Josh Kelly And One Giant List Management Dilemma
In 2017, and at just 22-years of age, Josh Kelly produced an other-worldly campaign for the Giants, finishing 5th in the Brownlow, with his 21 votes still prevailing as a club record.
At that time, Kelly still hadn’t put pen to paper on a contract extension, a matter of which had the AFL world in a spin with every club in the league frantically checking under mattresses to see if it had the funds (or the cap room) to lure the young Giant with a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal.
And the hysteria was well justified too.
Kelly played in 24 of the club’s 25 games in 2017, won the club’s best and fairest and smashed through more than 700 disposals and more than 40 scoring shots. The kind of numbers just six others players posted last decade, all of whom were either premiership winners, Brownlow medalists or both.
Just days before his Brownlow run, Kelly had starred on the MCG in a Preliminary Final against the Tigers collecting a match-high 28 touches and 8 inside-50s.
A star wasn’t just born, but was ripping it up on the biggest stage.
The problem is, Kelly’s never returned to those heights, with his numbers steadily declining to the point the Giants now have something of a major list-management dilemma on its hands.
While the 2013 #2 pick did eventually sign a two-year extension with the Giants in 2019, that deal will expire at the end of 2021, while Kelly can apparently trigger an 8-year, $8 million extension should he desire.
These are serious numbers for any club to consider, least of all the Giants, whose pressure to keep winning, and to keep the treasure chest open for its litany of young stars, remains paramount.
And it’s an equation which gets even trickier when you consider just how sharply Kelly’s game has dropped.
Currently, the 2017 All-Australian ranks 74th in the league averaging just 23 touches per game. His tackles per match are at his lowest since his rookie season while he’s averaging less than a goal per outing.
At present, these are obviously not million dollar numbers, nor the kind of return that would have any club lining up an 8-year commitment.
Yet it’s a reality the Giants are going to have to confront, with the result set to have a massive bearing on GWS’s short and long term prospects.
And it’s not as though this club hasn’t had to do its fair share of introspection in recent times.
After face-planting in the 2019 Grand Final against Richmond, the club capitulated further last season, missing finals entirely for the first time in five years.
To their credit, they took a deep look in the mirror, made peace with Jeremy Cameron’s decision to leave, with Zac Williams’ too, while embarking on something of a mini-rebuild from both a squad and strategic point of view.
And it’s a renovation that’s actually progressing rather well all things considered.
After dropping their first two games, the Giants have since won 3 of their last 4, most recently crushing the Crows by 11 goals at the Adelaide Oval.
Yet beyond sitting just a game outside the top-8, what'd be most soothing for Giant's fans is that it's the club's army of talented youth whom are leading the way and forging another bright era.
Tim Taranto (23) and Jacob Hopper (24) have each played every game this season and have already combined for almost 400 touches.
Lachie Ash (19) is looking like a smooth-moving gun, with the 2019 #4 pick already averaging 23.6 disposals, while producing 391 metres per game.
Their #10 pick from the same draft, Tom Green (20), also looks like a future star, with the Canberran’s numbers dwarfing his rookie season output, positioned as one of just three Giants to be averaging at least 10 contested possessions per game this season.
It’s also worth noting that thanks to the Jeremy Cameron trade, the Giants were able to select a trio of first-round picks last December, with Tanner Bruhn and Conor Stone already debuting, while Gippsland’s Ryan Angwin is expected to soon take off as well.
A dream scenario for the Giants is that Kelly can soon re-discover his brilliance, and at a time where he can flourish with fellow in-their-prime Giants such as Toby Greene (27) and Steve Coniglio (27), as well as potentially Lachie Whitfield (26) and Jesse Hogan (26), health depending.
The nightmare however for the club is that for whatever reason Kelly’s best, most dangerous, most sumptuously elegant days are behind him. The added fear is that the Giants would then be destined for an awkward stand-off with Kelly, the likes of which could put the kibosh on the club's salary cap flexibility, and perhaps even inject a good dose of disharmony into the squad.
A potential middle option is trading Kelly come season’s end.
While he wouldn’t attract the kind of package his 2017 form and sky-high potential would have then warranted, even as presently constituted Kelly would still garner a first-round pick, as he’s still in his prime, he’s healthy while he’s already exhibited a consistent ability to dominate games.
It wasn’t that long ago that Josh Kelly held the AFL world in the palm of his hands, and while the circumstances aren’t exactly the same this time around, the future of this precociously talented footballer still fascinates.
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