Updated: Oct 16, 2021
If you were picking the best 23 players who are 23 years old or under to play not just this next coming season but for years to come, how would your list pan out?
I'm not going to make it easy on myself. You know that these are tough decisions, so let me give some context and background before giving you my opinion: First off, I'm only choosing players that are at the age of 23 or below at the time of writing so, that rules out the likes of Clayton Oliver, Josh Dunkley and Darcy Parish who have all recently just turned 24 years of age. Secondly, I have mostly taken into account players stats and achievements to date, but I have also considered what their impact on the league might be a few years from now. Without further ado, let's get into it!
1. Sam Walsh
Fresh after polling a massive 30 votes in this year's 2021 Brownlow Medal count. He's the perfect midfielder who could run for 6 quarters if he could. Walsh is an elite user and is continuing to add a blend of goal kicking, tackling and inside 50s. He does it all. He ranks 7th in the league for effective disposals per game, in which he averages almost 30 per game. I think that it's safe to say he's already taken over as Carlton's best player, and only time will tell when he becomes the best in the league.
2. Aaron Naughton
Remember when Naughton was drafted as a key defender? Remember when he finished 4th in the 2018 Western Bulldogs Best and Fairest as a rookie playing as a defender? Fast forward to today and Aaron Naughton is the league's most exciting forward for me, he leads the league in total contested marks (2.6 per game), averages almost 2 goals a game, and I know he also averages 1.7 behinds a game, but he's still only 21 at the day of writing! He's also won All Australian honours before turning 22, so it looks like nothing will stop these Dogs any time soon.
3. Andrew Brayshaw
Ever heard of the term leather poisoning? Yeah, Andy Brayshaw has it. He took his game to another level again this year. 28 disposals, 5 tackles, 5 marks. All at 21 years old! Plus with every chance of Adam Cerra departing and David Mundy eventually retiring at some point, it's going to be Brayshaw's ball to win. He collected a lazy 39 touches v Richmond in round 20 this year, just to give everyone a taste of what is to come.
4. Ben King
KING OF THE LEAGUE? In due time... King has 85 goals through his first 50 games in the AFL. Just to give everyone an idea of how insane that is, that is a higher goal to games ratio than Tom Hawkins, Josh Kennedy, Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch. Hawkins is the closest with 66 in his first 50 games. Mind blowing? Yes, yes it is.
5. Jacob Weitering
“It was a little bit different to last year when I was very honoured and privileged to win the best and fairest. I was wondering how I was going to back it up and do my best this year,” Weitering told Carlton Media.
And back it up he did! He is still one-upping himself every season. This season just past he finished 4th in total interceptions, 7th in marks per game, and averaged a career-high 16.4 disposals a game, which is elite for a key defender. He will be a 300+ game player for Carlton, and an absolute stalwart key defender for years to come.
6. Bailey Smith
How do you break into a saturated midfield that includes Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Adam Treloar, Lachie Hunter, Tom Liberatore, and Josh Dunkley? Average 24 disposals, 3 clearances and 3 tackles a game, that's how. Also, a massive plus for Smith is his durability, it's no secret this midfield core has had its issues with health. The one constant has been Smith, he's proven he can stay healthy and perform in big games. The kennel have a top 10 league prospect on their hands for sure.
7. Tim Taranto
He's not the face of the Giants just yet, but it's only a matter of time! This guy is a certified jet. He does it all, with 26 disposals, 5 marks, 5 tackles and 4 clearances on average this year. If there is one gripe, he could clean up his delivery. He ranked 7th in clangers per game this past season. But there's no denying his pure ball-winning ability, he'll be a top midfielder in this league for years to come.
8. Hugh McCluggage
McCluggage was picked behind both Tim Taranto and Andrew Mcgrath in the 2016 AFL draft. At the time, his frame might have been a little more slight in comparison to the other two, and maybe he was a little slower. But fast forward to the 2021 season, and you will see why the Lions were over the moon with the prospects of drafting Hugh with the third pick. Of the three players, it’s McCluggage who is the most damaging, with his creative ball use and pinpoint field kicking. Additionally, if watching McCluggage doesn't convince you of his brilliance enough, here's what veteran teammate Mitch Robinson had to say about Hugh,
“I played against Blackie a fair bit and I see a little glimpse of him in Hugh, the way he gets the ball and can see what’s happening before it unfolds.”
Comparisons to a club and AFL legend Simon Black? That will do very nicely.
9. Andrew Mcgrath
It was the meteoric rise from teammate Darcy Parish that stole the headlines for the Essendon Football Club this year. Though, that doesn't mean Mcgrath's output deteriorated at all. In fact, it was more of the same from the tough and gritty inside midfielder. Averaging 23 disposals, 4.4 tackles and 4 clearances. It was a shame he missed some time through injury this past season, but for a midfield core that includes Zach Merrett, Dyson Heppell, Darcy Parish and Andy Mcgrath, the future prospects are sky high!
10. Matt Rowell
On the topic of injuries... They have been the story of the Suns' golden boy Matt Rowell's young career so far. After catapulting himself onto the footy scene in the early rounds of 2020 with four of the best career starting games the league has ever seen, he struggled to impose himself onto games in 2021. He averaged a light 14 disposals, 4 tackles and 4 clearances a game. We have seen glimpses of what a healthy Rowell can produce - the ceiling can reach heights not seen before. Can we just pray for a healthy off-season.... please?
11. Max King
12. Sean Darcy
13. Zak Butters
14. Jordan Ridley
15. Connor Rozee
16. Oscar Allen
17. Caleb Serong
18. Xavier Duursma
19. Errol Gulden
20. Shai Bolton
21. Will Day
22. Noah Balta
23. Tom McCartin
So there it is! This list includes the league’s best players that are at the age of 23 or under. These are some of the young stars who will shape our game for decades to come, and they deserve your attention. Keep an eye out for these names in the coming seasons as they continue their quest for AFL glory!
Luke Jackson, Kysaiah Pickett, Zac Bailey, Jack Lukosius, Riley Thilthorpe, Tom Green, Hunter Clark, Wil Powell, Mitch Georgiades, Changkuoth Jiath, Isaac Quaynor, Luke Davies-Uniacke, Noah Anderson, Sam Draper, James Worpel.
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