Ready to say goodbye to 2014 and get on with 2015 already? Here are the fresh faces -- one in each of 11 sports we cover -- we expect to become household names in the next 12 months. -- Sam Gardner
College basketball: Ben Simmons, Montverde Academy – age 18
In keeping with the nature of major college basketball, the next big star at the NCAA level is currently still in high school. But make no mistake, Ben Simmons is the real deal. The No. 1 recruit in the 2015 class by a wide margin, Simmons was a stud on the summer circuit, and with an NBA-ready body, he should dominate after he arrives at LSU next fall. A product of Melbourne, Australia, who draws comparisons to Tracy McGrady, Simmons is the best player on the best prep team in the country (Montverde Academy, near Orlando), and though he’ll get only 10 or 12 chances to show his stuff in college before 2015 becomes 2016, that should be more than enough time to justify his place on the radar of every team in the NBA.
Getty ImagesKelly Kline
College football: Anu Solomon, QB, Arizona Wildcats – age 19
As one Hawaiian-born, Heisman-winning quarterback leaves the Pac 12 behind for the NFL this summer, another may very well slide right in to take his place as the nation’s best in 2015. Billed as the 'next Marcus Mariota,' Solomon is the real deal and showed as much this season as he led the Wildcats to a regular-season win over Oregon and to the Pac 12 championship game. As a redshirt freshman, Solomon threw for 3,458 yards with 27 touchdowns and just seven picks, and next year, with an incredible stable of wide receivers surrounding him again, Solomon stands to be even better. As long as he stays healthy, Solomon should continue to thrive in Rich Rodriguez’s offense, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him in New York as a Heisman finalist next December.
Getty ImagesChristian Petersen
Golf: Patrick Reed – age 24
If you were to ask Reed to pinpoint the PGA’s next big star, he’d almost certainly say himself. After all, in March 2014 he ruffled the feathers of golf’s old guard when he declared himself a 'top-five player' after winning the WGC-Cadillac Championship. But behind all that bravado, there’s a talented golfer, and after gaining some momentum at the Ryder Cup, where he shushed the crowd at Gleneagles during a singles win over Henrik Stenson, Reed could be due for a true breakout in 2015. Currently 23rd in the world rankings, Reed has three PGA Tour wins and led Augusta State to consecutive NCAA golf championships. He struggled in the majors during his first full year on tour, missing the cut at the Masters and Open Championship, but could be posed to win one in 2015.
Ian Rutherford-USA TODAY SportsIan Rutherford
MLB: Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs – age 22
The Cubs have gone all-in with their offseason moves. But if they’re truly to be the World Series contender 'Back to the Future 2' said they’d be in 2015, it might be because some of their in-house talent finally gets a chance to star. An incredibly strong farm system has the Cubs in a great place with respect to young talent, but the biggest and baddest among them is going to be Bryant, a slugger who hit .325 and mashed 43 homers between Double-AA and Triple-A last season on his way to being named the 2014 Minor League Player of the Year. Bryant likely won’t make the Opening Day roster because the team can control his contract longer with a later call-up, but once he’s up, he’ll make his presence felt quickly.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
NASCAR: Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports – age 19
You could argue that Chase Elliott already had his breakout year this year when he won the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship at age 18, but by the end of 2015, Elliott will likely have solidified his place as the next big thing in racing. A development driver for Hendrick, Elliott was both the youngest driver and the first rookie to win a championship in one of NASCAR’s three major series, and with another successful Nationwide campaign, he could put himself in line to be named a future driver for Hendrick’s Sprint Cup Series program, possibly joining the big boys as soon as 2016 after making spot start in 2015. The son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion and 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, Chase is definitely stepping out of his dad's shadow, and he's not wasting a single second doing it.
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY SportsAndrew Weber
NBA: Giannis Antetokounmpo, SF, Milwaukee Bucks – age 20
Chances are you probably can’t spell Antetokounmpo’s name, and even pronouncing it may be a challenge for most right now, but by this time next year, the latter, at the very least, should no longer be an issue, since the Greek swingman is most definitely a star in the making. Taken by Milwaukee with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 draft, Antetokounmpo is a human highlight reel capable of filling the stat sheet on any given night, and by the end of 2015, he’ll likely be getting 38 minutes a game instead of 27. The 'Greek Freak,' as he’s known, Antetokounmpo is still growing — he sprouted from 6-9 to 6-11 during the last offseason — and his game is developing right along with him. With a little consistency, he'll be an All-Star for years to come.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY SportTom Szczerbowski
NFL: Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland Raiders – age 23
It’s tough to stay on the radar when you play for one of the worst teams in football, but Mack is doing that and more in his first year in the league. If he continues living up to the hype that made him the fifth overall selection in May, Mack will most certainly have the Texans wishing they used the top pick on him instead of Jadeveon Clowney — if they don’t already. A talented run stopper and able pass rusher who can also hold his own when dropping into coverage, Mack seems on course for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and that may only be the beginning. Not bad for a kid out of the University of Buffalo.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY SportsKyle Terada
NHL: Tyler Toffoli, F, Los Angeles Kings – age 22
A 2010 second-round pick, Toffoli made his first measurable impact in the NHL last season, recording 29 regular-season points before adding 14 more in the playoffs en route to the Kings’ second Stanley Cup in three seasons. He’s already on pace to shatter those numbers this season, with 20 points through LA’s first 28 games (including an NHL-best four short-handed goals), and if Toffoli continues on that upward trend, he’ll be one of the most sought-after players in hockey when he becomes a restricted free agent this offseason. After 18 games in the minors last year, Toffoli really came into his own playing on 'That ‘70s Line' with Tanner Pearson and Jeff Carter, but regardless of who he plays with, this guy is a bona fide star.
NHLI via Getty ImagesDave Reginek
Soccer: Christen Press, F, United States – age 25
You’re certainly familiar with on- and off-field exploits of Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan on the U.S. women’s national team, but the name you’ll really want to keep an eye on at next summer’s Women’s World Cup is Press. A deadly scorer, Press left Stanford in 2010 as the school’s all-time leader in goals, and she has picked up where she left off as a professional, most recently netting nine goals in nine appearances with Tyresö FF en route to the club’s Champions League runner-up showing in 2013-14. All eyes will be on the World Cup this summer, and Press — who also scored in Cup qualifiers against Haiti and Mexico in October — could easily emerge as the face of the U.S. team, particularly if the American women have another finals run up their sleeves.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY SportsJerry Lai
Tennis: Grigor Dimitrov – age 23
Already a respected player in tennis circles, Dimitrov has all the tools to make the leap to household name status in 2015. The Bulgarian has been playing professionally since 2008, and at this point, there’s not a player without a major title who has more upside. Dimitrov was ranked No. 8 in the world after reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon in August — he lost to eventual champ Novak Djokovic (whom he had beaten at the 2013 Madrid Masters) in four closely contested sets — and also reached the semifinals at the Italian Open and Rogers Cup, where he lost to Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, respectively. It's tough to gauge when, exactly, an all-court talent like Dimitrov will truly break out, but there's no reason to believe it can't be soon, and 2015 seems like as good a time as any.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY SportsJerry Lai
UFC: Conor McGregor, featherweight – age 26
Young, brash, good-looking and an extremely gifted trash talker, Conor McGregor has soared up the featherweight ranks since signing with UFC in early 2013, and if he can continue on his tear in 2015, he could earn himself a title shot in the not-too-distant future. Just the second Irish-born UFC fighter, McGregor has international superstar potential and skills to match. He is a perfect 4-0 since joining the circuit, with three of those wins coming by first-round TKO, including his most recent victory, over Dustin Poirier at UFC 178 in Las Vegas in September. He’s expected to return to the Octagon in January against Dennis Siver at UFC Fight Night 59 in Boston, and with an impressive showing there, 'The Notorious' McGregor could find himself knocking on Jose Aldo’s door soon enough.