Early draft picks don’t guarantee success

14 November 2012

Written by: Dean Casey

The hype surrounding this year’s batch of unknown 17-year-old draftees is about to kick into over-drive. Most supporters will find some enjoyment in being swept up in the hype, imagining how their club’s new recruits might change their team’s fortunes in 2013 and beyond. Fans of sides who performed poorly this year will take a special interest in the draft, as their team has a distinct advantage on draft day.

AFL logo (source: wikimedia commons)

The national draft is the one occasion when the year’s worst performing team – Greater Western Sydney – will be the envy of every other club, due to their plethora of first-round draft picks. Conversely, Sydney, this year’s premier, will find itself in the worst position of anyone – unless the Demons or Crows are stripped of their draft concessions, but that’s another story altogether.

Amidst all the hype and speculation surrounding the draft, what seems to be overlooked annually is this sad reality: any club fortunate enough to receive an early draft pick is more likely than not to waste it. Historically, that’s just the truth.

There’s a notion in the AFL community that elite players come from early draft picks. While this is true in many cases, it doesn’t follow that all early draft picks become elite players.

With comparisons having been made between the upcoming draft and the famous ‘super draft‘ of 2001, it seems appropriate to take a retrospective look at the first round of players picked in 2001 as an example.

As juniors, these 19 players were considered the cream of the crop. More than ten years on, it’s easy to see which players have become champions, but even easier to see which footballers haven’t.

Luke Molan, selected with pick nine by Melbourne, heads the list of recruiting letdowns from 2001, having failed to play a single AFL game. Ashley Watson, Barry Brooks and Shane Harvey didn’t fare much better, playing a total of 29 games between them. Collingwood’s Richard Cole played only 63 games, while the promising Ashley Sampi, who took the AFL Mark of the Year in 2004, surprisingly played only 78.

Sam Power, Rick Ladson, Xavier Clarke and Graham Polak all played between 100 and 150 games – a reasonable effort, but none were stars. It must be said, however, that Ladson played in Hawthorn’s 2008 premiership side, so his career can hardly be deemed a failure.

David Hale, Brent Reilly and Jason Gram are still playing footy, and have carved out very respectable careers, but none are considered great players. It’s worth noting that Hale and Gram were both traded out by the clubs who initially drafted them without much fanfare.

The 13 players listed above make up more than two thirds of those picked in the first round. I’m sure readers are beginning to wonder if this “super-draft” was any good after all.

So who were the other six players taken in the first round? Luke Hodge, Luke Ball, Chris Judd, Nick Dal Santo, Jimmy Bartel and James Kelly. Between them they have nine premiership medals, three Brownlow Medals, eight club Best and Fairest awards, three Norm Smith Medals and 16 All-Australian selections. To put it simply, these players have well and truly justified the early draft pick spent on them.

As good as these six have been, this is no consolation to the 11 other clubs who didn’t pick up an elite player in the first round of one of the greatest drafts ever. So what went wrong for the other thirteen players who promised so much, but collectively delivered so little?

Injuries certainly played a part, but that aside, it’s simply very difficult to tell how good a footballer will become based on their size and ability at 17 or 18 years of age. It’s hard to believe, but in 2001 it clearly wasn’t obvious to recruiters how good someone like Dane Swan could become. He was selected in the fourth round, at pick 58.

He wasn’t the only surprise packet of the ‘super draft’. Hawthorn premiership captain Sam Mitchell was taken at pick 36, and dual All-Australian defender Brian Lake (formerly Brian Harris) was selected with pick 71. Even Gary Ablett Jr. slipped through to pick 40, thanks in part to the father-son rule.

It may be depressing for supporters of struggling clubs to read that early draft picks aren’t guaranteed to be successful, but there is evidently a positive at the other end of the spectrum. Great players can be picked at any point in the draft. As an Essendon supporter, my all time favourite player James Hird was proof of this. In the 1990 national draft he was the 79th player picked.

To quote Forrest Gump, the draft is ‘like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.’

Thankfully it’s a lot easier being a writer than an AFL recruiter. If I write a poor draft I can always go back and make changes. Mistakes made in the AFL draft can’t be fixed later. In five years some clubs will certainly look back on the 2012 draft wishing that wasn’t the case.

Sam McInerney is currently completing a Graduate Diploma in Journalism at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @SamuelMcInerney