The athletes who defined the last decade in the NBA and the NFL, America’s most prominent professional sports leagues, are easy to name. But the stranglehold LeBron James and Tom Brady have held on basketball and football is due to expire in the 2020s.
That two players stand out as the most likely to dominate the next 10 years in those sports is telling given the absurd amount of young talent infused (and soon to be infused) in both the NBA and the NFL. Mavericks forward Luka Doncic is already being compared to James on the basis of stats. Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is already tormenting defenses in a way never seen before in pro football.
Doncic is 20, and Jackson just turned 23. Both are amid their second seasons in their respective leagues, and both are captivating viewers more quickly and convincingly than anybody expected.
MORE: Sporting News Athletes of the Decade
The combination of ridiculous early success and promise for the future is why these two athletes are most likely to be the faces of the 2020s in sports, and they’re relatively easy choices. What’s not as simple is determining which of the two stars is likely to outshine the other.
Separated by five categories — competition/challengers, organizational stability, marketability, injury risk and floor vs. ceiling — below is the case for Luka and the case for Lamar as the athlete who will own the next decade in sports.
The case for Luka: Doncic is already producing at an MVP level, but there is a long line of players that could stand in his way, both now and in the future.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are all trying to come out of the Western Conference immediately. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Pascal Siakam could potentially lead their teams to the NBA Finals over the next few years depending on the rosters around them. Maybe a youngster like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant progresses quickly and becomes a threat sooner than expected. Oh, and by the way, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving should be back on the floor together in 2020-21.
It’s impossible to forecast when the next dynamic duo (or even trio) will emerge. Here’s one thing we do know: Doncic is already a franchise-changing talent capable of running the best offense in the NBA, and he isn’t yet old enough to legally drink in the United States.
There will always be challengers, but a single player can be more impactful in basketball than in any other sport. Imagine how good Doncic can be once he actually hits his prime.
The case for Lamar: Jackson will need to keep up his elite play to stay ahead of a new wave of young NFL superstars, with fellow quarterbacks standing out as his biggest competition for individual awards and team championships.
Right there in this year’s AFC divisional playoffs with him are the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson. In the NFC, the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and the Giants’ Daniel Jones are the two guys to watch for a big rise in 2020. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey and Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas had amazingly prolific 2019 seasons like Lamar, but their positions limit their luster.
Just as Lamar replaced Mahomes as the league’s youthful MVP sensation, there will be newcomers like Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence to throw their helmets into the mix. The key for Lamar is getting on the board with a Super Bowl title to beat everyone else to the punch, perhaps starting as early as this season.
Chances to win titles/organizational stability
The case for Luka: Rick Carlisle has served as the Mavericks’ coach since the 2008-09 season. General manager and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson has been with the organization for more than two decades. And owner Mark Cuban? He isn’t going anywhere. That’s about as stable as you can get in the NBA outside of San Antonio.
It’s easy to see the Mavs keeping Doncic locked up under long-term contracts and building around him and Kristaps Porzingis. Cuban will spend whatever it takes to be a winner, which shouldn’t be difficult as long as Doncic is on the floor. His presence alone means Dallas can’t be ignored in the championship chase throughout the 2020s.
The case for Lamar: Jackson landed in a great spot with the Ravens. Ozzie Newsome has given way to the strong front-office eye of Eric DeCosta. Jackson also plays for a stable, Super Bowl-winning coach in John Harbaugh.
Baltimore has a strong tradition of championship makeup. The team already has adjusted offensively to what Jackson does well to explosive results. At the same time, the Ravens didn’t lose sight of maintaining their typical defensive backbone to complement the QB.
Jackson is operating on his inexpensive rookie deal and is headed toward being rewarded as the highest-paid QB in the game at some point, much like Joe Flacco before him to set up consistent winning that spiked with a Super Bowl MVP run.
The case for Luka: The Slovenian wunderkind possesses international appeal, as he was dominating the Euroleague well before entering his name in the 2018 NBA Draft. He has lived up to the hype so far, posting incredible raw numbers and contributing to a winning team. He does it with a flair for the dramatic, whether it’s a deep bomb from beyond the arc or a no-look pass to an open teammate.
Doncic sparked a sneaker war early in the 2019-20 season, wearing several shoe brands and styles before ultimately signing an endorsement deal with Jordan. A signature line could widen Doncic’s visibility, though Jordan has struggled a bit with releases outside of its highly coveted retros.
Unlike a baseball or a football player, you can see Doncic. He can flash his infectious smile one possession and talk trash to an opponent on the next. Regardless of what he’s doing, the camera is likely to be stuck on No. 77 the entire way.
The case for Lamar: Jackson has some fun at press conferences and has been no stranger to big stages since his Heisman Trophy-winning breakout at Louisville. He is a video game-like cheat code when in action on the field, capturing the imagination of those who love fast running quarterbacks. Much like Mahomes, who’s now hard to miss in major advertising campaigns following his MVP 2018 season, Jackson is on his way to being everywhere as one of the key commercial faces of the NFL.
In the NFL, no market is too small to turn a captivating player and likable personality into a nationwide household name for even the most casual of NFL fans. Luka is a little ahead because of the more immediate marketing-friendly nature of the NBA and certainly will always have the most international appeal. But Jackson will hold his own with his exponentially increasing popularity in America.
The case for Luka: This is an easy category in favor of Doncic. He has already suffered minor knee and ankle injuries early in his career, but the nature of his sport makes him more likely to remain healthy for the next decade and beyond.
Doncic could face the occasional hard foul. Jackson could be drilled by a blitzing linebacker multiple times in a single series.
The case for Lamar: Jackson gets chased and tackled in the NFL. He has never had durability issues in the past, but this is a league where massively athletic men fall on smaller guys. Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott are the durable exceptions, not the rule.
Doncic hasn’t been healthy of late, but in the long term, Jackson will be in harm’s way at a much higher level, even when he’s not running and just doing his thing in the pocket.
Consistency vs. potential improvement (floor vs. ceiling)
The case for Luka: It turns out Doncic’s early-season explosion wasn’t a fluke. This is just what the guy does now.
Through more than a third of his sophomore campaign, Doncic finds himself in the top five in both points and assists per game and top 20 in rebounds. Despite shooting more, his efficiency has improved from the field, on 3-pointers and at the free throw line. He isn’t a lockdown defender, but his size (6-7, 218 pounds) and basketball IQ allow him to compete on that end of the floor.
Doncic has quickly learned the subtle nuances of the NBA, the tricks of the trade that help all superstars thrive. He should only improve as he adds different pieces along the way and grows with his teammates. Keep in mind his partnership with Porzingis isn’t close to fully formed.
At the very least, Doncic can establish the Mavericks as an annual playoff participant. At his peak, he could be holding multiple MVPs and titles.
Click Here: New Zealand Rugby Shop
MORE: Jackson dominates voting for SN’s Offensive Player of the Year award
The case for Lamar: Jackson is playing quarterback in a way the NFL has never seen in terms of running, as he smashed the single-season rushing record for the position in only his second year. But what is more impressive is what he has done as a passer. He has played off the best rushing attack in NFL history to be super efficient throwing the ball downfield and finishing drives in the red zone.
The scary thing is, Jackson can only get better as the Ravens add and groom playmakers to his supporting cast while he develops as a field-reader and decision-maker. His work ethic has been off the charts, from working hard to dominate at Louisville and carrying that determination and confidence to Baltimore. The more experienced Jackson gets, the better he will harness his immense physical skill set.
Jackson is about to win his first NFL MVP award at age 23, beating out Mahomes and Dan Marino for the youngest to do so in NFL history. If what he just did in 2019 is more like his floor, it’s downright crazy to think about how high his ceiling can get.