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August 06, 2022

A future gone: A look back at Philly sports' 2016 first-rounders

After the Phillies traded Mickey Moniak to the Angels, what was once the future of Philadelphia sports is now entirely gone

Sixers NBA
112_11032019_EaglesvsBears_Carson_Wentz_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

Former Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.

It's the summer of 2016 and Philly sports is in rough shape. 

The Chip Kelly era crashed and burned with the Eagles.

The Phillies were well past their golden age and at the bottom of the major league standings.

The Sixers were still deep into The Process and came dangerously close to the NBA's worst ever regular season record.

And the Flyers, while having made the playoffs, were mourning the passing of Ed Snider and ended the season with an embarrassing first-round exit to Washington. 

There wasn't much to be excited about in the present. But the future? There was hope. All four teams had a way forward.

The Eagles, realizing they needed a bigger, long-term shakeup, traded a boatload of picks to the Cleveland Browns to jump to the second-overall pick in the NFL Draft, then walked away with North Dakota State's Carson Wentz as their prospective franchise quarterback.

The Phillies, after finishing with baseball's worst record in 2015, got the top pick in the MLB Draft and used it on California high schooler Mickey Moniak with the hopes that he'd be their future centerfielder.

The ping pong balls finally fell the Sixers' way. The NBA lottery gave them the first pick in the draft, and, in turn, the draft class' biggest prize: Ben Simmons, a potential game-changing talent and projected superstar out of LSU.

And while the Flyers picked way further back in their respective draft, they were quietly stocking up on prospects under Ron Hextall and added German Rubstov to the mix at 22nd overall, a smart, positionally-sound center whose play style had shades of Sean Couturier's. 

All four teams had a plan. The future was bright. The next decade of Philadelphia sports was forming.

Cut to August 2, 2022. The clock is ticking down on the MLB trade deadline and the Phillies need a starting pitcher. They send Moniak to Anaheim for Noah Syndergaard, and with that, the future 2016 once promised was entirely gone.

Was it all a waste? No. There was indisputable success.

The miracle run to Super Bowl LII doesn't happen without Wentz and the Sixers don't escape mediocrity without Simmons. But both of their tenures in Philly ended badly, Moniak's struggled to take off, and Rubstov's just never did (though the Flyers did pick up future goaltender Carter Hart in the round after).

In the end, the spring and summer months of 2016 in Philly sports are complicated in retrospect, because the decisions made during them led to a mix of the impossible, the forgettable, what could've been and what never was.

That's Philly sports in a nutshell. 

Here's a look back at each team's top 2016 draft pick and a future now left in the past:

Carson Wentz (2016-2020)

Eagles_Cowboys_Carson_Wentz_Week8_Kate_Frese_11022063.jpgKate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Former Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz.

When Wentz was taken second overall that April, Sam Bradford was still on the roster and was QB1 on the depth chart right up until the last second when the Eagles swung a trade with a quarterback-desperate Minnesota to clear the path for their highly touted rookie. 

Wentz suffered a rib injury in the preseason, one in a long list of injury concerns that followed him from college into the NFL, but played the whole way through the season. 

Though the Eagles finished 7-9 under first-year coach Doug Pederson, it was clear that something was there with Wentz. They just had to keep building around him. 

Jump to 2017, and you know how it went from there. Everything was going right, Wentz was playing like an MVP, and the Eagles were beating everyone. 

It felt too good to be true, and Week 14 in Los Angeles made it look like it might have been.

Late in the third quarter, Wentz scrambled and dove toward the end zone. His knee got caught between two Rams defenders. He stayed out and finished the drive – the play was called back on a holding call – with a short touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery, but shortly after, the worst was confirmed, Wentz's ACL had torn.

Backup Nick Foles came in and the Eagles held on for the win, but many figured the wheels were about to fall off. Except they never did. 

The Eagles kept riding momentum all the way to their first Super Bowl title, Foles out-dueled Tom Brady to win Super Bowl MVP, and in the aftermath of what's undoubtedly the greatest modern moment in Philadelphia sports, a shadow was cast that was impossible for Wentz to ever escape.

In Week 4 the next season, coincidentally against Indianapolis, Wentz was medically cleared and returned under center, putting Foles back on the sideline. The Eagles were more banged up this time around and Wentz was nowhere close to '17 form, but they pushed along.

Eventually, a fracture in Wentz's back stemming from the ACL tear shut him down for the rest of the season. The offense was Foles' again, and the journeyman QB worked his magic in midnight green one last time, pushing the Eagles to the NFC divisional round against the Saints. 

Foles left for a big free-agent deal in Jacksonville afterward and the Eagles reinforced their commitment to Wentz with a four-year contract extension that summer. He repaid it by throwing for 4,039 yards (a franchise record), all with no receiver on the roster recording at least 500 yards (an NFL first), en route to an NFC East crown. 

Then in the playoff game against Seattle, Jadeveon Clowney launched his head into the back of Wentz's. He was pulled from the game with a concussion. The Eagles lost and that was the point where it all fell apart.

Wentz came back in 2020, but nothing about him, nor the Eagles, or that season was ever right. 

Drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round that offseason was the first sign of trouble. Then when the COVID-altered season began within completely empty stadiums, Wentz was regularly forcing throws into coverage, passing up the simple plays for the big ones, and just hanging on to the ball for way too long. 

Eventually, Doug Pederson had enough. He benched Wentz for Hurts in the Week 12 loss at Green Bay and there was no going back. 

Hurts became the starter, the Eagles bottomed out, Pederson was fired after the season, and Wentz was done in Philadelphia too. 

The once franchise quarterback was traded to the Colts in February 2021. That didn't work out either, but the Eagles did get a 2021 third and a 2022 first-round draft choice out of it. 

Ben Simmons (2016-2022)

Ben_Simmons_3_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpgKate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Former Sixers guard Ben Simmons, waving goodbye.

After the Sixers won the 2016 draft lottery, Simmons' fate was the worst kept secret in the NBA.

When he did a late-night spot on Jimmy Fallon before the draft, The Roots didn't even pretend that first overall pick was a mystery, they just straight up played "Here Come the Sixers" as the one-and-done LSU standout walked out from behind the curtain. 

A couple of nights later, Simmons walked across the draft stage in Brooklyn with a red and blue Sixers hat in hand.

The Process was working. The Sixers had a star, two of them in fact, but with a foot fracture that kept him out for the 2016-17 season, fans had to wait just one more year for a fully healthy Simmons and Joel Embiid to hit the floor. 

When they finally did, it was game-changing. 

Embiid was dominant at center and Simmons was putting up first-year numbers that hadn't been seen since Magic Johnson's debut decades ago. 

The Sixers were finally out of the league's basement and back in the playoffs while Simmons took Rookie of the Year honors with Utah's Donovan Mitchell arguing the definition of a rookie the whole way home.

The Sixers were good again, and the core of Embiid and Simmons was only going to get better.

At least they were supposed to. Only Embiid noticeably did.  

From the beginning, the clear deficiency in Simmons' game was his shot. He didn't have one, and if he was going to take the next step into becoming one of the NBA's elite, he needed to develop it.

But through the empty promises of multiple summers' worths of offseason gym videos, numerous occasions where he was left totally unguarded at the perimeter, and "Hack-a-Ben" becoming a viable defensive strategy, it just never materialized. 

He never shot, and he often refused to. 

Other parts of his game did come along, for sure. Simmons' defense definitely showed improvement, but a book had been made on Simmons across the NBA and with early playoff exits piling up, patience in Philadelphia was wearing thin.

It all came to a head in Game 7 of the 2021 second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was already having a bad series, and with the Sixers down two late, he spun off his defender and had a clear path to the basket. 

Instead of going up for the dunk, he passed out to Matisse Thybulle, who had two Hawks immediately close in on him. The air completely left the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers lost and Simmons' run in Philly hit a breaking point.

After the game, head coach Doc Rivers was asked if Ben Simmons could be a championship point guard. He said he didn't know the answer to that question

They would never find out.

Simmons sat out this past season until the Sixers eventually brokered a trade with the Nets and sent him to Brooklyn for James Harden.

He hasn't played since. 

German Rubstov (2016-2022)

062616_Rubstov-FlyersZack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers

Former Flyers prospect German Rubstov after being selected 22nd overall at the 2016 NHL Draft.

Ron Hextall's plan was to keep the Flyers competitive so long as they had the core of Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds, but behind the scenes, he was slowly clearing out cap space and stocking up the farm.

And it appeared to be working. 

The Flyers, by most accounts, did well for themselves in the draft the year before, picking up Ivan Provorov – a projected cornerstone defenseman – seventh overall and Travis Konecny – a fiery, high-scoring winger in the mold of Brad Marchand – 24th. 

Then in the 2015-16 season, under first-year coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers eeked out a playoff berth capped off by an emotional win over the Pittsburgh Penguins with an ailing Ed Snider watching from home. He passed away two days later, and many fans will tell you that the team hasn't been the same since.

Hextall's plan remained in place, and though the Flyers would be selecting higher in the 2016 draft (18th overall) because of the playoff appearance, the front office still had a name in mind. 

When the draft arrived, the Flyers opted to move back, sending the 18th pick and 79th picks to Winnipeg in exchange for picks No. 22 and 36. 

The first-round pick was used on German Rubstov, a Russian center whose scoring prowess didn't exactly wow, but he flashed dominant puck possession and a defensive game that, if fully realized, would have been akin to having another Sean Couturier out on the ice.

Injuries disrupted that idea from the word go. From concussions to repeated shoulder and wrist injuries, any time Rubstov appeared to be making progress, a new injury would arise. Eventually, he just got lost in the shuffle. 

Rubstov was called up for four games in the 2019-20 season after patience had run out on Hextall and Chuck Fletcher was hired as the next GM. He never played longer than eight minutes, registered just a single shot on goal, and has yet to return to the NHL.

Now 24 years old, he was thrown in as an additional prospect for Florida back in March to get the Claude Giroux trade over the finish line

As for the 36th pick in the second round, that was used on forward Pascal Laberge, who is no longer a part of the organization. The Flyers' own pick in the second, however, (48th overall) landed Carter Hart, who developed into the team's current starting goaltender and still has a chance to be their long-term solution in goal. 

Mickey Moniak (2016-2022)

Phillies-Cardinals-Mickey-Moniak-Kate-Frese_041721-133.jpgKate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Former Phillies outfielder Mickey Moniak.

The mid-2010s were brutal for Phillies baseball. 

The window of opportunity had slammed shut on the core of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, and they each departed one by one until eventually there was nothing left but a shell of a team and an empty ballpark. 

It was going to take years to recover, but the Phillies, with a front office led by Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak, had to begin anew. 

After finishing an abysmal 63-99 for the worst record in baseball in 2015, that process would start with the first-overall pick in the 2016 amateur draft the following June, used on Moniak.

Coming out of La Costa Canyon High School in Southern California, the 18-year-old showed all the promise of a five-tool outfielder and franchise cornerstone, but once he got to the minors, the foundation began showing cracks. 

Moniak always showed flashes of brilliance on his way up the minor league ladder and earned a spot on the Phillies' 40-man roster for the COVID-altered 2020 season. But he never consistently held his performance together, often finishing each season on the farm with stat lines that underwhelmed. 

The majors proved no different. 

When Moniak got his first call-up in 2020, he batted just .214 in 18 plate appearances across eight games. He struck out six times.

With a slightly bigger sample size in 2021 – 21 games and 37 appearances – he struggled even more, to the tune of a painful .091 average and 16 Ks.

Time to jumpstart his major-league career was running out, especially with the Phillies having well since passed the point of rebuild and eyeing the postseason, yet there was genuine hope heading into 2022. 

Centerfield, the position the Phillies had hoped Moniak would eventually take over nearly six years prior, was a major point of weakness and a job that was anyone's for the taking at the start of spring training. 

Moniak, finally, looked poised to do it. He turned in an incredible spring, slashing an eye-popping 1.351 OPS through 15 exhibition games, and had reportedly earned the Opening Day start in center field. 

Mickey Moniak had finally arrived.

Then a pitch hit him in the on-deck game at Tampa Bay and broke his hand. His momentum was brought to a screeching halt, and when he came back a couple of months later, that touch he had at the plate in the spring was completely gone. 

At the trade deadline, having already acquired centerfielder Brad Marsh from Anaheim earlier in the day but still in need of a starting pitcher, the Phillies also sent Moniak to the Angels for Noah Syndergaard. 

Moniak was optimistic that the Angels would be a fresh start for him and extended opportunity to play following the trade, but then a pitch hit his hand again.

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