By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
If we’re being honest, yesterday’s post on the 10 biggest moments of the year in Boston sports ended up having a pretty negative tone. That’s 2020 after all. Still, we can’t end the year with that sour taste, so let’s wrap things up with a positive – the 10 best athletes in Boston in 2020.
Most athletes rely on routine and repetition to perform at a high level. This year didn’t exactly allow either of those, and mental toughness became an even more important trait than usual. Who rose above the new widespread challenges to put on a show?
Keep in mind this list isn’t the best players who played in Boston during 2020, but those who had the best performances over the past year.
Honorable Mentions: Patrice Bergeron, Brandon Carlo, Jakobi Meyers, Matthew Slater, Christian Vazquez
10. Jake Bailey
It’s hard to argue any Patriots player had a more successful year than Jake Bailey. In his second NFL season, the 2019 fifth-round pick was one of, if not the best punter in the league. His performance earned him nicknames such as “The Weapon” and “Ol’ Reilable.”
Through 16 weeks, his net distance of 46.4 yards per punt ranks at the top of the list. He’s had 28 kicks downed inside the 20 yard line (second-most in the NFL), with only three touchbacks.
With the Patriots’ offense struggling more and more as the season went on, Bailey proved to be key in keeping the team in games. His ability to flip the field and give the defense room to work with kept points off the board at times.
As Bailey will tell you though, his performance didn’t exist in a bubble. It was a true team effort, so he shares this spot on our list with Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, etc.
9. Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart did plenty of Marcus Smarting in 2020. He started the year with what may have been the best single-game performance in the NBA, when he put up a career-high 37 points along with eight assists, five rebounds, and four steals in a loss to the Phoenix Suns.
He carried the strong play all the way into March, and averaged 20 points per game over the final four games before the shutdown. On March 20, he became one of the first NBA players to test positive for COVID-19.
In the bubble, Smart put together the best playoff run of his career so far. He averaged 15/5/5, and was instrumental defensively as the Celtics held the defending champion Raptors to under 100 points in all four of their Eastern Conference Semi wins.
To close things out, Smart reportedly threw a chair during a locker room argument after the C’s feel down 2-0 against the Heat in the conference finals. While this didn’t ultimately spark a turnaround, Boston was able to force the series to six games.
8. Tuukka Rask
Let’s talk about Rask’s regular season before we get to what happened in the bubble. It’s easy to forget that leading up to the shutdown, he may have been the best goalie in hockey.
Between January 1 and the NHL’s pause in mid-March, Rask posted a 11-4-1 record with a 1.81 GAA and 93.8 save percentage. On January 31, he stopped 37 of the 38 shots he saw in a 2-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets. That was one of seven 30-plus save games he had in a 16-game stretch. With Rask’s stellar play in net, the Bruins were able to capture the NHL’s Presidents Trophy.
Unfortunately, the COVID pause took Rask out of his rhythm. He allowed 11 goals over just four starts between the seeding game and first round of the playoffs, before opting out of the bubble two games into the series against Carolina. What he could have accomplished with a full, traditional season is one of the biggest ‘what if’ questions of the COVID sports shutdown.
7. Brad Marchand
The second-leading scorer on the NHL’s top offensive team, Brad Marchand was well on his way to his second 100-plus point season before the league shut down. His 59 assists led the team, and his +25 plus/minus was best among all forwards, and second on the roster only behind Zdeno Chara’s +26.
For many Bruins players, their regular season success didn’t carry over to the bubble. Marchand was one of few exceptions. He led the team with seven goals and 12 points in the playoffs, and was one of only three players to finish without a negative plus/minus.
6. Matt Turner
Matt Turner was the best goalie in town in 2020, and may have been the best in his league as well. The 26-year-old had a breakout season for the New England Revolution, allowing just 24 goals in 22 starts. He finished with a club-record six clean sheets, tied for the fourth-most in MLS.
What made Turner’s year even more impressive was his ability to elevate his play at the biggest moments. During the MLS is Back tournament in July he turned in two shutouts in four games, including a five-save clean sheet against DC that helped the Revs reach the round of 16.
When the playoffs rolled around in November, Turner brought more of the same. He allowed just three goals on 19 shots, as the Revs made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Turner was voted as runner-up for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year for 2020, the best finish by a Revolution goalie since Matt Reis in 2008. He was also named the team MVP.
5. Xander Bogaerts
Yes, there was a lone bright spot for the Red Sox this season. Despite everybody around him struggling, Bogaerts managed to hit .300 in 2020, with 11 home runs and 28 RBIs while playing 56 of the Red Sox 60 games.
Even once the Red Sox were well past eliminated, he continued to produce. The 28-year-old recorded at least one hit in 16 of his last 17 starts, during which he hit .343. In that same span, he struck out just eight times.
It would have been easy for Bogaerts to give up on the 2020 season, but he played at an elite level from wire to wire. As the Red Sox undergo a rebuild, it’s very possible he emerges as the face of the organization going forwards.
4. J.C. Jackson
As Patriots training camp was coming to a close, J.C. Jackson told the media “I can cover anything.” He wasn’t wrong.
In a year began with Stephon Gilmore being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, it was Jackson who shined the most during the 2020 calendar. Jackson intercepted a career-high eight passes during the first 15 games of the 2020 season, trailing only Xavien Howard for the league lead. At one point during the season, he grabbed a pick in five straight games. He also recorded a career-best 13 pass deflections.
Just three years ago, Jackson was a rookie UDFA in Patriots training camp. Now, there’s talk about him replacing Gilmore as the team’s top cornerback in 2021. That’s likely not a conversation if not for the massive leap he took in 2020, his third season in the NFL.
3. Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown did it all in 2020, on and off the floor. It started with an unbelievable year-four jump for the 2016 third-overall pick. Brown nearly doubled his scoring from the 2018-2019 season, becoming a 20 point per game player in 2020. Working more as a slasher, Brown began to maximize on his raw physical ability, tapping into his potential and helping add a dimension to a Celtics’ offense that was toop-10 in the NBA in scoring.
Brown’s role in the bubble only increased following the loss for Gordon Hayward. He was given more scoring chances and took advantage, scoring 20-plus points in 11 of the C’s 17 playoff games. The postseason also saw him emerge as a presence on the glass – he averaged 7.5 rebounds per game, second most on the team behind Jayson Tatum.
What Brown will really be remembered for in 2020 though is the work he did (and continues to do) off the floor. In May, Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to his home town of Atlanta to help lead peaceful protests. When the NBA resumed, he was a vocal leader for the NBPA in how the bubble would be handled, and making sure players would still be able to use their platform while participating.
2. Jayson Tatum
2020 was the year Jayson Tatum entered the NBA’s elite tier. The 22-year-old saw his scoring increase by almost 10 points per game, from 15.7 the year prior to 23.4. He was named to his first All-Star game and his first All-NBA team.
Tatum kept that rolling once he got to the bubble. He averaged a double-double in the playoffs, with 26 points and 10 rebounds per game. His five 30-plus point games were the most in a single playoff by a Celtic since 1988, and his five 25 point, 10 rebound, five assist games are are the most ever by an NBA player before their 23rd birthday.
As Tatum was passing elite players on lists left and right, his play reflected it. There was much more confidence in his game over the past season, as if he knew this ascension was coming. With another similar leap in 2021, MVP talk won’t be far behind.
1. David Pastrnak
David Patrnak wasn’t just the best player in Boston in 2020, there’s an argument to be made he was the best player in hockey. He finished the regular season tied for the league lead in goals, “doing the thing” 19 times between New Years and the shutdown.
His 10 game winning goals were tied for the most in the league. If the season had played out, he would have blown by 100 points. Pasta finished fourth in Hart Trophy voting after the season.
It wasn’t just the raw numbers that made Pastrnak’s 2020 so impressive. Like Tatum, there was a different aura around him once he put on his uniform. He went from being a budding scoring option next to Bergeron and Marchand to a true well-rounded superstar.
Plus, don’t forget he made his acting debut as well, with his Dunkin adds running every other spot during the Cup playoffs. “Hey ref, check your voicemail you missed some calls!”
Let’s end the year with some positivity for a Boston fanbase that saw a mass exodus in 2020. The top four players on this list are under 26-years-old, with multiple years of team control on their deals. Overall, only two players of the 10 are older than 30.
Boston lost a lot of talent in 2020. A lot of talent. But there’s hope. The next generation of stars is already here. They have a lot to live up to, but there’s still plenty worth watching in Boston sports’ immediate future.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com