Who is the better midfielder?
With the scope to become top 10 midfielders in the competition if developed to expectation, Nick Daicos and Will Ashcroft are the two most highly credentialed father-son eligible prospects to come through the junior ranks.
They are statistically the two most prolific accumulators, with no juniors in any year across any of the major competitions averaging more disposals than these two father-sons - in any year. With a bid of either pick one or two expected for Brisbane's father-son Will Ashcroft in this year's draft, they should also be the two earliest to feature father-sons drafted as midfielders.
Who is the best performed statistically?
There is little separation statistically between Daicos and Ashcroft but the two do have their own areas of greater statistical dominance.
The challenge in comparing the pair as junior prospects is a much larger sample size of games this year enjoyed by Ashcroft compared to what we have seen from Daicos due to COVID restrictions limiting the appearances of the Victorian prospects in 2020 and 2021.
The highest level of competition pre-draft they both managed to take part in was against VFL competition. Daicos' one opportunity against VFL opposition was for the AFL Academy in their 2021 clash against Geelong's VFL side. Daicos was his side's most prolific accumulator with 26 disposals, 11 contested possessions, six clearances, five inside 50s, two score assists and two behinds in a heavy defeat. While Ashcroft this year for the AFL Academy against Collingwood managed 24 disposals, eight contested possessions, four clearances and one goal in a much more competitive contest.
The additional opportunity Ashcroft gained against VFL opposition was a three-game run for Brisbane, averaging 29.3 disposals, 7.3 tackles, 5.7 inside 50s and five clearances.
The other opportunity Ashcroft enjoyed that Daicos did not receive was the chance to take part in the Under-18 Championships. During this year's Under-18 Championships, Ashcroft averaged 32.75 disposals, 15.25 contested possessions and 8.75 clearances across his four games.
The one competition where the two can be directly compared is the NAB League. Daicos in 2021 averaged 35.8 disposals, 11 contested possessions, 5.8 marks, 5.4 inside 50s, 5.8 clearances and two goals for Oakleigh, and Ashcroft averaged 34.5 disposals, 14.6 contested possessions, 4.9 tackles, seven inside 50s, 8.1 clearances and 1.7 score assists this year for Sandringham.
Daicos in the NAB League managed 1.3 more disposals, 2.6 more marks and 1.6 more goals while Ashcroft averaged 3.6 more contested possessions, 1.5 more tackles, 1.6 more inside 50s, 2.3 more clearances and 0.5 more score assists.
The context behind the numbers
Daicos' team situation in 2021 could not have been more contrasting to what Ashcroft enjoyed this year. There was a concerted effort from Daicos' teammates to play through him on every forward drive which forced the now Pies star to not only serve as Oakleigh's primary ball winner at stoppages but also require him around the ground to generate the bulk of the offense. This was due to Oakleigh's 2021 group containing a relative lack of star power with Western Bulldogs father-son Sam Darcy the only other Oakleigh Charger to feature inside the top-50 in last year's draft.
Ashcroft by comparison this year was not required to be the solo midfield star for this year's premiership winning Sandringham Dragons. Aside from Ashcroft, just from this year's draft crop from Sandringham, Harry Sheezel is likely to feature inside the top 5 and Cameron Mackenzie inside the top 10, while Olli Hotton is projected to be selected late first or early second round and Charlie Clarke in the second round.
The midfield dynamic Ashcroft enjoyed this year is one where although he was the primary ball winner, he ultimately had the luxury of sharing the ball winning duties with Mackenzie as the premier one-two punch at stoppages in the NAB League. When one won the ball, the other would be on the burst in prime position to receive. There was also the luxury of pushing Sheezel up through the midfield when reinforcements were required.
Around the ground, Ashcroft wasn't as frequently used as Daicos due to Sandringham's star power which allowed the soon to be Brisbane father-son choice the opportunity to focus most of his energy this season on hurting opposition sides from stoppages.
Do the numbers tell the whole story?
The raw numbers tell us the two father-sons are among the greatest and most consistent prospects to come through the junior ranks and the eye test supports this. What the stats don't show us is a complete picture around how they respectively impact games.
With Ashcroft, his contested possession numbers accurately inform us as to how dominant he is winning his own ball and that with the greater number of contested possessions that he wins that he plays relatively the higher impact per possession game by comparison to Daicos.
What the stats don't tell us with Ashcroft is that what separates him from other extremely high volume contested ball winning midfielders is the frequency of instances Ashcroft bursts out of stoppages for 5-15 metres with ball in hand. Ashcroft more than any other past junior prospect displays an optimal balance between knowing when to distribute by hand and when to back his explosive pace and burst, with the frequency of instances he bursts at speed with ball in hand from stoppages as high as any junior prospect historically.
The stats with Daicos accurately communicate that he was not only a ball magnet but also extremely dangerous around goal. What they don't tell us is about is his special composure in traffic, decision making under pressure and anticipation of opposition decisions in traffic are. The stats also don't communicate Daicos' creativity and tricky evasion in traffic which give him rare time and space in traffic to operate.
The case for Ashcroft
Where Ashcroft separates himself from Daicos is with his harder, more aggressive edge to his play in combination with his greater power and burst of speed. The volume Ashcroft wins the contested ball and the frequency of explosive bursts he displays out of stoppages has never been achieved in any junior competition in any year. For a club looking for an inside bull who can go win the ball and provide addition power and explosiveness into the midfield mix, Ashcroft is the clear choice as the more influential player around stoppages.
The case for Daicos
The versatility of Daicos to impact games forward, midfield or in defence and not only find the ball at volume but worry opposition sides with what he can do offensively is what makes him so special. Ashcroft by comparison to Daicos cannot impact games in as many positions or in as many ways as Daicos. As a junior, he showed he can find the football and hit the scoreboard for a midfield to a level we have never seen before.
Additionally, Daicos' composure in traffic, decision making under pressure, anticipation of opposition decisions as well as his evasion and agility are on another level. Ultimately, if a club is looking for a touch of class through the midfield or someone with the versatility to impact games up forward and down back beyond just through the midfield, Daicos is the standout choice.
Who will have the best career?
Comparing 2021 Daicos with 2022 Ashcroft is tight, and those inclined to pick on a 'needs basis' would be justified in taking that approach. Ashcroft would be the choice if seeking a ball winning midfielder while Daicos would be preferred by a club looking for a touch of class or a midfielder with the versatility to impact games to a greater degree across other positions.
To take list needs out of the equation, Daicos is ever so slightly the pick of the two. His versatility to impact games in more than one position in combination with his style of game are the reasons why. With Daicos not relying on strength, power or athleticism to impact winning, he has the scope as we're seeing with Scott Pendlebury to extend his career deep into his 30s and enjoy a longer peak and stretch of years among the competition's elite than any of the competition's other midfielders.
Ashcroft, on the other hand, will instantly lose one of his most potent points of difference if his explosive burst of speed ever gets hampered, and his influence on games would likely reduce and his career would likely comparably shorten due to his less diverse number of ways of impacting games.
Just as Collingwood secured a star in Nick Daicos during last year's National Draft who would in season one become one of his sides most valuable players, Will Ashcroft is another rare draft prospect who projects to immediately impact games at AFL level. With Brisbane adding established stars Josh Dunkley, Jack Gunston and set to match bids on Will Ashcroft in this year's draft, the Lions this offseason are adding three difference makers who can propel them into premiership contention.