McDonald vs. Thilthorpe: Who should the Crows pick at No. 1?

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Ahead of the AFL Draft, the biggest question is who should Adelaide select with pick No. 1?

There are four prospects in the mix: Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, a member of the Western Bulldogs Next-Generation Academy. Elijah Hollands was born in Adelaide and is a Crows supporter. Riley Thilthorpe is a local talent and widely regarded as this year's top South Australian prospect. Logan McDonald's mother is from South Australia and he visits the state yearly.

Whether Adelaide place a bid on Ugle-Hagan with pick No. 1 will prove largely inconsequential for the Crows, as the Bulldogs are expected to match if such a bid is placed. Ugle-Hagan is viewed as a potentially transcendent key forward and is regarded by many as the best in the pool, which makes him too hard for the Dogs to pass on.

With Ugle-Hagan the least likely of the four to land with the Crows, Hollands, a talented and damaging midfielder and forward, is the next least likely selection for Adelaide. Hollands was in the conversation to be No. 1 at the end of last year, but having ruptured his left ACL during the preseason, many view the risk with the first pick as too great.

This leaves the two widely discussed key forwards who Adelaide recruiters are likely to be weighing up - Thilthorpe and McDonald.

The case for Riley Thilthorpe

Thilthorpe is taller at 201cm, as opposed to McDonald who is 196cm. The tools Thilthorpe possesses are impressive - he has a stronger build at around 100kg, compared to McDonald who is still developing physically at 86kg. Thilthorpe is the more freakish at ground level, possessing crumbing capabilities and the capacity to take the ball one-touch off the deck, while McDonald is clean and capable but without the freakishness at ground level.

Thilthorpe's height and reach give him a slight edge as a contested marking threat. While Thilthorpe didn't test at the South Australian draft combine due to a groin injury, he has shown in games that he is the superior athlete. Both are excellent speed and endurance runners and jumpers at their respective positions. However, athletically, where Thilthorpe has separation on McDonald is the way he can run and take on the game offensively with ball in hand, or providing overlap run in support like you would normally see from an outside running type, with how effortless he speeds around and past opponents.

Overall, Thilthorpe has greater x-factor and has more 'wow' moments. The final benefit to the selection of Thilthorpe is while he can play as a key forward, he is more than able to push through the ruck, and with his running capabilities, may prove intriguing on a wing.

The case for Logan McDonald

The standard of performance and production is what recruiters will immediately talk about when discussing the benefits of selecting McDonald. His standard of performance in 2020 was exceptional, making the WAFL Team of the Year. This is a step above Thilthorpe, who in his own right had a strong year in the SANFL, finishing in the bests in five matches, but was not realistically anywhere close to Team of the Year talks.

In front of goal there was substantial separation this year with McDonald leading the WAFL goalkicking most of the season, kicking 21 goals, as opposed to Thilthorpe who only kicked five goals due to spending considerable time in the ruck. Both played nine games each in 2020.

As is indicated by the superior scoreboard impact, McDonald has the better forward craft at this point in time as the more consistent, advanced and polished forward. McDonald -- while also capable of playing key defence, and potentially pushing up onto a wing -- has a much clearer 'best position' as the player who is a more certain key forward. McDonald is also more durable and less injury prone, with Thilthorpe struggling this year with groin issues, following an injury-interrupted 2019 season where he battled shoulder and ankle concerns.

The significant and often overlooked advantage McDonald has in the debate is his superior rate of improvement. McDonald remarkably managed better WAFL League stats against state league competition in 2020 than he had in the Colts against under-18 competition in 2019, with higher disposal, mark and goal-per-game numbers. The production of Thilthorpe on the other hand -- having played both in 2019 and 2020 in the SANFL at League level -- was not significantly better, managing slightly improved disposal and tackle numbers, but reduced mark and goal-per-game numbers due to spending more time playing through the ruck.

While Thilthorpe is three months younger than McDonald, both are still growing and both are 3cm taller than their preseason-listed heights. During this same time, Thilthorpe put on a further 5kg to increase his weight up to 100kg while McDonald has packed on 7kg, increasing to 86kg. Of the pair, McDonald appears to have relatively more physical development left based off of his more rapid growth trend, when assessing his superior rate of football improvement, his rate of physical growth and higher likelihood of having greater physical growth still to come. Thilthorpe by comparison is likely closer to what his playing weight at AFL level will be.

Who should Adelaide take at pick 1?

Adelaide should bid on Ugle-Hagan, to keep Western Bulldogs accountable, and also meaning they bid on the most talented player in this draft. Once the Dogs match the bid, Logan McDonald is that clear pick and best available player.

Why McDonald is the best choice? When assessing key forwards, you draft them based on who they will be four years from now. To determine what that will look like, assessing production, rate of improvement and points of difference are the three variables that over time have proven the most effective towards projecting ahead with key forwards.

While Thilthorpe is more unique in a lot of respects -- which gives you a few additional options for utilising his talents -- McDonald has him covered in arguably the two most important categories - production and rate of improvement. With McDonald the better footballer this season, his rate of improvement and growth suggests he should create separation and become the more straight-forward better player over coming years. McDonald experienced a late growth spurt around the ages of 15 and 16, and is still getting taller and stronger.

His football is improving rapidly, and he should be regarded a tier above Thilthorpe.