Draft watching has become an offseason pastime for avid AFL followers, with underage football coming under more scrutiny and analysis than ever before.
Perhaps the thing that draws amateurs into a field that was once the preserve of experts, with clubs employing a nationwide network of talent scouts and recruitment gurus, is that there is so much rich information to be found, giving keyboard-happy enthusiasts the confidence to opine on the merits of 17-year-olds they’ve more than likely never laid eyes on.
For the northern states, having academies has meant fans take more than a passing interest in the next local boy coming through because of its inherent advantage at the end-of-year draft, while clubs in traditional states have father-sons and next generation academy prospects to follow into November.
In 2018, a draft year hailed a long way ahead of time to be a ‘super draft’, speculation on underage footy had reached a fever pitch, so much so that when Max King injured his anterior cruciate ligament in April it was major AFL news.
Although, in hindsight, perhaps the foreshadowing detail to the story was not how the top-five draft prospect’s injury might affect his chances of sliding down the order but the fact that Max’s twin brother, Ben King, had sidled up from the backline to kick 11 goals in the very same game!
Being overlooked as the lesser talent was the narrative of Ben King’s junior football days playing for Sandringham Dragons, Haileybury and Vic Metro in defence as his brother took centre stage up forward.
Max King played seven games for Sandringham Dragons in his bottom-age year, kicking ten goals and also making an appearance for Vic Metro and getting his first rep footy major, while in his draft year he kicked eight goals in his solitary Dragons game.
Ben King played in defence in nine games for Sandringham in 2017, appearing in the same game as Max for Vic Country, before assuming forward duties in 2018, kicking 12 goals in six games for Sandy and 12 goals in four games for Vic Metro.
For context, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan booted 24 goals in nine games for the Oakleigh Chargers and never made the Vic Country team, so Ben’s 24 goals in nine games in attack are equal to the 2020 No. 1 draft pick, albeit he was a year older and four of the games were at representative level.
The verdict at draft time was that Max King went at Pick 4 to St Kilda, but that decision needs to scrutinised more closely because the King twins had been talent-spotted a long way out by the Saints, who hosted Max during his ACL rehabilitation and got to learn first hand the character and resilience of the young man.
St Kilda’s season in 2018 was atrocious and their third-last finish put them in prime position to get a King brother, with Sam Walsh, Jack Lukosius and Izak Rankine going in the first three picks as widely anticipated.
The decision of Max over Ben would not have been taken lightly given the serious nature of an ACL and the latter’s versatility to swing forward or back, yet it seems that the knock on Ben was his deferral to his brother that perhaps he wasn’t as hungry or that Max was just that tiny bit better.
As it went, Max had his name called by St Kilda at Pick 4. Ben didn’t have to wait long before the Suns called his name two picks later, the highest a pair of twins had ever gone in the same draft in a year hailed as better than any since 2001.
But did the Saints get it right?
An enduring piece of vision came from the Gold Coast Suns preseason camp in the highlands of New Zealand that shows assistant coach Dean Solomon asking the then 18-year-old to reveal his ATAR score in front of dozens of players and coaches. The young man shyly said “96.35,” and the Suns just exploded like they had just won a game before he’d even kicked a ball in anger for them.
Meanwhile, back at Moorabbin, Max King had achieved an ATAR of 97.80, which put the twins at one and two among 2018 draftees, something that might give an indication of their elite competitiveness.
And yet as months went on it emerged that Ben King was adapting to life on the Gold Coast, making his AFL debut and moving into a house with new best mate, Jack Lukosius, stepping out of the shadow of his ever so slightly more accomplished brother and continuing to make his own claims as a dangerous goal-kicking forward.
Right from draft night, when St Kilda had tauntingly tweeted they would see Ben in two years, the trash talk from Saints fans grew to a fever pitch, yet six months later Ben was on the phone to Max regularly talking about the sunny days and surfing while his brother complained about rehab in wet and cold Melbourne, so Suns fans had the last laugh when he extended his contract to the end of 2022.
Given that Ben’s junior statistics were boosted by his brother’s misfortune and St Kilda chose Max anyway, there’s an ever so slight edge to the Saints’ King, yet what has happened in the big league is more telling than anything that occurred before draft night.
Ben King was able to adapt to the pace of senior footy by playing his first few games in Suns colours in defence, yet when thrown forward in his fourth game he clunked eight marks and booted 3.3 against a Lions reserves side that went undefeated in 2019. He went on to kick seven more goals and mark everything in the next two games before debuting in the AFL team.
Max King played five matches for Sandringham in the VFL, also booting 11 goals – bizarrely, Ben kicked 11.6 to Max’s 11.5 in second-tier football – but he injured his ankle midseason and the Saints shelved him for the year.
Although the pace of AFL was too much for Ben at first, the Suns had taken the approach that he wasn’t going to learn much in the reserves, and with their season slipping away, they could afford to get the games into his legs.
That’s not to say he was poor in 2019, because after two underwhelming games on debut he began to get some confidence from being targetted on the lead, taking marks further out from goal and kicking goals. He finished the season in an injury-devastated team with 17.9 in goal kicking, a decent return from 14 games.
By contrast, Max King was nursed into a second preseason in cotton wool but was able to begin the 2020 season in the senior team for a Round 1 debut, getting among goals and relishing finally being able to play after two interrupted seasons.
Perhaps unsurprisingly both Kings earnt their rising star nomination against Essendon, obviously in different years, which will give Bombers defenders headaches due to the match-up obviously exposing their frailties.
Max King has a list of slight advantages: he’s a fraction taller, he’s a bit heavier, he’s a minute older, he was always picked first, he was better academically, he was drafted higher and he seems the more confident and aggressive of the two.
On the other hand, Ben King has flourished by playing in teams without his brother and has become one of the dominant full-forwards in the AFL in his own right with a body of work that is simply superior in just about every measure because it’s twice as long.
Ben has played 31 AFL games, kicking 42.29 and getting a Brownlow vote for dominating the Adelaide backline in Round 3. He killed it in his draft year, debuted in his rookie season and has so far gone injury-free throughout.
Max has played finals and played in the winning side when their teams met, although Ben kicked more goals and edged his brother on the day, yet playing in a more successful side is more of an advantage that inflates his numbers rather than being attributable to him alone.
On 2020 statistics alone, which is all Max can be measured by at AFL level, the twins have eerily similar numbers in terms of games played, contested marking, one-percenters and clangers, with Ben ahead in goals kicked, accuracy, score involvements and average time on ground while Max leads in tackles, disposal efficiency and contested possessions.
Oddly enough, Ben covers more ground and earns a far superior AFL ratings average score, yet Max edges out his brother in AFL fantasy points, which may have something to do with him doing chop out ruck work, which Ben does not do, yet these may end up being things both improve at over time.
Where once close observers could see a gap between them, there isn’t a scintilla of difference overall. Max might be stronger in the contest, but Ben is faster and has more endurance. The question remains to be answered as to who is a better player, because both have exhibited elite potential as they blast past all but the very best tall forwards while still only 20 years of age.
One thing that seems unlikely to happen is seeing the twins match up on each other, although if you’re Stuart Dew and watching Max King tear up your defence, maybe only Ben King could stop the carnage?
Or maybe Max decides to join his brother in sunny Queensland…