IT WAS a Damien Hardwick pre-match prediction that piqued some interest.
Speaking to broadcasters just before Richmond solidified its position in the top eight with victory over Carlton just a few Thursday nights ago, the Tigers coach was asked for his thoughts on who would be leading the club's best and fairest count as things stood.
Given his rapid rate of improvement this season, Liam Baker was the obvious answer from Hardwick. But his next line shone a deserved spotlight on a player underrated externally, but pivotal to Richmond's 2022 hopes.
"But Marlion Pickett was really on fire early," Hardwick told Fox Footy.
CONTRACT TALKS Tigers to step up discussions with in-form Pickett
Approaching game No.50 this weekend, Pickett's career to date has understandably been headlined by his maiden appearance in the yellow and black when he became the first player in 67 years to debut on Grand Final day.
But this season, in particular, has seen the 30-year-old truly make a spot at Richmond his own. While he also played an integral part in the side's 2020 premiership campaign, he was used in a variety of different roles throughout that season.
This year, Pickett has carved out a consistent place for himself on a wing and has somewhat surprisingly entered Therabody AFL All-Australian conversations with his string of recent performances.
Despite it being nowhere near as flashy or as memorable as his 22-disposal effort on Grand Final day back in 2019, his performance in last Sunday's win over West Coast might have been the best display of his career so far from an individual perspective.
Pickett's 25 disposals were a career high, while he also added two goals in what was the first time he's kicked multiple majors in a single match. It complemented 10 contested possessions, six inside 50s and five tackles.
It was the culmination of a solid run where Pickett has played in 11 of Richmond's 15 games this season – he missed two games due to a hamstring injury and one because of a migraine, then served a suspension for rough conduct – becoming a key part of its push to September.
Champion Data notes that Pickett ranks second among all wingmen for AFL Player Ratings points, behind only Greater Western Sydney's Harry Perryman and ahead of Melbourne's Ed Langdon. It's the result of him rating well in multiple areas, rather than excelling in one.
He is rated top 10 among wingmen for chain involvements, intercepts, field kicks, shots at goal and pressure. He is also top 10 for run and handball, a distinctly Richmond trait that measures the distance between the point of winning possession and disposing of the ball.
Champion Data stats say that 6.8 of his AFL Player Ratings points come from ball-winning, ranked third for his position and above the wing average of 4.1. A further 5.3 points come from ball use, the most of any winger and far above the positional average of 2.2.
Part of his improvement, naturally, has stemmed from settling in a role. Last season, although he spent the majority of his time on a wing, Pickett was also used for 10.4 per cent of games in the ruck, 8.5 per cent in the backline and 6.2 per cent forward.
This season, Champion Data notes that he has spent 93.4 per cent of his time on a wing and has relished the opportunity to get some much-needed consistency in a single spot and establish himself in a familiar position.
His on-field progress follows more off-field responsibility recently being handed to someone known at Punt Road as being 'Mr Dependable', with Pickett taking on an increased leadership role over the past 12 months.
It follows similar progress to what he had made during his time at WAFL outfit South Fremantle, the place where he then earned his AFL opportunity through the mid-season draft at age 27.
Now, if his coach is to be believed, perhaps a maiden Jack Dyer Medal could be in the offing later this season to reward such improvement. It would certainly cap what has already been a remarkable career that hasn't even ticked over 50 AFL games yet.