Being a professional athlete definitely isn’t easy. In the United States, most sports stars arrive through the draft after performing brilliantly in college. But even that isn’t enough to guarantee success at the top. The step from college to the pro game is a massive one. It’s not unusual for athletes to have a terrible first season.
Today, we’re going to look at 35 athletes who struggled in their rookie years. All of these stars went on to achieve success in some shape or form later in their careers. However, they definitely didn’t set the world on fire in their first seasons. These players come from all major team sports in the world. Check out the list below via The Sportster.
35. Alex Smith
Smith received the 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award after his astonishing comeback from a terrible leg break. But it wasn’t the first challenge that he experienced in his professional career. Smith experienced a rough rookie year and was riddled by injuries. He featured in nine games throughout the 2005 season but only threw a single touchdown pass.
Meanwhile, his first year with the Niners saw him post one of the lowest quarterback ratings in the league. Luckily, he developed and established himself as San Francisco’s starter. His statistics improved dramatically in his sophomore year as he proved that he was capable of being a franchise QB. Smith has had some major ups and downs as an NFL player but never gave up.
You get the feeling that we still haven’t seen the best of Gordon. A two-time Pro Bowl pick, he had a phenomenal and record-breaking college career. However, he had a terrible start to life with the Chargers. The 15th overall draft pick came dangerously close to bust status.
Gordon had just 641 yards on the ground and a poor 3.5 yards per carry without a single touchdown. Luckily he took off the following year. Now with the Denver Broncos, he’ll be hoping to add to his Pro Bowl numbers. He has the talent but he has to put it all together.
Two-time NBA champion Leonard didn’t have it all his own way at the beginning of his career. In his first season with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard played 24 minutes per game, scoring 7.1 points and collecting 1.1 assists. Those aren’t as bad as some numbers down the list, but they’re not great either.
He was able to substantially improve his came. Leonard has been one of the NBA’s best players over the past couple of years and is a four-time All-Star. A two-time NBA defensive player of the year, he was also MVP in both of his NBA Finals appearances.
One of the best strikers in Premier League history, Drogba was a powerhouse for Chelsea. The hulking Ivorian was a key component in Jose Mourinho’s title-winning sides. He combined silky skills with a fearsome physique to overwhelm the opposition. However, Drogba had a terrible start to his career in France. Nobody expected him to be as good as he became.
Drogba began his career with Le Mans in France’s Ligue 2. Injuries wrecked his progress in his early years and it took him a long time to adapt to the physicality of the game. In fact, it wasn’t until he moved to Guingamp after four seasons that he began to show signs of his ability. Finally, he burst into life with Marseille and became one of the most desired soccer players in Europe.
White played in every game in his rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. He was wildly inconsistent and had just 446 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers barely improved a year later leading to critics calling him a draft bust. But he made them eat their words after a couple of terrible years.
In the end, White spent the entirety of his career in Atlanta. He was also a four-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro in 2010. Although he never won a Super Bowl he definitely won the hearts of Falcons fans. Just don’t mention that ‘Free Mike Vick’ t-shirt.
Incredibly, Van Nistelrooy scored just five goals in his first three seasons as a full-time professional soccer star. He played in the Dutch league with Den Bosch but had a terrible start to his career. There was nothing to suggest that he would develop into one of the most feared strikers in Europe. But that is exactly what Van Nistelrooy became after a slow beginning in the Eredivisie.
He spent a season with Heerenveen before moving to PSV Eindhoven, where his career ignited. After scoring 77 goals in 90 appearances, Manchester United signed the Dutch international. Van Nistelrooy became a serial winner at Old Trafford. Then, he continued his quest for superstardom at Real Madrid. Definitely one of the best forwards of his generation.
The popular offensive tackle is one of Philadelphia’s longest-serving players. However, many fans didn’t think that they would see much more of Johnson after a terrible rookie season. He played in every game for the Eagles but didn’t perform well in 2013. In fact, one news source graded him as the worst first-round rookie from that year’s draft. Then, to make matters worse, he tested positive for PEDs before his sophomore year.
Fortunately for Johnson, he was able to turn his career around and get back on track. He played a key role in the Eagles’ 2016 Super Bowl win. It must have felt good for him to get his hands on a ring after a rough start to his career. Furthermore, it shows that many elite athletes take time to blossom into something brilliant. Johnson definitely proved this point.
An excellent point guard, Rondo only played a supporting role during his rookie season. The numbers don’t lie, as he didn’t make much of an impact in his first year with the Celtics. Averaging 6.1 points and 3.8 assists per game, there was nothing to suggest he would be elite.
Rondo’s evolution was swift once Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen landed in Boston. We’re talking about one of the best rosters in recent NBA history. An NBA champion and four-time All-Star, it’s fair to say things turned out pretty good for the volatile Lakers man.
Art Williams called Lacavalier the ‘Michael Jordan of hockey,’ when the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him in 1998. However, his rookie season wasn’t all that great as he only scored a meager 23 points. In his second season, he got that total up to 43 and was soon scoring in the 60s.
A legend in Tampa, Lecavalier was a member of their 2004 Stanley Cup championship team. The Lightning retired his jersey in 2018 as a tribute to his brilliance. As a young player, Tampa stripped him of the captaincy because he was too immature. In the end, however, he earned their utmost respect.
A Champion’s League winner with Inter Milan, Eto’o was one of Jose Mourinho’s favorite players. The Cameroonian was blisteringly fast with an eye for a goal. He made his name with Barcelona but he could have been a force for the Catalan club’s arch-rivals, Real Madrid. However, after he came through Madrid’s academy he only made three appearances and spent significant time on loan.
After a terrible start to his career, Eto’o picked up the pieces in Mallorca and became a top striker. This attracted Barcelona’s attention and the rest is history. From then on, Eto’o regularly won the African Player of the Year awards and was a continental superstar. He played for 13 teams throughout his career in multiple leagues across the globe. It just goes to show that careers can explode in an instant.
A five-time All-Star, Butler has become a great and consistent player. After an incredible personal journey that saw him thrown out of his house at the age of 13 by his mother, he focused on the court. He struggled to make an impact in his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls.
He played 8.6 minutes per game, scored 2.6 ppg, and dished out 1.3 assists. After pushing up his numbers, he became an elite performer. The NBA named him their Most Improved Player, the first time in Bulls’ franchise history. That’s a testament to his hard work and dedication to basketball.
Bautista had a really terrible start to life as a professional, playing in the minor leagues for teams like the Lynchburg Hillcats and the Hickory Crawdads. When he finally broke into MLB in 2004, he played for four different teams in one year. It wasn’t until his second season with the Toronto Bluejays in 2009 that he finally broke out.
From 2010–2015, Bautista hit more home runs than any player in the major leagues. An MLB All-Star selection six consecutive times, he has won three Silver Slugger Awards and two Hank Aaron Awards. In sum, it was a slow start to his career but when he got going, nobody could stop him.
Altidore has played for Toronto FC since 2015, scoring over 50 goals in the process. His career took him from the MLS to Europe and back again. His first year as a pro with the New York Red Bulls was uneventful with a single goal in a mere nine appearances. That’s a terrible return.
The best couple of seasons of his career came at AZ Alkmaar, where he became the highest-scoring American in a European league. Altidore has over 110 international caps to his name and represented the USMNT at two World Cups. Physically powerful, he’s a handful for any defense.
For the past several years, Harden has been one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. The Houston Rockets were lucky to have their bearded giant. He only averaged 9.9 points per game in his rookie season but increased that tally in the following years. He then truly blossomed after leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player, Harden led the league in scoring. He’s an eight-time NBA All-Star and has earned All-NBA Team honors six times, including five first-team selections. Harden has definitely come a long way from his early days in Oklahoma. Now he plays for the Brooklyn Nets.
Brown’s personal drama hasn’t helped his image over the past couple of seasons. The reality is that he’s one of the best wide receivers in the NFL on his day. Brown amassed more receptions than any other player since he entered the league and is a seven-time Pro Bowler.
However, his rookie season was nothing to write home about. Brown only caught 16 passes for 167 yards in his first year for the Steelers in 2010. They made the Super Bowl that year and lost to the Packers. Despite this, he developed into a phenomenal athlete. Now he just needs to get his head right. It’s tough to say if we’ll ever see Brown in an NFL uniform again.
During his time with A.C. Milan, Shevchenko was the best striker on the planet. He offered a unique and clinical threat, scoring goals for fun. But the Ukrainian didn’t have an easy start to life as a pro. In fact, it’s fair to describe it as terrible. He came through the ranks of Dynamo Kyiv, one of the biggest clubs in his home nation. But he scored just a single goal in his first season.
Fair enough, he was young at the time, but Kyiv won the league. He was unable to break out and had to wait another year before he was mature enough to play regularly. Then he started scoring goals with an increased frequency. Finally, he attracted the attention of Milan and became a global superstar. Nothing about his first season suggested that this would be the case.
McGrady entered the NBA straight from high school. Like Kobe Bryant, he had a relatively tough start to life in the league because of his youthfulness and a lack of physicality. McGrady has described his rookie year as “hell,” feeling lonely in Toronto and sleeping up to 20 hours a day. What was supposed to be a dream was actually terrible.
However, the following year, McGrady developed dramatically under new Raptors coach Bruce Carter. The rest is history because he became a seven-time NBA All-Star, a two-time NBA scoring champion, and won the NBA Most Improved Player Award.
Bruce actually won the Rams Rookie of the Year award in 1994 even though he didn’t contribute that much. He only caught 21 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie year. But the following season when the Rams moved from LA to St. Louis, his career blew up.
A Super Bowl champion in 1999, he achieved so much in the game. His best statistical season was 1995 when he caught 119 passes for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns. A year later he led the league in receiving yards. It’s no surprise he finally made the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.
The Netherlands has produced some of the world’s greatest forwards. From Van Nistelrooy to Van Persie, the list goes on and on. But one of the greatest at the turn of the twentieth century was Bergkamp. He made his name with Ajax before lighting up the Premiership with Arsenal. Needless to say, he didn’t have a great first season, or he wouldn’t be on this list.
Just two goals in 14 appearances was a terrible return for a player who became one of the best in world soccer. However, he was young at the time so that must be taken into account. As he received more game time, he blossomed and scored increasing numbers of goals. This prompted Arsene Wenger to bring him to Highbury where he became an icon for the Gunners.
We all know what happened at the end of Rodriguez’s career. However, the beginning of it wasn’t too great either. He was very average for his first couple of years, except, of course, for the fact he was only the third 18-year-old shortstop in Major League Baseball (MLB) since 1900.
That’s a nice stat, but the truth was that he didn’t do much in his rookie year. But he did evolve into a three-time American League MVP and five-time American League Home Run Champion. Of course, PED use destroyed his legacy, so we’ll never really know how good he was.
A deserving NBA Hall of Famer, Stockton never got a ring on his finger. But alongside Karl Malone, he’s one of the best players in league history never to win a championship. He led the league in steals twice and won the 1993 NBA All-Star game MVP award.
But the Utah Jazz legend’s rookie season was terrible by his later standards. He posted low numbers, averaging 5.6 points and 5.1 assists per game in 82 games. But he improved substantially over the next couple of seasons. Stockton now holds the NBA records for most career assists and steals by wide margins.
Torres was very young when he became a senior player for Atletico Madrid. Much is made of the fact that he captained the team at the age of 19. However, his first two seasons with Madrid were very poor. The team was fighting to get out of the Segunda Division and re-establish themselves as a La Liga force. In short, it was a tough environment for a youthful player.
He scored just seven goals in his first two seasons for Atleti. It may seem harsh to call this terrible because he was so young, but it’s crazy when compared to his later form. However, Torres developed into one of Spain’s greatest ever strikers. He enjoyed success on both the international and club level stages. Finally, he retired with one of the best records in sports.
Eli’s legacy is not as famous as that of his older brother Peyton, but he was an outstanding quarterback in his own right. A two-time Super Bowl champion, Manning holds Giants franchise records for most passing yards, touchdown passes, and completions in a career.
But his rookie season was pretty terrible. He passed for just 1,043 yards and managed six touchdown passes with nine interceptions. However, things turned when he won the Super Bowl MVP in both 2007 and 2011. He also set an NFL record for touchdown passes thrown in the fourth quarter with 15 in 2011.
This German star turned into one of the NBA’s best foreign imports. However, he didn’t settle at first in the US and it took him some time to start firing on all cylinders. First of all, the NBA’s player strike disrupted the season and was a terrible distraction. He then struggled to cope with the physicality of defenders.
Nowitzki only averaged 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.4 minutes of playing time. But Nowitzki evolved into one of the best power forwards in the league. An NBA champion, he was a 14-time All-Star and won an MVP Player award in 2007.
Aguero’s inclusion on this list may come as a surprise to many soccer fans. This is because he is one of the greatest strikers in Premier League history. First of all, he lit up La Liga with Atletico Madrid. Then, he moved to Manchester City where he played a key role in their development into one of the best sides in the world. But it didn’t start out as well as all of that.
He made his debut for Argentina’s Independiente in 2002. Aguero made just a single appearance that year without any goals. The following season he played five times but still didn’t score. Once again, it may seem harsh to call him terrible, but he certainly took his time in developing. Finally, in his third season, he began to feature more and scored five goals.
Aikman only played 12 seasons in the NFL, but he achieved a lot at that time. Being the quarterback of America’s team who brings them back to glory has to count for something. In short, winning three championships with the Cowboys made him into a superstar.
That’s why, despite passing for only 30,000 yards, he’s in the Hall of Fame. However, Aikman had a forgettable rookie season. He only threw for 1,749 yards and 9 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. Those aren’t elite numbers, but he rebounded to become one of the most respected stars in the Cowboys’ history. Aikman is now positioned as one of the most popular football analysts on network television.
Donovan is the greatest MLS player of all-time. The LA Galaxy legend also briefly played for Everton in the Premier League. He shares the position of his country’s top scorer with 57 goals and also is the only US player with over 50 goals and 50 assists. The former USMNT captain is the highest-scoring American in World Cup history.
However, Donovan had a very innocuous start to life as a professional. His first season saw him make just seven appearances for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. After struggling to adapt to life in Europe, he moved back to the US. That’s when his career really took off and his journey began.
There really isn’t much to say about Bree’s rookie’s season. He only played in one game and finished with 221 passing yards and his first career passing touchdown. Initially, there were extreme doubts about his height and the power of his arm. Brees was able to prove these totally wrong.
It’s hilarious now to think about those worries because Brees is one of the best pure passers in NFL history. He has led the NFL in passing yards a record seven times and in passing touchdowns a record-tying four times. The Super Bowl champion is also an 11-time Pro Bowler. His best records are two greats – he owns the career marks for both passing touchdowns and passing yards in NFL history. They’re going to be exceptionally tough for any young quarterback to break.
It’s crazy how careers can suddenly change course. Carter is an NFL Hall-of-Famer but nothing from his first couple of seasons suggested he would ever make it. In his rookie year, he ran for five yards in nine games. That was a terrible return and things didn’t get much better over the next couple of seasons. While his numbers rose, so did his bad behavior. The Eagles cut him for his off-field conduct.
But Carter turned his life around and deserves a lot of credit for that. He played in eight consecutive Pro Bowls and was one of the Vikings’ greatest ever receivers. Furthermore, in 1994, he led the NFL in receptions. One reason why many athletes perform badly at a young age is that they lack maturity. A bit of age and experience can do wonders for their careers.
The first pitcher in major league history to win the Cy Young Award in four consecutive seasons, Maddux was a phenom during his prime. He won the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 1995 and became a Hall of Famer in 2014. Due to his long list of accomplishments, you might be surprised his first season was terrible.
Maddux compiled a 6-14 record with a 5.61 ERA in his first full season with the Chicago Cubs in 1987. Nobody expected him to become an 18-time Gold Glove Award winner. Maddux also holds the record for most seasons finishing top 10 in the league in wins with 18.
A Broncos legend, Elway spent all 16 seasons of his playing career in Denver. Initially drafted by the Baltimore Colts, Elway famously said he would refuse to play for the downtrodden franchise, forcing a trade to Denver for a better future. However, his rookie season was definitely terrible. Check out some of these statistics.
Elway started 10 games in 1983, throwing seven touchdown passes to 14 interceptions and completing just 47.5% of his passes. The Broncos lost patience after three straight losses and benched him for the rest of the season. It all turned out well when Elway became a two-time Super Bowl winner and nine-time Pro Bowler.
‘The Black Mamba’ is one of the greatest players in basketball history. But he didn’t have the most inspiring start to his career with a very average rookie season. He only managed to average about 15 minutes per game, scoring 7.6 ppg on 41.7 percent from the field. It was a slow start to an incredible career.
Of course, he did come to the NBA directly from high school. Furthermore, he was the youngest player in the history of the league at the time. However, the following year he truly sprung into life and emerged as one of the most exciting stars on the Lakers’ roster. The rest is history.
It’s easy to forget that Favre played for the Atlanta Falcons. But failure there seemed inevitable. Jerry Ganville never wanted him and he only attempted four passes as a Falcon. After a terrible but blessedly short time in Atlanta, the Falcons traded him to Green Bay. Then, he then became one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
A three-time MVP, Favre held the award for consecutive years from 1995-97. He also won the Super Bowl in 1997 and made the Pro Bowl 11 times. Furthermore, Favre led the NFL in touchdowns four times and was the NFL’s all-time leader in starts and wins.
One of the best point guards to play the game, Nash was a brilliant player. Despite never getting an NBA ring, he’s still a legendary figure. The Canadian didn’t have a good start to life though, with a terrible rookie season. Nash averaged 3.3 points per game, 2.1 assists, and shot 42.3 percent from the field.
Those are bleak numbers, but he went on to prove his doubters wrong. He was the fulcrum of an excellent Phoenix Suns’ team featuring Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, and Leandro Barbosa. In short, the Canadian was a two-time MVP award winner for a reason.
Depending on who you ask, Manning may just be the best quarterback in NFL history. However, the fact is that his first season in the big time was terrible. While his passing was good, he led the league in interceptions with an astounding 28. Meanwhile, the Colts were terrible and only managed three wins.
However, he became a two-time Super Bowl champion, a five-time NFL MVP, made the Pro Bowl 14 times, and became the Colts leader in all major statistical categories for quarterbacks. So it’s fair to say everything turned out ok for ‘The Sheriff.’