IT WAS last year when Cam Rayner first emerged as a likely early pick at the 2017 NAB AFL Draft.
Playing for the Western Jets in the TAC Cup as a 16-year-old, Rayner kicked seven goals against Bendigo and then followed it with five goals against the Calder Cannons. He was put firmly on the radar.
He hasn't let anyone down since. The 18-year-old was added to the NAB AFL Academy, captained that side earlier this year and has pieced together a brilliant under-18 season that has catapulted him into No.1 pick contention.
The half-forward/midfielder's trick bag is full: he's clean, tough, can kick on both feet and has a real spring in his legs. In a season where some highly rated players have struggled to piece together good form, Rayner continued to rise.
You only had to watch the national carnival to see why Rayner is a top-end player. He had a huge say in all of Vic Metro's games, and in different parts of the ground. Up first he had 23 disposals, a goal and six clearances with more midfield time, and the following week he kicked three goals playing more as a deep forward.
The game after that he booted five goals as a leading and marking medium forward, and then in his side's final game he kicked a running and bouncing goal that showed his explosive and exciting streak. Rayner is a player who steps up at big moments in games, and he doesn't require anyone to help him out to do it (he averaged 18.5 disposals at the national carnival, of which 11.5 were contested). His size, shape, intensity and innate competitiveness is hard to stop.
Rayner has breakaway speed, he's a very good mark above his head, he kicks goals regularly and he has the power required to make a difference at the top level. He's also tough: he played at the end of the Western Jets' season with a fracture in his hand without any complaints. In Rayner, a club will recruit a prospect who alters the way games are going and drags his side with him.
The one question clubs have over taking Rayner so early is his endurance. He hasn't tested well in that area over a couple of seasons, so they wonder about whether he will be able to transition into a midfield position at the top level without a natural aerobic make-up. A knee injury at the NAB AFL Draft Combine ruled him out of testing there.
There's not much else to be concerned about with Rayner, but for some the running topic will be an issue because without that aerobic base some recruiters may see him just as a half-forward without the potential to be a midfielder.
You've probably heard the Dustin Martin comparisons by now, and there are certainly some similarities in the way they pair plays. Rayner has the big legs and strong fend-off that gets him out of trouble. But Melbourne's Christian Petracca is probably a fairer comparison at this stage. There were some doubts on Petracca's aerobic capacity early days and he has started his career more as a half-forward, which seems likely for Rayner.
Rayner is right in the mix to be the No.1 selection this year. If not, it's hard to see him getting out of the top four, which means Brisbane, Fremantle, Carlton and North Melbourne are his most likely destinations.
Clubs should spend less time worrying about what Rayner can't do, and focus on what he can. He's the most exciting, match-changing player in the pool and someone who has a genuine spark. A popular, engaging personality, Rayner couldn't have done much more this year.