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Witherden a chance for Rising Star

With one of the younger squads in the league, a number of Lions players could be in contention for the annual Rising Star award. 
Following a strong second half to last season, Alex Witherden is a favourite for the 2018 award. 
Last year Eric Hipwood was a strong contender for the honour, finishing fifth amongst the 2017 nominees.
Take a look at who AFL Media believe deserve some close attention as we head into the season. 

Best chance: Alex Witherden

The creative half-back will surely start as one of favourites to win the overall award. Witherden played nine games at the back end of 2017 and turned heads with his composure and exquisite ball use. He averaged 24 disposals and five marks and looked right at home. His right boot is like a laser, able to pick out teammates in tight spaces. After a slow start to his pre-season, Witherden has worked his way into good shape, and with the addition of Luke Hodge in the backline, should take another step forward.

Other contenders: Jacob Allison (five games), Zac Bailey (yet to debut), Cedric Cox (eight games), Cam Rayner (yet to debut), Brandon Starcevich (yet to debut).

Past winners: Nathan Buckley (1993), Chris Scott (1994), Daniel Rich (2009), Lewis Taylor (2014). - Michael Whiting 


Best chance: Tom Doedee

In his third season on the Crows' list, the 2015 first-round draft pick looks set to get his chance as Jake Lever's replacement in defence. Looked handy in the JLT Series game against Fremantle with his ability to grab intercept marks and take the opposition's third tall forward. Yet to debut. Another first-round pick, Jordan Gallucci, should also get more opportunities this season as a half-forward taking over from Charlie Cameron. Gallucci, 19, played just one game last season, making his debut against the Brisbane Lions in round nine.

Other contenders: Darcy Fogarty (yet to debut), Jordan Gallucci (one game)

Past winners: Daniel Talia (2012) - Lee Gaskin

Best chance: Paddy Dow

The No.3 pick from last year’s NAB AFL Draft has played only AFLX and one JLT Community Series game, yet already has won plenty of admirers. In last Wednesday night's win over St Kilda, "Paddy Wow" was most impressive despite losing part of a tooth in the first half. The enthusiastic youngster from Swan Hill defied the pain as he put his head over the ball, collecting 13 disposals and kicking two goals. He displayed exquisite foot skills and explosive speed from the contest. Dow is set to make his debut in the season opener against the Tigers.

Other contenders: Harry McKay (two games), Lochie O’Brien (yet to debut)

Past winners: Nil

Best chance: Jaidyn Stephenson

The Magpies haven't had much luck with their top draft picks in recent times but they believe they've struck gold with last year's No. 6 pick Jaidyn Stephenson. The 19-year-old has firmed for a round one debut after impressing in the Pies' first JLT Community Series game against Greater Western Sydney. Pies coach Nathan Buckley says the blond bullet is "by far" the club's fastest player – a precious commodity in a largely one-paced team. Other candidates include fellow draftee Nathan Murphy, a rangy runner with a lovely right foot, and gutsy inside midfielder Callum Brown, who would have played more last year had it not been for a pre-season bout of glandular fever.

Other contenders: Callum Brown (five games), Nathan Murphy (yet to debut)

Past winners: Nil - Ben Collins 

Best chance: Josh Begley

After Essendon defender Andrew McGrath claimed the NAB AFL Rising Star award last season the Bombers don't have many standout chances heading into this year. Begley is probably best placed of the young Bombers to score some attention from Rising Star judges, having impressed last season when he broke into the senior side. The strong-bodied half-forward has shown a knack around a goal and was one of Essendon's best players in its elimination final loss to Sydney last year. Aaron Francis would also be in this mix, but his future at Essendon is uncertain as he takes a leave from the club for mental health issues.

Other contenders: Mason Redman (three games), Sam Draper (yet to debut), Matt Guelfi (yet to debut), Jordan Ridley (yet to debut)

Past winners: Dyson Heppell (2011), Andrew McGrath (2017) - Callum Twomey

Best chance: Andrew Brayshaw

No.2 draft pick Brayshaw arrived with huge expectation he could have an immediate impact in his debut campaign and nothing about his two appearances for Fremantle so far has changed those perceptions. Brayshaw looked right at home in the Dockers' midfield during his JLT Community Series debut, gathering 14 touches – used at 86 per cent efficiency  and laying six tackles against Adelaide, and was a regular starter in the centre square during Sunday's practice match win over West Coast. The 18-year-old never seems flustered despite winning plenty of his touches in heavy traffic and he should slot into Freo's best 22.

Other contenders: Bailey Banfield (yet to debut), Adam Cerra (yet to debut), Brennan Cox (10 games), Sean Darcy (eight games)

Past winners: Paul Hasleby (2000), Rhys Palmer (2008) - Travis King

Andrew Brayshaw has arrived at Fremantle with huge expectations. Picture: AFL Photos

Best chance: Zach Guthrie

As a composed young defender, Guthrie played nine of the Cats' last 12 games in 2017 after making an impression in his debut match against the Giants in round 15. He played in the first two of the Cats' finals but lost his spot for the prelim (along with James Parsons) when Tom Lonergan and Nakia Cockatoo returned. Scored the very first goal in the AFLX tournament as he showed off his slightly heavier frame, built courtesy of hard gym work over summer and the continuing consumption of home-cooked meals, as he revealed in February. Has a great opportunity to find a solid spot in the senior side this season, following the retirement of half-back Andrew Mackie.

Other contenders: Charlie Constable (yet to debut), Lachlan Fogarty (yet to debut), Jamaine Jones (yet to debut), Gryan Miers (yet to debut), Esava Ratugolea (yet to debut), Sam Simpson (five games).

Past winners: Joel Selwood (2007) - Jennifer Phelan

Best chance: Will Brodie

Entering his second season, the No.9 draft pick from 2016 should take a leap forward. Brodie played just two games last year but has noticeably got fitter and stronger and is on the cusp of playing early for the Suns. Standing 189cm, he is a big-bodied midfielder who loves to win contested footy and get in and under packs. With Gary Ablett's departure, there's an inside midfield spot up for grabs, and Brodie might just be the man to take it.

Other contenders: Wil Powell (yet to debut), Brad Scheer (four games), Jack Scrimshaw (four games).

Past winners: Jaeger O'Meara (2013) - Michael Whiting 

Best chance: Aiden Bonar 

The club's first choice at last year's NAB AFL Draft suffered a slight hamstring strain in his first month at the Giants but has rebounded well and looks set to have an impact in 2018. Bonar is a big-bodied draftee who moves well, and already looks at ease with his step up to senior footy. The soon-to-be 19-year-old is likely to spend time forward this season but will see some midfield time, and will come under serious consideration for an opening round debut.

Other contenders: Harry Perryman (eight games), Jeremy Finlayson (one game) - Adam Curley

Past winners: Nil 

Aiden Bonar is a strong chance of a round one debut. Picture: AFL Photos

Best chance: Harry Morrison

Morrison made his debut in the final game of last season against the Western Bulldogs and looked most comfortable, with 21 touches and six marks across half-back. Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson has seen enough already to suggest that Morrison has the temperament to be a top line player for the Hawks. Based on his sizzling summer on the track, in which he gained strength and excelled in the time trials, expect him to be close to Hawthorn’s best 22 by the end of the season.

Other contenders: Conor Glass (six games), Oliver Hanrahan (yet to debut), James Worpel (yet to debut)

Past winners: Nick Holland (1995), Sam Mitchell (2003) - Ashley Browne 

Best chance: Charlie Spargo

Spargo was the Demons' top pick in last year's NAB AFL Draft (No.29 overall) and has the ability to play through the midfield and up forward. The 18-year-old is likely to start his career in attack, where he has pace and smarts around goal. Had a delayed start to his pre-season after recovering from a serious shoulder injury, but showed a great work ethic and attitude throughout. Spargo, the son of former North Melbourne midfielder Paul, stands at 173cm, but he is deceptively strong above his head and stands strong in a ground-level contest. While Bayley Fritsch, ineligible to win the award due to his age, will almost certainly be the club's first draftee to debut, look for Spargo to push his case late in the season.

Other contenders: Oskar Baker (yet to debut), Dion Johnstone (yet to debut), Harrison Petty (yet to debut), Sam Weideman (10)

Past winners: Jesse Hogan (2015), Jared Rivers (2004) - Ben Guthrie

Best chance: Luke Davies-Uniacke

Taken at pick No.4 in last year's NAB AFL Draft, Davies-Uniacke was North's earliest draft selection since 2006 (Lachy Hansen, No.3). The midfielder has impressed in his first pre-season at Arden St and after a solid outing in the Kangaroos' opening JLT Community Series game against Melbourne looks well placed to debut in round one. The former Dandenong Stingray is a complete on-baller who is equally damaging at stoppages and bursting into open space, while his strong overhead marking makes him a threat when resting forward. At 188cm and 85kg, Davies-Uniacke also appears physically ready cope with the rigours of an AFL season.

Other contenders: Nick Larkey (two games), Ben McKay (one game), Cameron Zurhaar (four games)

Past winners: Byron Pickett (1998) - Nick Bowen

Best chance: Riley Bonner

The running defender got a taste of senior football at the end of last season and made the most of his opportunity. The 21-year-old is a great kick, takes the game on and provides plenty of run and carry out of the backline. A serious ankle injury to experienced defender Matthew Broadbent should provide Bonner the chance to start the season in the senior side. He impressed during AFLX and also showed some positive signs during the Power's first JLT Community Series game against West Coast. Exciting forwards Aidyn Johnson and Todd Marshall have also showed plenty of promise.

Other contenders: Aidyn Johnson (five games), Todd Marshall (three games)

Past winners: Michael Willson (1997), Danyle Pearce (2006) - Lee Gaskin 

Riley Bonner made the most of his brief taste of AFL football last season. Picture: AFL Photos

Best chance: Jack Graham

A second-year midfielder with a premiership medallion already in his top draw, Graham is rightly among the leading contenders for this year's award. After missing the first 12 weeks of the 2017 season with an ankle injury, Graham forced his way into the senior team for the final five matches – including all three finals – and was outstanding in the premiership decider, earning a Norm Smith Medal vote. With a hardened body, he is already equipped to spend significant time in the midfield and should put a full season together at the top level if he avoids injury.

Other contenders: Shai Bolton (six games), Jack Higgins (yet to debut), Tyson Stengle (two games), Patrick Naish (yet to debut)

Past winners: Brett Deledio (2005) - Nathan Schmook 

Best chance: Hunter Clark

This was hard to decide because a strong case could be made for Nick Coffield, who at No.8, was drafted with the selection right after Clark in 2017. Both players adapted to the elite level well against Carlton in the JLT Community Series last week but Clark's composure to take his time to think his way through traffic was very impressive for a first-year player. His toughness and elite disposal will be important for St Kilda but Coffield too could slot into the round one side at half-back and offer plenty of dash from defence.

Other contenders: Nick Coffield (yet to debut)

Past winners: Justin Koschitzke (2001), Nick Riewoldt (2002) - Dinny Navaratnam

Best chance: Oliver Florent 

The 2016 draftee showed glimpses of his capabilities in nine games last season but is sure to benefit from another pre-season at senior level, so look for his influence to increase. Florent has outstanding speed and foot skills so is best suited to a wing or half-forward, but applies intense pressure to the opposition, as shown by his seven-tackle effort against Brisbane last week. Once his confidence grows, expect the 19-year-old to use his pace more effectively to take the game on, and when he does, positive things will happen for the Swans.

Other contenders: Matthew Ling (yet to debut), Ryley Stoddart (yet to debut)

Past winners: Adam Goodes (1999), Dan Hannebery (2010), Callum Mills (2016) - Adam Curley 

Oliver Florent showed glimpses of his talent in nine matches last season. Picture: AFL Photos

Best chance: Daniel Venables

The Eagles are understandably excited to see what Venables can do this season after an injury-interrupted start to his career in the west. The 19-year-old had a slow build-up last year after arriving with a foot issue and would have debuted in round 13 if not for a toe injury that ended his campaign. Opportunities abound in West Coast's midfield after Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell's retirements and Venables has the explosive pace, aggression and attacking instincts the Eagles are looking for from their onballers. If he can stay on the park, expect Venables to play the majority of the season.

Other contenders: Brayden Ainsworth (yet to debut), Oscar Allen (yet to debut), Jarrod Brander (yet to debut), Jake Waterman (yet to debut)

Past winners: Ben Cousins (1996) - Travis King 

Best chance: Aaron Naughton

The West Australian has hit the ground running at Whitten Oval, with his competiveness, positioning and contested marking a standout. The 18-year-old, who was taken with pick nine in last year's NAB AFL Draft, took his good pre-season form in to the Dogs' opening JLT Community Series match against Hawthorn last weekend. Naughton held his own against champion Hawk Jarryd Roughead, and is every chance to make his debut in round one with veteran stopper Dale Morris sidelined through injury.

Other contenders: Patrick Lipinski (one game), Ed Richards (yet to debut)

Past winners: Nil - Ryan Davidson

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs