Luke Jackson: The Demon Unicorn With The World At HIs Feet

It’s rare we see young talls have the immediate impact Luke Jackson is having on a Premiership contender.

Just two years ago, Melbourne selected Jackson with the third pick of the National Draft, the first time a club had selected a ruckman in the top 10 since Brisbane picked Billy Longer in 2011, which of course brought the Demons a bit of scrutiny.

Considering they had arguably the best ruckman in Max Gawn in the competition, and in his prime, the fit mightn’t have seemed clear.

Yet a month out from the 2021 finals series, Jackson has proven to be an extremely valuable member of Melbourne’s team, particularly in the final stanza of the home-and-away season.

At just 19 years of age and with positional volatility, the inconsistency we have seen from Jackson isn’t surprising, but his continued selection highlights the importance of the role he plays.

Naturally, he is a ruckman. In 2019, and with East Fremantle in the WAFL Colts competition, Jackson averaged 19 disposals, 33 hitouts, 3 marks and a goal a game, while showcasing further dominance in the ruck in the under 18s championships.

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Undersized in an AFL environment, Melbourne’s drafting of the young star indicated the desire to maximise the natural athleticism and fast-track the development of Jackson into a multi-pronged threat- the likes of which we’ve already seen so far in his 24 games.

After a quiet month, Jackson popped up against the Gold Coast Suns with a near perfect game, finishing with 17 disposals, 13 hitouts, 8 score involvements, 3 clearances and 4 goals. 

His most previous dominant outing came in Round 13 against Collingwood where he had 21 disposals, 7 marks, 6 hitouts, 5 inside 50s and 2 goals, his second tally of 20+ possessions so far this season.

An impressively prolific start to the season started to peter out a little before finding his feet on the weekend- but only statistically.

Jackson is somewhat of an AFL unicorn for the Demons. A term coined in the NBA, the “unicorn” refers to a Power Forward/Centre that also possesses the traits and quality of a guard, and can run the offence on their own. 

We understand the development as a young ruckman takes time, and while he isn’t a natural forward, the 198-centimetre Demon demands attention due to his size. Within Melbourne’s offence Jackson draws a lockdown defender onto him, which releases the pressure on his teammates given the fact he simply must be occupied.

What we would expect from a player in this position would be to provide strong aerial contests and hopefully hit the scoreboard, as any other ruckman in the competition does. But the difference with Jackson is that his impact is actually greater at ground level, with his offensive craft trending closer towards a midfielder resting forward, than a traditional resting big man.

It means that in attacking 50, Jackson is a weapon on the ground and his follow-up work is among the elite, playing a key part in the way Melbourne can lock the ball inside 50.

Jackson is rated elite for his kicking efficiency and effective disposals, averaging a massive 4.1 ground-ball gets per game and impressively, 11.7 pressure acts. 

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Statistically speaking, the East Fremantle product is treated as a key forward and as such, the fact he is ranked 4th overall in his position across the competition for pressure acts and 1st for ground ball gets indicates just how unique Jackson’s impact is for the Demons. Add in his ball use by foot and hand, and his understanding of how to drag a key defender out of the way, and you have an extremely well-rounded weapon.

When in the ruck, the output is improving with every week, averaging 10 hitouts a game, with 30.6% of those going to advantage.

Jackson demands attention for his size, but much like a unicorn in the NBA, is able to play as either an extra midfielder or even a small forward to rove a pack, hold the ball up to find a pocket of space, or to setup teammates using his good skills.

It makes the runner-up in the Larke Medal such an exciting wildcard for the Demons in key contests, even if the output on paper doesn’t always reflect it.

At different times this season, certainly against the Suns and without doubt in the next couple of weeks, we have seen why having Jackson in the team is so important for the Demons tactically when considering the effect on Max Gawn. It’s more than the simple rotation through the ruck that allows the skipper to have a rest.  

When the Demons are playing at their best, Gawn is able to push behind the ball and provide aerial assistance to the impressive defensive group, more often than not simply getting in the way rather than being an elite interceptor. The 29-year-old’s fitness has been fantastic, but it takes its toll.

The slight shift available to Melbourne in having Jackson in the team is the athleticism and reading of the play the second-year youngster brings to the table. We saw against the Suns, Gawn was able to spend more time resting forward than we have seen in recent weeks, settling inside forward 50 and looking much fresher when he took the ruck spot.

Of course, it’s easy to suggest all of this when the team wins by 98 points, but to ignore the incredible efficiency in Melbourne’s structure to enable this sort of result would be unwise. Jackson took his turn in the ruck, but it was his ability to spread from the contest, and his willingness to push behind the ball that allowed coach Simon Goodwin to feel comfortable in resting his skipper.

When Melbourne won the ball, Jackson showed of his running ability and looked like a genuine extra midfielder with his clean releases and link-up play, but his understanding of the skipper’s positioning when defending a kickout, or an opposition’s transition play, was on full display and showcased a side to the 19-year-old rarely seen in someone so young.

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Through 18 games, Jackson only has 13 goals, and 4 of them came last weekend, so we aren’t talking about an offensive menace that will tear a game apart for the Demons.

But in finals, in the moments that define legacies, players and coaches need to be flexible, versatile and be able to execute different styles of play at any given moment.

With Luke Jackson, the Demons have helped create one of the more unique, near-positionless young players in the AFL, and one that can plug a variety of gaps they may have on the field.

The 19-year-old is hardly going to be seen as even a top-10 most important player for the Demons in the next two months, but he doesn’t need to be. Jackson doesn’t need to have 20 disposals, kick multiple goals or dominate in the ruck.

He simply needs to keep playing the way he currently is, providing great support to his captain, demanding attention from an opposition defender, and continuing his elite ground-level work that teams can’t stop, regardless of how frequently it may come.

Often, we see young players suffer from second-year blues, perhaps struggling with the heat and pressure that comes with expectation. Melbourne has found a way to skip that part in the process of creating their diamond.

With a big shot at the Rising Star award as well as a Premiership medal, Luke Jackson has well and truly exceeded forecasts and has found comfort in his uniqueness. 

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Dem Panopoulos

Dem is a lover of sport with a keen eye for analytics. A passion for statistics that defies logic given his MyCricket numbers, you can see and hear him share his thoughts and views on Twitter @dempanopoulos

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