With four MVPs donning Wisconsin sports jerseys, including one new member of the MVP club, it’s a special time in Wisconsin athletics. These are the 19 biggest names in Wisconsin sports in 2019, balancing visibility and scope of achievement — as well as 10 villains we could have done without.
19. Eric Bledsoe
The point guard finished 2018-19 scoring 15.9 points per game, with 4.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists and a spot on the NBA All-Defensive first team. He’s carried that over into the new season, where he averages 15.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. The Bucks signed Bledsoe to a four-year extension in March.
18. Brook Lopez
Lopez was a revelation for the Bucks as a free-agent signing for the 2018-19 season, and his magnum opus came March 29 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Raptors, where he had 29 points and 11 rebounds. Lopez has gotten off to a slow start offensively in 2019-20, though he remains a force contesting shots and was essential to Milwaukee’s blueprint last season, putting the Bucks on the doorstep of the finals.
17. Ethan Happ
The Badgers big man finished his senior season with an average of 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and earned second-team All American honors for a team that finished 23-11 overall and 14-6 in the Big Ten. He started all 139 games of his career, ranking second in Big Ten history, and he became the first Big Ten player since 1981 to finish with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. He finished with 2,130 points, third in Badgers scoring history. Specifically in 2019, he had 26 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a win over previously unbeaten Michigan on Jan. 19.
16. Beata Nelson
The Verona native and University of Wisconsin swimmer set an NCAA record with her time of 1:47.24 to win the national title in the 200-yard backstroke, her third national title of the weekend. She won the individual medley with the second-fastest time in event history (1:50.79) and won the backstroke with the fastest mark in NCAA finals history (49.18). She became the first Badgers swimmer to win two national titles, let alone three.
15. Brandon Woodruff
It was a breakout year for the Brewers ace, who finished with an 11-3 record and 3.62 ERA in 121 innings, with a 1.142 WHIP and 143 strikeouts. He earned his first all-star berth, but we’ll have to wonder what could have happened if Woodruff hadn’t sustained a strained oblique midway through the year. He was still a force when he worked four innings in the NL wild-card game against Washington.
14. Dana Rettke
The Big Ten women’s volleyball player of the year led the Badgers to a conference title and a trip to the national championship game. The Illinois native also led the nation in hitting percentage (.423). Already a two-time All-American, the 6-foot-8 junior guided the Badgers to the Final Four as Wisconsin won all four of its first postseason matches in three sets to advance into the national semifinal. That was followed by a stunning four-set win over the No. 1-ranked Baylor Bears to reach the title match against Stanford. Rettke was huge against the Bears, with 19 kills, three aces and eight blocks.
13. Annie Pankowski
The California native was one of three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award recognizing the best women’s hockey player in the country, and she was at the forefront as Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team won the 2019 national title. The WCHA player of the year had 17 goals and 30 assists on the season to lead the Badgers to the gold.
12. Khris Middleton
Middleton made his first all-star team in February and has been the steady second option for the championship-caliber Milwaukee Bucks. He signed a contract in the off-season to stick around, and he’s averaging 18 points in the 2019 portion of the current season, shooting 48% from the field and 40% from three-point range.
11. Aaron Jones
Stats don’t tell the whole story for Jones. Through 15 games, he has 16 touchdowns and 984 rushing yards (4.7 per carry) and 431 receiving yards on 47 catches, plus three more scores. Those are fine numbers, but Jones has been invaluable overall, providing a threat in the running game that some stats regard as one of the best in the NFL.
10. Yasmani Grandal
The Brewers signed Grandal to a one-year deal, and he delivered, with an excellent .848 OPS and career-best 28 homers and 77 RBI, anchored by a tremendous final month of the season. The 2019 all-star also hit a two-run homer in the NL wild-card game that for a while looked like might provide the winning tallies, and he finished with a superb .380 on-base percentage. His departure in free agency for the White Sox gave him a well-deserved contract, but it leaves a gaping hole in Milwaukee’s 2020 roster.
8 and 9. Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith
How do we separate these guys? They’ve got the same name, were signed in free agency by the Green Bay Packers on the same day and conduct postgame press conferences side by side. And they’ve also introduced an edge we haven’t seen in Green Bay’s recent defenses. Having already secured double-digit sacks apiece with two games to play, they are two huge reasons why the Packers started out 12-3. Za’Darius had the performance of his season against the Vikings on Dec. 23, registering 3.5 sacks.
7. Josh Hader
Many will remember the frustrating eighth inning he had in the NL wild-card game, but he was among the game’s best relievers yet again for the Milwaukee Brewers, with a 2.62 ERA, 37 saves, 138 strikeouts in just 75 innings and a 0.806 WHIP. Video game numbers for the lefty, even though he did surrender a notable 15 home runs. He’s a big reason why the Brewers were able to reach the playoffs for a second straight year.
6. Markus Howard
The Marquette sharpshooter was named Big East player of the year and announced he was coming back for his senior season in 2019-20, when he promptly broke the school’s all-time scoring mark. He finished the 2018-19 season at 25.0 points per game, with 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists to boot. He’s shown up on numerous first-team All-American preseason lists, and he’s followed it up with a 40-point and 51-point game on back-to-back nights in Orlando, not to mention his record-setting 53-point performance in January against Creighton.
5. Aaron Rodgers
Statistically, this hasn’t been Aaron Rodgers’ best year. But as he’s said, he’s more invested in wins than stats at this point in his career, and it’s hard to argue the Packers still draw much of what makes them “special” from their future Hall of Fame quarterback. He delivered his first career perfect quarterback rating in a win over the Raiders, still has an uncanny ability to protect the football, and has led Green Bay to a 12-3 start and put them on a course to a playoff return.
4. Jonathan Taylor
As with Rodgers, you could argue this wasn’t Taylor’s best year statistically. But he rushed for more than 200 yards in three straight contests and caught a huge touchdown pass in the Wisconsin Badgers’ win over Minnesota to get them a berth in the Big Ten title game. He followed up with 146 yards rushing in the championship game against Ohio State. He’s got the most rushing yards of any player in NCAA history through his junior year, and he should make an excellent pro running back. In December, he was named the Doak Walker Award winner for a second straight year.
3. Rose Lavelle
Lavelle, a former Wisconsin Badgers soccer star, scored in the FIFA World Cup final as the United States went on to win the title. The 24-year-old, a three-time All American at UW, delivered a breakout performance during the World Cup. She played in every match, with two goals against Thailand, as well. Technically, she’s not a native of Wisconsin, nor is she playing for a Wisconsin-specific team, but it’s our list and we’re counting her.
2. Christian Yelich
It’s a little preposterous that he’s ranked No. 2 on any list. The 2018 MVP somehow outperformed his previous year in 2019, belting 44 homers with a 1.100 OPS (only the second MLB player to reach that mark in the past decade) as he flirted with another MVP and led the Brewers back to the playoffs. His .429 on-base percentage led the league and he won a second straight batting title at .329. A crushing injury in September kept him from being a full-time participant in the team’s heroic 20-7 finish to the year, but Yelich remains a full-fledged superstar.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
There’s a new sheriff in the NBA. The 2018-19 NBA MVP was everything to the Milwaukee Bucks, scoring 27.7 points per game with 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per contest. He put the Bucks on the doorstep of their first NBA Finals since 1974 with a trip to the Eastern Conference finals (first time since 2001), and the Bucks won a league-best 60 games in the regular season. He was one of two “captains” for the NBA All-Star Game and threw down a dunk for the ages, one of many spectacular entries on his highlight reel. As fans wait anxiously to see if he will sign the supermax extension to remain in Milwaukee for the majority of his career, he’s back to leading the Bucks in 2019-20, guiding them to a 18-game winning streak and already netting one NBA Eastern Conference player of the month honor (he won four of those last season and two in 2019).