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With every team in Philadelphia missing the playoffs in their last season (the Sixers and Phillies will likely miss the postseason for a couple more years), it is a dark time in local sports. The last few years are the most barren I have ever experienced as a Philadelphia sports fan, as the last playoff advancement came when the Sixers defeated the Chicago Bulls in six games in May of 2012 (three years!). But maybe there is some hope to be found if we look deep enough. Here are the top 10 Philadelphia athletes that are giving us hope:
10. J.P. Crawford
The 16th pick in the 2013 Draft by the Phils was ranked as the #14 prospect in Major League Baseball entering this season, one that has seen him promoted to double-A Reading after hitting an astounding .392 in 21 games to begin the year in single-A Clearwater. The team is looking for a shortstop to replace Phillies legend Jimmy Rollins, who was traded to the Dodgers in the offseason, and Crawford appears like he could be that guy in a couple of seasons.
9. Byron Maxwell
Might Maxwell finally be the guy to heal a secondary that hasn’t produced a Pro Bowler since 2010 and has ranked in the bottom two in the league in passing yards allowed each of the last two seasons? The Eagles believe so, signing him to a 6-year, $63M contract this offseason. The former Seattle cornerback has a Super Bowl pedigree and will hopefully make us forget the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cary Williams, and, of course, Bradley Fletcher.
8. Jakub Voracek
In his 7th season, Voracek had his best yet, ranking 4th in the NHL in points with 81 (22 goals and 59 assists). While the 25-year-old is heading into the last year of his contract, there is optimism that he and 73-point-scorer Claude Giroux can lead the Flyers back to the playoffs in 2015 under new head coach Dave Hakstol.
7. DeMarco Murray
For the second year in a row, the Eagles will be heading into a season with the previous season’s leading rusher in their backfield. This year, however, it will not be LeSean McCoy, but rather former Dallas Cowboy DeMarco Murray, who Chip signed to a 5-year, $40M deal in the wake of trading McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso. There are many questions with Murray– like if his durability will hold up after his monstrous workload in 2014. But the one-cut, downhill running back seems to be just the type of player Chip Kelly needs to execute his system to perfection. Well, at least the running game.
6. Aaron Nola
The LSU product looks up for the task of living up to his top 10 draft position, posting a 7-3 record and a dominant 1.76 ERA in Reading thus far this season. With the pace he is on, who knows, we might be able to watch him at Citizens Bank Park sooner rather than later.
5. Steve Mason
The revolving door that has been the Flyers’ goaltending position over the last decade looks to have been stopped by Mason, who, despite fighting injuries throughout this season, managed a .928 save percentage, which ranked third in the NHL. After a few very good years in orange and black, Mason looks like he can be the Broad Street Bullies’ franchise goalie.
4. Fletcher Cox
It is surprising to think that the 2012 first rounder just completed his third year as a pro, considering how utterly indomitable he was on the defensive line. His numbers were not especially flashy, as he only netted four sacks. However, he was an elite run-stopper and applied immense pressure to every opposing quarterback. Some were concerned after his production dropped in 2013 as a 3-4 defensive end, but Cox answered all questions with a season that most believe should have ended with a Pro Bowl. One can only imagine what Cox has in store for this season.
3. Nerlens Noel
After sitting out the 2013-14 season while rehabbing from a torn ACL, Nerlens showed exciting growth in his rookie season in the NBA. He finished as a Rookie of the Year runner-up and was voted onto the NBA’s all rookie first team. Nerlens did not register double digits in any major statistical category – over 9 and 8 in 30 minutes per game, however! – but his numbers landed him in the top 10 in steals and blocks per game. Defensively, Noel showed that he could hold his own with some of the NBA’s best. His offensive game improved as the season went on, as well, with a shooting percentage that ascended every month from December until March, when the big man topped out at 14.3 points per game.
2. Maikel Franco
The highly-touted third baseman prospect has been longed for by Phillies fans for a while. His first couple weeks in the majors this season were disappointing, as Franco failed to hit .200 and only registered two home runs in 62 at-bats during May. But when the calendar turned to June, Franco heated up. He has eight hits in 19 June at-bats (as of this writing), but that is not what Phillies fans are talking about. It is Franco’s three home runs, including two game-tying blasts against the Reds. The first tied the game in the eighth inning and set up a Phillies walk-off win in the ninth. The next night, Franco capped a four-run, ninth inning rally to tie the game with a home run off Cincinnati’s flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman. If Phillies fans have needed a reason to watch the Phitins this summer, Franco has given us one, and we hope that he can be a power hitter on the next championship team.
1. Joel Embiid
Despite having not played a game since college, Joel Embiid tops our list of hope because of the unprecedented potential we have seen and heard about. It is believed that if he had not sustained a foot injury during one of last year’s pre-draft workouts, Embiid would have been an easy #1 choice for Cleveland. Injury concerns were not, however, enough to dissuade Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie at pick #3. Embiid’s off-court persona is quite unique and hilarious; he is currently using the Twitter name “COACH Embiid” after drawing up a play during the Sixers’ season finale in Miami. On the court, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer and 2x NBA Champion Hakeem Olajuwon. Paired with Noel on the front line and a slew of lottery picks over the next couple years, Embiid might be the transcendent player Sam Hinkie and Sixers fans have been trying to find to lead the franchise into the future.