FTP #22 is here!
We have an exciting edition this week – discussing the unicorn of the AFL, a talented high draft pick from GWS and a player who has revived his career with a positional move. If you enjoyed this article – please subscribe!
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1. Luke Jackson – Rising Star and Unicorn of the AFL
Luke Jackson (#6) is the 2021 Rising Star favourite as a ruck. Let that sink in for a second. No other Rising Star winner has played the ruck position (I’m not counting Koschitzke). It’s incredibly uncommon given the very nature of the position. It takes a long time for rucks to develop and physically mature to compete against their AFL contemporaries. We discussed English a few weeks ago and the strides he’s made but that occurred over multiple years. In just his second season, Jackson is exhibiting some terrifying signs for opposition teams. It isn’t just that he’s starting to show dominant patches but it’s how he’s doing it.
Jackson’s biggest strength is undoubtedly his ability at ground level. Jackson plays like an extra midfielder around the ground and at stoppages. It’s much of the same as Grundy – they aren’t a non-factor once the ball hits the ground. In fact, they are dangerous ground level players. But even Grundy didn’t show these kinds of signs this early on. Jackson averages 4.1 ground ball gets a game and whilst he only averages 13.4 disposals, that number will continue to rise to Grundy’s level around the 20’s. He’s shown flashes already with three games this year over 20+ disposals. Jackson has clean, quick hands and always follows up after a ruck contest. When he extracts the ball, he raises his arms above his head out of the reach of would be tacklers and is great at dishing the ball over his head to teammates.
Sometimes Jackson does things at ground level with such control and creativity. It doesn’t make sense for a midfielder let alone a ruckman to be doing it. The execution of this hit up kick will come with more experience.
Watching Jackson, it’s evident that he used to play basketball. He has great control on the move to tap the ball up to himself when he can’t grab it.
Where most of the improvement will arise for Jackson is in his ruck craft and tap work . He isn’t a tall enough ruck (199cm) to be a dominant tap ruckman but given his soft touch he should be able to finesse the ball to his midfielders as he continues to put on size. Jackson has put on 10kg over the summer and it shows during games. Whilst he is unable to push ruckman off the line and he does lose hitouts to taller ruckman, he’s agile. He’s started to realise that he can tap the ball to himself and exit the front of stoppages. This is so dangerous when a ruckman has this advantage to exit through the front. The percentages on this ending in a goal would be very high.
Around the ground, Jackson is becoming a genuine threat in the air. He is averaging 3.2 marks a game including 1 contested mark. Those numbers are identical to Grundy already. This is the area where Jackson has big upside given he wasn’t drafted as a natural forward. Yet, every once in a while he’ll take a mark like this – which makes you question where his ceiling ends.
This is quite frightening for a ruckman who already possesses such elite qualities at ground level. He’s beginning to hit the scoreboard too. Jackson’s averaging 0.8 goals a game – 1st in the AFL amongst ruckman. He does spend more time as a forward given Max Gawn plays for Melbourne. But this argument could be spun the other way. Tall forwards can take years to develop before they start to consistently hit the scoreboard. At 19, Jackson’s already doing this while playing a significant portion of his game in the ruck.
Jackson is a real unicorn in the AFL. For those that are a bit confused by the term ‘unicorn’, it originated in the NBA describing Kristaps Porzinigis. A unicorn is a player who is considered both versatile and dynamic. In Porzingis’s instance, a tall player at 7’3 but has (or used to have) the skills of a guard. We hadn’t really seen someone of his height shoot the 3 ball like that. Jackson is the same as a ruck.
He is versatile enough to play literally every position of the ground. Don’t be surprised when Melbourne play him as an actual midfielder at some point in his career. It’s definitely going to happen. Jackson has the upside to be the best ruckman in the AFL because of how balanced he is in multiple facets of the game whilst simultaneously possessing significant upside. At 19, his impact at AFL level as a ruck is unprecedented. Yet, his accomplishments may border on unprecedented as well. Jackson has a chance to be one of the most accomplished 2nd year players in league history if he wins the Rising Star and Melbourne win the premiership. He and Joel Selwood would be the only two players to both win a rising star and a premiership medal in the same year.
It was gusty for Melbourne to take a ruckman with pick 3 when they had one of the best in the league. Melbourne saw it differently, they weren’t taking just a ruckman, they were taking a player who was skilled enough to play any position on the ground. They had the opportunity to mold Jackson into who they wanted him to be. Jackson is a true unicorn of the AFL – a player that we haven’t quite seen before. I can’t wait to see what he eventually becomes.
2. Tanner Bruhn
Much of the process of analysing a high draft pick revolves around finding their identifiable AFL traits. Things they do in games that point to their high draft pick price tag. The one or two qualities that make them stand out from the pack. Early on, it may only be seen in moments or patches in games. It may even take an entire season before it starts to show. It’s a combination of experience, confidence, talent and an AFL environment conducive to positive development. Whilst they all play a role, the fourth factor far outweighs the other three in importance.
When those four factors are in unison, a player exhibits the traits that made them dominant junior footballers and they begin to execute them at AFL level. Yes, there are some that show it straight away and consistently in their first season. These are usually players that are destined to become stars of the AFL (Eg. Walsh). For others, it takes some time and patience for clubs and fans alike and that’s common. The only worry among a fanbase is that they may be confusing patience for blind optimism. In that scenario, it may be that their qualities never appear at AFL level.
Lets link this discussion to a young prospect – GWS’s pick 12 Tanner Bruhn (#5). Admittedly, it was a slow burn. As to be expected coming into a team stocked with young talent on every line. Now later in the season? We’re starting to see flashes of why he went at pick 12. The numbers aren’t eye catching, especially given Bruhn’s role has been predominantly as a small forward. As we pointed out about Taranto, this isn’t an easy midfield or team to break into. But he’s playing midfield minutes now. Whilst we’ll continue to question Leon Cameron and his decision to keep playing Taranto as a deep forward (one week after he was BOG as a midfielder), Bruhn has taken his opportunity with both hands. Against Richmond, Bruhn had 14 disposals and four clearances. Bruhn’s quick to gather a loose ball and has sharp hands out of a stoppage.
Compared to his first games, Bruhn looks more composed with ball in hand. He isn’t rushing his decisions. This outside of the foot kick to Hopper’s advantage is a difficult kick to execute and Bruhn does it with ease.
Bruhn is a classy player and it shows with his field kicking. Here, he has great penetration on his kick and keeps it low, allowing it to travel to Sproule quick enough before Vlaustin can impact.
Bruhn is confident in the air even if small in stature. He has great ball control and is able to keep the ball in front of him. Here, he is courageous in going back with the flight and is rewarded for it in a big moment of the game.
This is the exciting part for GWS fans. Bruhn has shown he is capable of damaging ball use and is starting to show he is an impactful stoppage player. The hope is that Bruhn continues to show more and more as his confidence grows. A player like Bruhn may go from having little impact at the start of the year to all of a sudden a number of qualities that will continues to grow. Such is the upside with high AFL draft talent. Bruhn and Green are the future of GWS’s midfielder – not that many of their stars in Kelly, Taranto and Hopper are going anywhere anytime soon. Bruhn has a chance to be the next midfield star for a team that continues to nail their draft picks and fight for finals. The future is bright for GWS.
3. Jayden Laverde – a career revival
Time and time again, we see players thrive in new roles and save their careers. It can happen when we least expect due to injuries, as we’ve seen with Josh Schache who has been solid as a key defender (wiping the Essendon game from our memory). An example of a move that was more orchestrated by design throughout the pre season but undoubtedly is the same in terms of circumstance is Jayden Laverde’s (#15) move to a key defender role. Originally, Laverde was an athletic medium forward who struggled with injuries and consistency. During his six years as a forward, he averaged 11 disposals, 3.7 marks, 1.9 inside 50’s and 0.8 goals a game. Hardly exciting numbers. It was hard for Laverde to have a great impact on games given that before this year he had only played 10 games in a season once and only averaged 7 games in his other seasons. I’d describe Laverde as an almost player. He would have moments in games that flash signs of an exciting forward prospect. He could also go games at a time without being noticed. He showed enough but injuries kept getting in the way. After a late game last year in defence and injuries at the start of the year to key defensive pillars (Hurley, Ambrose) Laverde was trialled as a defender in 2021.
The results have been overwhelming positive. Take the weekend as an example. Laverde matched up on Ben King and kept him scoreless with 5 disposals. Whilst it must be noted that Essendon did dominate most of the game and supply was limited for King, supply has been limited for him all year and he’s still 9th in the Coleman. Regardless of the oppositions play, Laverde was outstanding. He had 17 disposals, 3 contested marks and 9 intercepts.
This isn’t a one time scalp either. Laverde has been a shut down defender all year. Laverde even limited Buddy to two goals and we know how well he usually plays against Essendon! Much of the athleticism that generated glimpses of extraordinary highlights are evident in his defence. Because of his pace, he is able to make up ground quickly and close down leading space.
Laverde uses his strength to advantage. When his opponent is out of position, he’ll leverage this strength and move opponents out of the way. King struggled with this kind of physicality all day.
Laverde’s ball use isn’t much to write about but that’s not uncommon for most key defenders. He is reliable enough and can change the angles and switch the ball soundly as a key defender (he goes at 80% but most of these are kicks in the backline). With offensive generators like Heppell, Hind, Redman and Ridley, he doesn’t need to be adventurous by foot and plays within himself and his role. Whether it be a master stroke of wisdom or just luck, Essendon have pivoted well in this scenario. Not just with Laverde either. If there was a winner for a ‘saved their career’ award in the AFL, it’s likely a tie between Jayden Laverde and James Stewart. This article could be written about Stewart himself, who has had quite a similar pathway to Laverde given his background as an athletic forward. Nonetheless, Essendon took a risk playing both in new positions. Laverde has adjusted to the role perfectly and has now has made it his own. At 25 years old, Laverde can continue to expand his game. Some find a way to remain alive in the AFL by being open minded and flexible to adjusting their skillset to a different position. Laverde has shown us that he has those qualities and is now set to be rewarded with a new contract.
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Check out last week’s column!
Our piece on Jake Lever
The author acknowledges that the footage is the courtesy of Foxtel and property of the AFL.