We hear a bit of doom and gloom from some clubs at this time of year. The season has ended quite a bit prematurely for some, whereas others knew they’d be having September off a long way from home.
Still, to see eight clubs ready to contest the flag while you’re having exit interviews… not ideal.
Anyway, despite there being a little bit of melancholy about the season being over, there are bright spots we can look at, and that is exactly what I intend on doing right here.
Over the course of the next week or so, we’ll be handing out our annual awards here at The Mongrel Punt. Yes, they may not be as coveted as some of the big awards, but I reckon we have our niche, now. We award those who don’t get a look in elsewhere.
We’ll be awarding our Wingman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year (which it looks as though the AFL is finally getting on board with in some way, shape, or form), and we’ve already announced our Road Warrior Team of the Year.
Jimmy Day will have our final All-Australian Team, and we’ll announce our Mongrel of the Year winner this week, as well.
However, this article is something a little different, and again, it is something the AFL does not do. They really suck in terms of awards, don’t they? What is so difficult about awarding the ‘Most Improved Player’ anyway? It’s not hard, right? They have blokes that watch the games, I gather? Surely it’s not too difficult to assess which players have made a significant leap this year?
Or maybe it is – we’ll soon find out.
Here are the nominees.
DYLAN WILLIAMS – PORT ADELAIDE
Well, going from one game in 2021 to 20 games in 2023 is quite an improvement, isn’t it?
I won’t post his stat differences here, because they’ll mean bugger all, but he has really taken a step for the Power and now sits as a fantastic combination half-back, able to play an intercepting/rebound role where required, or switch into a pure defensive mode.
After about Round Four or Five, I admit I had to ask a couple of Port fans where they’d been hiding this bloke. He’s just got better since, and was important in coming in and stifling Shai Bolton against the Tigers on the weekend, too.
MITCH HINGE – ADELAIDE
Talk about growing into a role.
You could successfully argue that Hinge had his breakout season in 2022, as he played 17 games after managing just four n the three seasons prior. However, this season saw him take on more responsibility, emerging as the go-to rebound player for the Crows following Jordan Dawson’s redeployment into the guts.
From Round 15 onwards, Hinge averaged 6.6 rebound 50 disposals per game as he filled the void left by Dawson and did it with a real sense of purpose. In eight of his last ten games, he was also at 20+ disposals per game, averaging 23.2 disposals during that period to end the season. That is a player who has not only improved from last season (+4.8), but during the season, as well.
JACK PAYNE – BRISBANE
Prior to the season commencing, there were plenty of experts who said the Lions were in big trouble, defensively. They’d lost Marcus Adams and were going to need an herculean effort from Harris Andrews to keep them at the pointy end of the ladder.
Well, they got that, but one of the big reasons they did was the emergence of Jack Payne as a man-mountain in defence.
Payne played 27 games across three years with Brisbane, but missed just one outing this season, with 22 games to his name. He took on the power forwards, allowing Harris Andrews the space to move to regain his All-Australian form, and whilst there will be plenty of others with better stats, his presence in the back half meant so much to the Lions that stats do not do it justice.
NATHAN MURPHY – COLLINGWOOD
No Nick Daicos from the Pies?
Nah, i have a feeling he’ll be receiving plenty of awards over the next little while. He doesn’t need this.
Similar to Payne, above, Murphy’s rise within the Collingwood structure allowed Darcy Moore to play more of an attacking brand of defence. As Murphy did the grunt work, Moore was able to zone off and impact contests not involving his direct opponent.
Despite a couple of incidents where it appeared Murphy established himself as having the most punchable face in the game, his desperate diving spoils and strong body-to-body contests underpinned the tight Magpie defence.
He averaged a career-high 7.38 one-percenters for the year and continued to provide an obstacle on the last line of defence for the biggest and best forwards in the caper.
BRANDON ZERK-THATCHER – ESSENDON
Zerk-Thatcher has had to grow up fast in the Essendon defence. He was asked to do the near-impossible early in the season, thrown out there against a rampaging Tom Hawkins. As expected, he was no match, physically, for the Big Cat, but that humbling experience seemed to act as a turning point for him.
Zerk notched three impressive Defensive Double-Doubles in Round Ten, 17, and 21 as he settled into the role of key defender and learned on the job. He jumped up to a career-high 7.23 one-percenters per game, and though he has not yet re-signed with the Bombers, would have to be a huge priority for them to get pen to paper.
CONOR NASH – HAWTHORN
Entrusted with a full-time midfield rle, Nash has made the leap from looking like a bloke who was a little lost on the field into a hard-at-it, crash and bash midfielder.
He is +9.48 in disposals, and is also at career-high levels for tackles and clearances, as Sam Mitchell has displayed a lot of faith in him to give the Hawks’ onball division some grunt.
I have to admit, I didn’t think this experiment would work. I was out on Nash after seeing him trialled as a forward, but hey… I’ll admit when I’m wrong. That’s why I am not a journo.
BAILEY SCOTT – NORTH MELBOURNE
Similar to Mitch Hinge, you can not only see the development in Scott as compared to 2022, but you can also see it during this season, as well.
Over the first eight games of the season, Scott hit 20 disposals just once. Following that, he has been at 20+ in 13 of his last 15 games, including five games where he has surpassed 30 disposals.
Playing now on a wing full time, Scott’s hard run at both ends of the park has had many recognise him as one of the hardest runners in the game, and at 23 years of age, he will start to move into his peak years coinciding with North Melbourne’s expected rise up the ladder over the next couple of years.
NOAH BALTA – RICHMOND
I’m adding Balta, even though the y=eye test tells me that he sometimes does as much harm as he does good for the Tigers.
Still, he has been handed huge jobs in defence this season and there have been times when he has looked like the most dangerous defender on the park. Wth the enthusiasm of an overexcited puppy, Balta attacks the contest like he has blinkers on… which is both excellent if he makes the contest, and not so great if he doesn’t, as his opponent is slipping away.
Played forward very late in the season, and his athleticism worried Aliir Aliir – usually, nothing worries Aliir.
How the new Richmond coach approaches this athletic freak will be something to watch in 2024.
NASIAH WANGANEEN-MILERA – ST KILDA
After 17 games in his rookie season, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera built on that solid platform to elevate his disposals per game by +9.9 per contest. Add to that the fact that he is considered one of the best kicks, if not the best kick in the St Kilda team, and you have a bloke that has caught the league by complete surprise in 2023.
Wanganeen-Milera has not sipped under 20 touches in a game since Round Nine, averaging over 25 touches per game in that period.
Deployed across the flanks and the wing, he has proven a versatile and dependable weapon for Ross Lyon to use either across half-back or running through the middle.
Like Bailey Scott, above, probably needs to hit the scoreboard a bit more to maximise damage.
BAILEY WILLIAMS – WEST COAST
Look, I get things wrong. Not as often as some believe, but occasionally, I screw up.
Last year, Bailey Williams looked like he was all at sea as a ruckman and I mentioned it several times, but far out he has turned it around in 2023.
Increasing his hit out numbers by over 11 per game, he also bumped up his disposals (+3.6) and clearances (+1.5) to become a more well-rounded big man in the absence of Nic Naitanui.
At the start of the year, I thought that West Coast made a mistake by not attempting to recruit another big man to play alongside Williams (we all knew Naitanui was cooked even back then, right?) but they held firm and it has paid dividends, with Williams upping his work rate all ove rthe ground.
SAM FLANDERS – GOLD COAST
you reckon Stuart Dew used to say that to him when he wanted him? I think it might be fair to say that Sam may not have been too displeased to see the back of Dew. Focusing on this season, alone, with Dew at the helm, he averaged 16.7 disposals per game.
And after Dew’s departure (the Dewparture) he caught fire and averaged 29.4 disposals per game.
The only drawback is that Flanders sat out nine games in 2023, but his disposals per game did leap by +13.4. That’s a great improvement.
AND THE WINNER IS…
We have had the privilege of watching Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera grow into a potent weapon before our very eyes in 2023. Remembering that this St Kilda list was floated as a bottom four cohort by some in the pre-season, it has been the efforts of players like NWM that have aided the Saints in their early rise, and defiant maintenance of their top eight position.
He has had several games where he has looked like the most dangerous player on the park (versus Sydney in Round 13, and versus Hawthorn in Round 20 are two that leap immediately to mind), but it has been the way he has worked in conjunction with Mason Wood and Bradley Hill when playing up the ground that has impressed me most.
Wanganeen-Milera’s ability to sprint back and help his defenders out is an aspect of the game that is often taken for granted, but to see him refusing to be beaten back by his direct opponent, arriving in the back 50 to make a defensive play, would make Ross Lyon beam with pride. Yes, the big disposal numbers are nice, but the commitment to team defence is the type of thing that coaches adore.
And NWM has done it all seaston long.
Congrats to the young man – The Mongrel Punt Most Improved Player of the Year for 2023.
SECOND PLACE – BAILEY SCOTT
THIRD PLACE – MITCH HINGE
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