With the Hawks going through a rebuild and the Braves just finishing one of their own, there is a surplus of young talent spread across the four professional sports in Atlanta. The Falcons and new-to-the-city Atlanta United have plenty of rising stars in their regard. So who is the best? Which team has the most? I decided I would give my best attempt at ranking the kids.
For this ranking, I only considered those players under the age of 25 who have spent three or fewer seasons at the highest level. I also left out players who don’t have close to a full year at the highest level (sorry Kyle Wright).
The criteria taken into consideration was what they have already shown, as well as their potential to continue to develop and improve.
We will start with the honorable mentions, players I considered but ultimately could not fit into the top 10, in no particular order:
Dansby Swanson, Max Fried, Tauren Prince, Julian Gressel, Damontae Kazee, Johan Camargo
10. Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks
The 20-year-old sharpshooter from The University of Maryland has been steady from behind the arc, shooting 38% from three and averaging 9.5 points per game. While neither of those numbers particularly stand out, Huerter has caught the attention of NBA superstar Dwayne Wade, citing Huerter’s improvement from Summer League to now. Huerter is sure to raise his three-point percentage (he shot almost 42% in his sophomore year at Maryland) as he continues to develop and adjust to the NBA three-point line. The Red Velvet will make an excellent piece on future Hawks teams that look to compete for championships in the coming years.
9. Takk McKinley, Atlanta Falcons
Takk will be entering his 3rd year with high expectations. The young edge rusher has shown flashes of brilliance, accounting for 13 sacks in 30 games, while only starting in eight of those games (all in 2018). The one knock on Takk has been his consistency. In 2018, Takk recorded 4.5 sacks in the team’s first four games; however, injuries slowed him down the rest of the season as Mckinley only managed 1.5 sacks from week eight and on. If he can stay healthy, Takk has the potential to be one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL for the next decade.
8. Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Many fans were confused when The Falcons decided to use their first-round pick on another wide receiver. Ridley responded by catching six touchdowns in the first four games. However Ridley, like Takk, slowed down throughout the season. The rookie ended the year with ten touchdowns and over 800 yards. His ten scores were most on the team.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Ridley is his big-play potential. He averaged 12.8 yards per reception. To compare, Julio Jones averaged 14.8. If the rookie can cut down on his drops and increase his consistency, Ridley and Jones could become the best wide receiver duo in the National Football League. If they are not already.
7. Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
The first of the Braves young core checks in at #7. Ozzie got off to a ferocious start to his 2018 campaign, slashing .281/.318/.516 in the first half. However, Albies’ OPS dropped just over .200 points after the All-Star Break. Still only 22 years of age, Ozzie has plenty of time to figure out how to maintain a consistent pace over the course of the season.
One area to watch during the 2019 season is how he fares against right-handed pitchers. In 2018, Albies had a whopping .905 OPS against southpaws, but just a .696 OPS against righties. Braves manager Brian Snitker has already expressed the potential of Ozzie leading off against left-handed opponents. If Ozzie can improve against RHPs, he will make a viable leadoff option, something Braves fans everywhere (including myself) would welcome.
6. Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons might have surprised fans with the 17th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Neal, however, quickly proved why he went in the first round. During his rookie year, Neal totaled 105 total tackles and forced five interceptions in 14 games. His sophomore year was good enough to earn him a trip to his first Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, the former Gator suffered a season-ending injury in his first game of the 2018 season – the first of many for the young Falcons defense.
Neal is already a prolific tackler, but can still improve as a ball hawk at the safety position (we all remember his dropped interception in the 2018 NFC Divisional Playoff Game). Neal’s youth combined with his already impressive skill set leads me to believe he will return to his Pro Bowl self during the 2019 season.
5. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
As I began my top 5, it became increasingly difficult for me to objectively say who deserves which spot. I decided to put Collins at #5 for one reason: his ceiling. Obviously John Collins can, and hopefully will, be a multi-year All Star in the NBA; however, it is fair to say that he has a slightly lower ceiling than the upcoming players.
With much of the media’s attention on Trae Young, Collins is having himself a breakout 2nd year in his own right. Collins has raised his PPG average a whopping 8.9 points from 10.5 in 2017-2018 to 19.4 in 2018-2019. Furthermore, Collins should only continue to improve as he gets more pieces around him. I don’t expect John to ever win an MVP award, but it is very conceivable to envision Collins getting his first trip to the NBA All-Star game next year. Collins is a core piece of the young future of the Atlanta Hawks, something that should ease the minds of Hawks’ fans everywhere.
4. Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Deion Jones is another part of the Falcons’ extraordinarily successful 2016 draft class. Debo won the heart of Atlanta with his pick-six against the Saints just three weeks into the season. The New Orleans Native would go on to terrorize his home-town team, sealing a week 14 win in 2017 with an interception as well. Besides providing clutch interceptions, Jones has emerged as a leader and anchor of a young defense.
His 2017 breakout season earned him a spot in the Pro Bowl, alongside Keanu Neal. High hopes surrounded Jones before the 2018 year. But like Neal, Deion suffered an injury that sidelined him for the majority of the season. Jones is without a doubt the Falcons’ most exciting player on the defensive side of the ball. With already proven talent and an even higher ceiling, there is no reason fans shouldn’t expect Jones to go down as one of the best defenders to suit up in red and black over the past decade.
3. Josef Martinez, Atlanta United
After signing to the expansion team in 2017, Josef took the MLS by storm, scoring 19 goals in 20 appearances. From there, the 25-year old Venezuelan never looked back, leading his club to its first MLS Cup in 2018. Individually, Josef earned multiple accolades last year, including the MLS Golden Boot, the Landon Donavan MVP, and the MLS Best XI. Martinez double-downed on his desire to remain in Atlanta, signing a 5-year extension in early 2019. Martinez, already holding multiple MLS records, will look to bring his club to new heights – not only in the MLS but also on the world stage.
2. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Hand up, I was a Doncic guy. I will be the first to admit that. However, what Trae Young has done over the past few months has made me completely change my position from draft night. I remember how angry I was at the Hawks front office, thinking that we blew our chance yet again at a generational talent (i.e., Chris Paul). And for the first half of the season, I was afraid I was going to be correct.
Trae started the season off poorly, struggling with his shot and turning the ball over at a high rate. Since the All-Star Break, Young has ranked first among rookies in points, assists, three-point shots made, and free throws made. Luka Doncic, on the other hand, does not list first in any of these categories.
Obviously what gets the most attention is Young’s now semi-frequent 40 foot shots and his high scoring games. That’s all fine and dandy, but what impresses me the most is his court vision and ability to find the open man. He’s second in the ENTIRE LEAGUE in terms of total assists and fourth in assists per game. Young, without a doubt, is partly responsible for John Collins’ increased success this year.
Although it is still too early to tell, Trae’s recent production has led me to believe Doncic’s and Young’s ceilings are closer, if not in favor of Young, than I initially thought. Combine Young with a potential lottery pick next year; the Hawks front office looks like they knew what they were doing, more so than the numerous Twitter GMs complaining, such as myself.
1. Ronald Acuña Jr, Atlanta Braves
Was there ever a doubt as to who was going to top this list? When the Braves announced that the uber-prospect would be starting in left field on the upcoming road trip in Cincinnati, I immediately bought tickets. Cincinnati is just a 2.5-hour drive from Bloomington, Indiana, where I attend college.
Acuña reaching the majors acted like an endpoint for the Braves rebuild – a rebuild that saw Eric Aybar get regular starts.
Ronnie, like Trae, began slowly in his rookie campaign. However, after Snitker moved Acuña to the leadoff spot in the order, the baseball world saw incredible improvement. In 66 games starting in the leadoff role, Acuña recorded an eye-popping OPS of 1.042 while mashing 19 HRs. Acuña was on such a tear that Marlins pitcher, Jose Ureña, thought it would be better to hit Acuña rather than try to strike him out in his first at-bat of the game.
Acuña culminated his rookie season by hitting a mammoth grand slam against the Dodgers in Game 3 of the NLDS, a moment Atlanta fans will never forget. The 2018 Rookie of the Year established himself as a perennial MVP candidate after not even a full season in the majors. Ronald has the potential to go down as one of the all-time greats to play the game of baseball, making him the clear choice for the #1 spot across the field of talented, young athletes in Atlanta.
There is my list. I’m sure many of you reading will disagree with some of what I wrote. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.