IT WAS a phone call ultimately made in vain. But Melbourne's attempt to trade up the draft order in 2018 to secure Zak Butters told of the huge interest in the talented then-teenager, who in his third year at AFL level is now on ascent to the very elite of the competition.

Just 39 games into his career, Butters has already proven to be not only one of Port Adelaide's best players but is also keeping strong company with the AFL's leading performers. He was also hot property at the NAB AFL Draft.

In the year of live trading being introduced to draft night, the Demons tried to be the first club to make a major move and called Port Adelaide while the Power were on the clock for their second pick, No.12 overall, after they had grabbed local forward Connor Rozee with No.5.

The Demons were armed with a future first-round pick to make a deal happen (that landed as No.3 the following season when they took Luke Jackson), but the conversation didn't last long. As the Power picked up the phone, their recruiting team had punched Butters' name into the online draft system. Melbourne hopes of moving up the board – and the willingness to part with their following season's top pick – were based purely on Butters being available but he was off to Alberton Oval.

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It was a case of sliding doors that the Western Jets prospect was even available at the Power's pick.

That year's crop had become known as the 'general consensus' draft, split into three groups of players inside the first round. There were the eight players (minus Academy pair Nick Blakey and Tarryn Thomas) who were largely judged as the leading prospects: Sam Walsh, Jack Lukosius, Bailey Smith, Rozee, Izak Rankine, Max and Ben King and Jye Caldwell.

The next group was mainly seen as Chayce Jones, Butters, Jackson Hately, Jordan Clark and Academy prospect Isaac Quaynor, with all of Xavier Duursma, Ned McHenry, Riley Collier-Dawkins and Liam Stocker also in the mix for several clubs.

Xavier Duursma lets the arrow rip during the preliminary final between Port Adelaide and Richmond in October, 2020. Picture: Getty Images

Adelaide's choice of Jones at No.9, after they bid on North Melbourne Next Generation Academy prospect Thomas, shuffled things around. The Giants, who then bid on Swans product Blakey, took Caldwell after he got through what had been dubbed 'the elite eight'. But if the Crows had have taken Caldwell, the Giants would have selected Butters with the next pick.

The classy and smart right-footer had gained a healthy reputation despite an injury-hit draft season, which raises the question of how high he would have been selected had he not missed the second half of the year after shoulder surgery. Even before that, he had carried the injury in the early part of the season to ensure he had shown enough to scouts before going under the knife.

Butters has quickly put a stamp on the top level. His 19-game and 12-goal debut season was as a part of an exciting Port forward line that had talent sprinkled on every line. But his move to more midfield time last season helped catapult the Power into premiership contention. He finished fourth in the club's best and fairest and was named in the 40-player All-Australian squad.

Zak Butters in action for the Western Jets in 2017. Picture: Getty Images

Already this season the 20-year-old has stepped things up again, including a best-on-ground career-high 36 disposals, nine clearances and a goal against Essendon in round two. Rarely does one of his disposals not find a teammate and Port look for him as the player to deliver the ball inside 50. His vision and creativity, matched with his toughness and tenacity, means Butters doesn't melt under any heat. 

He enters Friday night's tantalising clash with Richmond as a key player for the Tigers to stop and restrict, an unusual status given his age and experience. Playing with his tongue out, shoulders taped and fist ready to pump after a goal, Butters is Port's firestarter. He's proving harder and harder to douse.