Lots of athletes who become professional stars dominated the competition since the time they were little kids. But there are also plenty of stars that come from out of nowhere.
There can be a bunch of different reasons for why they went unnoticed. Maybe they were too small or went to a school in the middle of nowhere. But one thing is for sure, talent rises to the top. Below are some examples of the sports world’s most impressive late bloomers.
Le’Veon Bell was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 48th pick in the 2013 draft. He’s been one of the NFL’s best dual-threat running backs catching the ball almost as well as he runs it.
Bell wasn’t a big deal in High School, though. ESPN rated him as only a 2 star prospect and the 211th best running back in the country. He eventually found himself at Michigan State, but that was only after a number of the school’s other recruits got in trouble.
Since he entered the league in 2011, JJ Watt has wreaked havoc on NFL offenses. He has collected an incredible 96.0 sacks in his career and has been named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year 3 times.
Would you believe he wasn’t even recruited as a defensive player out of high school? He went to Central Michigan and played tight end. After a year, he transferred to Wisconsin where he was allowed to play defense and was selected in 2011 with the 11th pick.
Growing up in Killingworth, Connecticut, Jeff Bagwell was a superstar athlete in High School. It just so happened, however, that his sport of choice was not baseball. While he did play baseball, soccer was his first love and he set the state’s goal-scoring record.
The University of Hartford offered him a scholarship in baseball, which he accepted. From that point on he focused on hammering baseballs becoming a star with the Houston Astros and a Hall of Famer in 2017.
Paul George has developed into one of the 10 best players in the NBA. He is a true two way player who scores easily and defends his position like it’s the most important thing in the world.
Coming out of High School he was largely ignored by the country’s major college programs and ended up going to Fresno State. He was underestimated again during the 2010 draft where he was only drafted 10th overall. Thankfully, everything has worked out since then.
John Starks took a long and winding road to Madison Square Garden. But once he got there, as a member of the Knicks, he became a cult hero. His hard-nosed and gritty play won the admiration of the New York crowd.
Starks was considered a nobody at his Oklahoma High School. He began his college career at Rogers State where he wasn’t even on the main roster. After bouncing around a while he ended up at Oklahoma State. Undrafted by the NBA, he worked his way to the Knicks from the D League.
Ryan Howard was an underestimated prospect. The Phillies already had Jim Thome at first base, so Howard didn’t make the majors until he was almost 25 years old. Once he did, he slugged 382 home runs and won the 2006 National League MVP Award.
He was even more underestimated during his High School days in Wildwood, Missouri. Howard received no scholarship offers an had to walk on at Missouri State University. He became a star there and was drafted by the Phillies in 2001.
Growing up in La Mesa, California, Alex Smith had plenty of success at Helix High School playing alongside Reggie Bush. Overshadowed by his teammate, Smith was a 2-star prospect who wasn’t even ranked near the top of his class among quarterback prospects.
By the time he finished his college career at Utah, he became the first 2-star prospect to ever be selected first overall in the NFL draft. He has had a strong career since then, throwing for over 34,000 yards and making three Pro Bowls.
When Dennis Rodman was growing up, his two older sisters were basketball superstars and he was a bit of a shrimp. He was actually cut from his High School basketball team for being too small.
Rodman experienced a significant growth spurt in college and gave basketball another try. The Worm was selected by the Pistons in the 2nd round of the 1986 NBA Draft. He ended up winning five NBA Titles and was also a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
When Stephen Strasburg was a Junior in High School, his win-loss record was 1-10. He got a good bit better his Senior year, though his dream school of Stanford showed no interest in him. He ended up playing for Tony Gwynn at San Diego State.
The righty began his college career in poor condition and was overweight. By the time his college tenure ended, though, he was the number one overall pick in the MLB Draft. Strasburg has made 3 All-Star teams and won his first World Series ring with the 2019 Washington Nationals.
While attending High School in Virginia, Russell Wilson was a star baseball player who attracted the attention of many MLB teams. He was also a quarterback on the football team but was only rated as a two-star prospect.
Always underestimated because of his height, Wilson attended college at North Carolina State. The coaches did not love him playing both baseball and football so he transferred to Wisconsin. He was drafted in the 3rd Round by the Seahawks and 7 Pro Bowls later, it looks like they made the right decision.
Stephen Curry has some serious athletic bloodlines. His mother played volleyball at Virginia Tech and his father, Dell, is one of the greatest players in Hokies history. After his High School, career though, Virginia Tech wasn’t willing to give him a scholarship and he attended Davidson.
It didn’t take Curry long to show VT and every other major school that they made a mistake on him. He took Davidson deep into March Madness twice. Since being drafted by the Warriors in 2009, he’s been a perennial superstar and one of the best players in the game.
Mike Piazza took quite an unconventional path to baseball stardom. He played his High School ball in Pennsylvania and spent one season with the Miami Hurricanes. After getting no playing time at the U, he transferred to a Miami Community College.
The Dodgers drafted Piazza in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft and only did so because LA legend Tommy Lasorda was friends with Piazza’s father. The slugger made Lasorda look like a genius becoming one of the greatest catchers of all time and a 2016 inductee into the Hall of Fame.
When attending High School in Fort Pierce, Florida, Khalil Mack didn’t think that football was his way to a college scholarship. But after a knee injury while playing basketball, he rededicated himself to football. Only a two-star prospect, he accepted a football scholarship to Buffalo.
The competition he faced in upstate New York wasn’t quite up to snuff and Mack completely dominated. In 2014, he became the only Buffalo player ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft going 5th overall. Since then he’s made 5 Pro Bowls and was the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.
It shouldn’t have been hard to spot Damian Lillard in High School. He began his career at St. Joseph Notre Dame High, the same school as Jason Kidd. After difficulty getting playing time, he transferred out.
The lightly recruited point guard ended up playing his college ball at Weber State. Despite playing at a tiny school, he began to get noticed on a national level. The Portland Trailblazers made the shrewd decision to draft him in 2012 and he has been a megastar ever since.
Known for his speed and great defense, Brett Gardner has been a staple of the Yankees lineup for the last 12 seasons. The South Carolinian has won a World Series and a Gold Glove Award to go along with stolen base and triples titles.
Gardner wasn’t recruited out of High School at all. He made the College of Charleston baseball team after they held an open tryout. By the end of his tenure there, he was one of the best college players in the Nation and was drafted by the Yankees in the 3rd Round.
TY Hilton was an electric but skinny player while attending Miami Springs High School. The ranking services like Rivals weren’t impressed, rating him as only a 2-star wide receiver. He decided to attend Florida International University.
Hilton burst onto the national scene during his senior season when he dominated the Louisville Cardinals for 201 yards. The Colts selected him in the 3rd Round of the 2012 Draft and he’s been to 4 Pro Bowls for Indianapolis.
When CJ McCollum began his freshman year in Canton, Ohio, he only stood five feet and two inches tall. There were a couple of growth spurts in High School, but many big recruiting sites didn’t even have him ranked.
He managed to hook on at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He and the team made their mark by defeating Duke in 2012. McCollum went to school all four years and the decision paid off when he was selected 10th overall in 2013. He has formed one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourts with Damian Lillard.
Growing up in British Columbia, the sport of baseball was always in Larry Walker’s rearview mirror. While he played baseball in High School, he was a good enough hockey goalie to be drafted by the Canadiens.
When Walker’s hockey career fizzled out he was signed by an Expos scout who noticed him during a tournament. Walker became a very big star in the majors, winning the 1997 MVP and being elected into the Hall of Fame in 2020.
Players who become All-Stars at their chosen sport typically dominate in High School. Tony Romo’s High School squad from Burlington, Wisconsin didn’t do that, going just 3-6 his senior year. Romo settled for a scholarship from Division I-AA Eastern Illinois.
As one might expect, Romo was quite good against the lower-level competition. He went undrafted but managed to catch on with the Cowboys as a backup. When he got his chance he ran with it, making 4 Pro Bowls in his career.
Kenny Lofton was a 6-time All-Star who you can make a pretty good argument for a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Throughout his 16 year career, the centerfielder won 4 Gold Gloves and led the league in stolen bases 5 times.
He wasn’t a star on his high school baseball team, though, because he didn’t play. Lofton went to the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship and tried out for the baseball team during his junior year.