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NEXT CLASS OF 2005

CARLOS BELTRAN

It was the old scout in Omar Minaya, not the new GM, who convinced Mets ownership to sign Carlos Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million, no-trade contract. During his years as an area scout for the Texas Rangers, as he eyeballed thousands of kids on thousands of fields in Latin America, Minaya learned to look at a player not for what he was, but for what he could be. That is why Beltran can be NEXT even with a seven-year body of major league work. Look at the 27-year-old centerfielder the way Minaya does. Ignore the numbers Beltran has put up in KC and Houston—yearly averages of .284, 27 homers and 104 RBIs—which are more Richard Hidalgo than Vlad Guerrero. Watch him run, hit and throw instead. See the easy bat speed from both sides of the plate. Listen to the explosive sound of the ball coming off his stick. Note the way his throws appear to sink before they plane off and carry to their destination. Remember what he did for the Astros last post-season, when he hit .435 with eight homers in 12 games, and filled nightly highlights with Web Gems. “Phenomenal,” says Willie Randolph, who’ll manage Beltran and a new cast of Mets. “It says a lot about him that he was able to raise his play at the right time.” There’s no doubt in Beltran's mind that New York is the right place. “I was comfortable in Kansas City,” he says. “Maybe I needed less comfort. Maybe I needed the pressure to get a little more out of myself.” Oh, there’s more. “More than what people saw in those bright lights,” says Royals GM Allard Baird, the old scout in him talking. Forget what Beltran was. Imagine what he could be. -JEFF BRADLEY


DWYANE WADE

Graduating third in your rookie class may seem like no big deal. Unless that class includes LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and your name is Dwyane Wade. At a hair under 6'4" (and that’s a half-inch hair), Wade possesses both the power and the quicks to brush off little guards like flies, muscle to the hoop, absorb contact and still throw down some over-the-shoulder sideways dunk you'll be two-waying your boys about the next day. Then the native Southsider will jog back down court with that Chicago cool, like it happens all the time. “I’m running out of ways to describe him,” says Heat headman Stan Van Gundy. Not to worry, Coach. Your boss has something to add. “Dwyane is probably the fastest learner I’ve ever been around,” says team president Pat Riley, who merely compares him to Magic Johnson. Wade’s smarts, along with the addition of a certain big man, have put Miami back on the basketball map. At 31-13, the Heat are off to the second-best start in franchise history. During an eight-game stretch that ended Dec. 30 against the Pistons, Wade averaged 27.3 points, 8.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds. That night, the 23-year-old collected his first career triple-double—31 points, 10 boards, 10 dimes—prompting Detroit coach Larry Brown to call it the best individual performance he’d seen this season. (And that was after LeBron dropped 43 on his squad.) “Since Day 1, all we’ve asked him to do is be himself,” Van Gundy says. Which means Wade is free to bring all of his talents to the table. He’s equally capable of dominating a game or feeding and caring for his notably large teammate. “How good is he?” asks Shaq. “MVP good.” And that’s a big deal. –CHRIS PALMER


MIKE WILLIAMS

One year, you’re the biggest receiver on the draft board, a likely top-10 pick, coming off a 95-catch season for a national championship team. The next, you’re stuck with the sleeper label. How’d that happen to Mike Williams? Thank the warmhearted folks at the NCAA and the U.S. Supreme Court, who put him in mothballs for a whole season. After a judge in the Maurice Clarett case overturned the NFL’s draft eligibility rules last winter, Williams thought it was safe to sign with an agent. The league’s subsequent appeal kept him out of not only the pros (a player must be three years removed from high school to enter the draft), but college ball, too (thanks to the agent). Now, after cooling his heels on the sideline, the 6'5" wideout from USC is poised to become the impact rookie of this year’s class. “I was kinda hoping everybody else forgot about him,” says one NFC scout. “He’s money in the red zone. He’s a cross between Cris Carter and Michael Irvin, only he's a whole lot bigger.” In fact, Williams has gathered tips on route-running from both Carter and Irvin, and he’s devoted himself to erasing negatives from last year’s scouting files, namely the notion that he’s not a burner. He relocated to suburban Atlanta in October to train with Chip Smith, who specializes in prepping athletes for the NFL combine. Consider it time well spent: Williams has run 4.43 on a fast track, and his supersize frame, which once carried 245 pounds, now totes a rock-solid 229. “Man,” he says, “I’m like a supermodel right now.” A supermodel with an appetite. Williams, now 21, was on the treadmill while USC was dominating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and he bristled when announcers made light of his situation. “I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been,” he says. “But I’m as hungry to be great as I am to be drafted. To me, being a top-five pick won’t be the end-all.” Nope. Just the beginning. –BRUCE FELDMAN


BEN ROETHLISBERGER

As the starting point guard on the Findlay High hoops team in Ohio, Ben Roethlisberger made a habit of chatting up the refs before the start of the third quarter. He’d ask about a specific call or debate an obscure rule, hoping that a distracted zebra might hand him the ball out of bounds without double-checking the possession arrow. Sometimes it worked. “That’s Ben for you, always looking for an edge, always three steps ahead of everyone else,” says Jerry Snodgrass, Findlay’s athletic director and Bens former hoops coach. “Here’s a 15-year-old kid outsmarting adult refs. It just made you think, what will he be doing when he grows up?” Now we know. The 22-year-old Roethlisberger made 2004 a season of firsts. He was the first NFL quarterback to win Rookie of the Year; the first to start his career with 14 consecutive wins; the first Steeler to earn nearly $12 million in one season (thanks to incentive clauses); the first rook to lead the league in jersey sales; the first player to have a line of beef jerky named after him; the first NFL star to date pro golfer Natalie Gulbis; and the first to change one of the game’s longest-held theories: that you can’t win with a kid under center. “If you’re talking about what it is for quarterbacks, Ben has it,” says Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.“ And he’s only gonna get better.” What will Big Ben do next? NFL refs, consider yourselves warned. –DAVID FLEMING


SIDNEY CROSBY

It was a matchup that promised great passing, superb stickhandling and sublime scoring. But when Canadian sensation Sidney Crosby crossed paths with Russian wonder Alexander Ovechkin last month at the World Juniors in Grand Forks, N.D., the result was something more primal. Midway through the first period, Ovechkin carried the puck down the left wing and pulled up at Canada’s blue line. Crosby, giving away four inches and 20 pounds, didn’t hesitate to lay hip and shoulder into his opponent, sending last year’s No.1 draft pick flying. Ovechkin struggled to his feet as the crowd roared. After a few ineffective shifts, he took himself out and watched the game from the runway, his right arm in a sling. Canada won 6-1, taking gold, and the 17-year-old Crosby dispelled any worries that fame might be going to his head. With six goals and nine points in six tournament games, he kept up the scoring pace that led the Canadian Junior Leagues last season. More important, he was a team player, moving from center to wing, flying around with the desperation of someone just hoping to make the roster. Try to remember Gretzky or Lemieux turning a game around with a body check. “Crosby made a statement,” says Mike Sands, Calgary’s chief amateur scout. “I think a lot of people were surprised he hit him that hard.” Yes, the attention heaped on hockey’s newest savior gets old. All season, Quebec League goons have hounded the 5'10", 185-pound Crosby, who’s scoring a goal a game for Rimouski Oceanic. Amid the chaos in hockey this season, speculation about where he’ll play never lets up. When his title-game jersey was swiped, the hunt for the shirt and the perp was front-page news in Canada. (Both were found.) The kid is learning the same lesson he taught Ovechkin: always keep your head up. -GARE JOYCE