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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Optimistic about 2017

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 1

Fisher column logo2Despite being a year largely filled with stumbling and bumbling by our local professional teams, 2016 provided reasons for optimism for 2017.

The highlight of 2016 was unquestionably Villanova’s national championship. We’ll be watching highlights of the Ryan Arcidiacono-to-Kris Jenkins game-winning play on NCAA tournament highlights for decades. For our four major pro teams, however, only the Flyers won more games than they lost.

Still, 2016 provided the promise that could turn 2017 into a wonderful year. Each team, with the possible exception of the Phillies, saw the debut of a player who could be a franchise cornerstone.

The Eagles traded up twice to draft North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the NFL Draft. Wentz has cooled off since an incredible start, but he has all the tools to be a franchise quarterback.

2016 also featured the long-awaited debut of Sixers center Joel Embiid. When in the lineup, Embiid has provided Sixers fans with the first legitimate reason for excitement in several seasons. Embiid unquestionably has star quality written all over him.

Although not as highly celebrated as Wentz and Embiid, rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov has rapidly elevated his game to the point that he is, arguably, already be the Flyers’ best defenseman. Provorov doesn’t turn 20 until Jan. 13.

The Phillies seemed to opt for quantity rather than quality, but I mean that in a complimentary way. They may not have established a franchise cornerstone for the future, but the Phillies seem to have a number of players who could play important roles.

This was not a successful season for the Eagles. They finished 7-9 after a promising 3-0 start. Nobody will admit to it, but there was Super Bowl talk in the Delaware Valley after the Eagles reached the bye week at 3-0. The wins over the Browns and Bears were expected, and, in hindsight, we can see that these were two of the worst teams in the NFL. But the scintillating dismantlement of the Steelers during Week 3 sparked unbridled enthusiasm about the Eagles’ potential. Attempts to temper the enthusiasm, such as the upgrading of my Eagles prediction from 5-11 to 8-8, were derided as being ridiculously pessimistic.

The reality check came after the bye week. The Eagles lost nine of their next 11 games.

The silver lining, though, is Wentz. He endured some growing pains, but he gained valuable experience while starting 16 games. Although the quarterback is just one player, it seems easier to find the pieces to build around a quarterback than to find a franchise quarterback after putting the other pieces in place.

There are still many questions surrounding the Eagles. Quarterback isn’t one of them.

Speaking of unbridled enthusiasm, it is a pleasure to watch Embiid play with tremendous energy and joy. He leads the Sixers in scoring (18.9 points per game), rebounding (7.3) and blocked shots (2.4).

Yes, the Sixers enter 2017 tied with the Nets for the worst record (8-24) in the NBA. Yes, there is reason to question whether Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel can work effectively with Embiid. There isn’t an NBA-quality starting point guard or shooting guard on the roster – at least not until top overall draft pick Ben Simmons is healthy. But we have Embiid.

If he remains healthy – and, given his injury history, that’s still a big “if” – Embiid seems like a sure-fire superstar. Embiid seems worth the two-year wait to see him play, and that’s saying something. For Sixers fans who have survived the first few years of “The Process,” Embiid’s presence provides hope that there may be a light at the end of this long dark tunnel.

Provorov’s contributions are more subtle than those of Wentz or Embiid. He’s not the center of attention. But he plays with poise far beyond his years. After an initial adjustment period, Provorov seems to have the instincts to make the right decisions. He cuts off the rush in the neutral zone at the right time. He pushes forward in the offensive zone at the right time. Basically, he’s a 19-year-old making veteran decisions.

Head coach Dave Hakstol trusts Provorov enough that the rookie frequently logs the most ice time during games. Hakstol also uses Provorov on power play and shorthanded situations. Shayne Gostisbehere made a flashier debut last season, but Provorov appears to be the better all-around defenseman. Seeing Gostisbehere’s impact and Provorov’s rapid development during 2016 gives Flyers fans two reasons to be optimistic about 2017 and, in Provorov’s case, the next decade.

The Phillies were surprisingly good during the first portion of 2016 before coming back down to earth the rest of the season. They haven’t necessarily found a star, but their 2017 should also be better than 2016.

The Soul won an Arena Football League title in 2016. The Union ended their playoff drought. Both have reason for hope in 2017.

Temple’s football team achieved a second straight 10-win season. It will be interesting to see if the Owls can continue that success in 2017. For those who extend the local region a bit further, the arrow is definitely pointing upward for Penn State, which surprised everyone by winning the Big Ten Championship and could start off 2017 on the right foot with a victory over USC in the Rose Bowl.

Something else to look forward to in 2017 is the NFL Draft coming to Philadelphia.

We haven’t had many good years in Philadelphia sports this decade. But 2016 provided some positive signs that our fortunes may change in 2017.

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