeung/Getty Images

    Female athletes across the board represent the most underappreciated subset of athletes in the entire world.

    Women put in the same work, display the same level of mastery of their crafts and devote their lives to their sports just as passionately. Yet they do not get noticed as much as male athletes.

    WNBA news is buried so deep on the Internet that it's almost impossible to find. The LPGA is scoffed at and considered the less interesting little sister of the PGA. Articles just like this all over the Internet fail to mention women on a regular basis.

    While female athletes are all too often ignored by the media, their work deserves to be appreciated at the same level as their male counterparts.

    This list was not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it was just meant to graze the surface of players in sports who aren't appreciated as much as they might deserve.

    Continue the conversation by adding your own underappreciated players in the comment section, or let me know on Twitter.