Taken with pick six in the 2020 AFL National Draft, key defender Denver Grainger-Barras has shown glimpses early in his career, but Sam Mitchell shouldn’t be fast tracking his development.
Having signed a new deal in the summer to keep him at Hawthorn until the end of 2024, it’s clear the club sees Grainger-Barras at the future of the Hawks backline.
Given he’s also a top 10 draft pick with a lot of upside, it will be tempting for the coaching group to want to pull the trigger and give the 19-year-old games as quickly as possible.
Fast tracking his development by giving him games purely based on his age and draft pick order is the opposite of what they need to do if they’re going to get the best out of the young defender.
Alastair Clarkson played the 19-year-old just five times in his debut 2021 season, and Mitchell too needs to be patient.
And if the Hawks need to look for reasons as to why they can’t fast track the development of Grainger-Barras, then Mitchell needs to look no further than his former teammate Zac Dawson’s first two seasons at Hawthorn.
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A tall athletic key defender with a slight frame but still too raw for AFL level, Dawson found himself thrown to the sharks, especially in his second season.
In his first 14 games at AFL level Dawson played on the likes of Barry Hall, Matthew Richardson, Matthew Pavlich, Anthony Rocca, Brendan Fevola, Scott Lucas, Jonathan Brown and David Neitz, all of whom got the better of him.
While the logic of pitting him against the some of the best forwards in the AFL at the time was understandable, it massively backfired.
Dawson wasn’t not ready for the task, and conceded eight goals to his direct opponent twice within the span of three games, with Nathan Thompson and famously Rocca monstering him.
It was widely publicised that Dawson’s confidence took a hit, as pitting him in the senior side while still raw had an opposite effect.
After being beaten comfortably by Rocca, Dawson drew a lot of scrutiny that he wasn’t up to the level. While the criticism was fair it wasn’t entirely on him, as a youngster just trying to live up to the role that was asked of him.
He didn’t play another game for Hawthorn after 2006 and was delisted at the end of 2008.
Having gone on to later hit his stride and become a solid defender for both St Kilda and Fremantle before retiring at the end of the 2017 season, he’s still largely remembered for being the young defender who wasn’t ready for prime time.
As someone who is thought of to be the future of the club, and considered a vital piece for the Hawks going forward, Denver-Barras cannot afford to have a similar fate to Dawson.
The two share a similar height, frame, and massive upside despite needing plenty of work to get to the level required of an AFL-level defender. The Hawks can’t afford a repeat of 16 years ago.
While he’s impressed Mitchell and coaches alike with his body of work over the summer during preseason, his five games last year game and performance against Collingwood in their practice clash last Friday shows there’s still a way to go before he’s ready for the rigours of AFL football.
Having personally witnessed the struggles Dawson went through having crossed paths at the Hawks for four seasons, Mitchell needs to be be patient.
With a hopefully uninterrupted VFL season under his belt, Grainger-Barras will get a real opportunity to develop and hone his craft as a defender before eventually making his way into the senior side.
If given the time and patience to grow into an elite key defender, then the Hawks will more than likely get a return on their investment.
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