Player Profile - Shai Bolton

Shai Bolton may be the key to another Richmond flag. This weeks newsletter highlights why he's so special from a scoring output and athletic standpoint and will detail his importance to Richmond's success.

Lachie Neale, Jake Bowey

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Shai Bolton

Anyone else have that feeling? You know what I’m talking about. That ominous feeling experienced by opposition teams during Richmond’s dynasty -the second half season run.

Excluding the 2017 season, Richmond liked to dabble below or the around the top 8 at the start of the year before suddenly racing into the top 4 and setting themselves up for finals.

Clearly, this year is different to the premiership years. Yet, some have begun to wonder... are we witnessing a ‘Richmond Resurgence’ in 2022?

As of writing this, it’s not entirely ridiculous to suggest.

After starting the year 2-4, including poor losses to Adelaide and St Kilda, Richmond are 6-1 since.

They are the most in form team in the AFL. And as it has always been with Richmond, it starts with their defensive system, which has markedly improved in restricting opposition scores since the beginning of the year.

As noted by the terrific writer Ricky Mangidis (check out his work here), the percentage of scoring shots conceded by Richmond inside their D50 improved from league worst (Rounds 1-6) to 2nd in the AFL (Round 10 onwards).

Even more promising is Richmond’s Inside 50 differential, which has improved from 15th to 2nd in the AFL in that same time period. This is a big win that has allowed Richmond t play a more forward half territory game. Their midfield, with the added inclusion of Short, is starting to click into gear nicely.

But it isn't the time to talk about Richmond’s defence nor on the importance it will play for a deep finals run. I want to talk about Richmond’s scoring output, especially since they are the 2nd highest scoring team in the AFL. There's a player that is generating a lot of those scoring opportunities and has incredible upside to dramatically raise Richmond's finals ceiling.

Of course, I’m talking about Shai Bolton.

Don’t Shai Away

I’d be surprised if even the most casual AFL fan hadn’t heard of Shai Bolton at this point. He’s no secret. He’s the epitome of NBA superstar Dominique Wilkins' legendary nickname, the human highlight reel.

If Bolton isn’t kicking absurd goals on his opposite foot from the boundary line or taking Mark of the Year, he’s bursting out of packs, dodging tackles and taunting opposition players streaming into goal (we don’t condone this kind of behaviour at FTP headquarters Shai!).

Bolton has a claim to the title of most exciting player in the AFL. Yet, underneath the highlights and breathtaking moments is a seriously special player with substance and smarts to change a game.

Let’s start with the statistics in 2022:

18 disposals (10 contested disposals), 3 marks, 1.8 goals, 1 goal assist, 4 inside 50’s and 8 score involvements

What jumps out immediately is the unbelievable scoring impact Bolton has from his high disposal clip. Bolton ranks elite in all three important scoring statistics; goals, goal assists and score involvements. On average, Bolton has a score involvement 44% of the time he disposes of the ball, which at 18 disposals a game, is some pretty good odds.

To put those numbers into context, no other player in the AFL averages 18+ disposals, 2 goals and 7+ score involvements a game (Yes, it's specific). Yet, the only players around the mark are Zac Bailey, Toby Greene, Jeremy Cameron and Isaac Heeney …. pretty good company.

Bolton’s 8 score involvements per game alone is an impressive feat. Only Petracca and Jeremy Cameron have had more in 2022. This has been incredibly valuable for a side that struggled to score points last year (11th).

So what about Bolton is so great?

Firstly, Bolton is a word class athlete.

Some AFL players are great athletes through singular traits, things like pace (Clark, Saad), verticality in the air (Howe, Heeney) or agility/elusiveness (Gresham, Neale). Very few players possess multiple traits. In fact, it’s even rarer when such traits are exhibited all at a high level. Bolton is that kind of athlete.

He is dynamic in his movement, both around the ball and in the air. He is quick and has line breaking pace with ball in hand. Few can catch Bolton once he gets momentum.

His big strength lies in his elusiveness and powerful change of direction. He's an expert at generating horizontal momentum, which is pivoting his body horizontally to exit traffic/congestion.

Players are so used to tackling what’s in front of them. If what’s in front of them can shift their body a metre to the left or right, it suddenly makes it very difficult to predict their next movement. Bolton does this all the time and you’ll often now see players just resort to hedging him a certain way instead of trying to tackle him.

It means Bolton can generate space that simply isn’t there for others. More importantly, it gives him time to make damaging decisions.

When a player possesses this kind of rare athleticism, it’s smart to play them close to goal.  Bolton consistently turns an opportunity with little scoring potential into a goal for himself or a team mate. How many players have the strength, agility and composure to kick this kind of goal?

What's worse for an opposition team than a player that knows they have these capabilities? One that positions themselves in a dangerous areas to use those capabilities effectively.

Bolton ranks #1 in the AFL for Total F50 ground ball gets (just under 3 a game) and 7th in the AFL for shots on goal. Usually something good happens when Bolton has a F50 ground ball.

Bolton is a nightmare for any match up on his ground level presence alone.

But when you combine that with his capability to play above his height with a leap to take contested marks in the air, it makes Bolton a dual threat forward. Bolton averages at least one mark inside 50 per game, which is elite for a mid sized forward. What this ultimately means is Bolton has so many different avenues to impact the scoreboard.

This is absurd. Bolton flys to try and take this pack mark and then simultaneously roves the same pack.

Yet, the crazy thing is that Bolton does this while showing serious flashes of gamebreaking ability as a midfielder.

Richmond loves to play Bolton at centre bounces because his athleticism constantly creates damaging clearance exits, especially through the front of stoppage. He has shown multiple times this year that he is a goal kicking threat from anywhere.

Look at where Bolton first gathers the ball in these clips, and then remember that he kicks a goal in the majority of these.

Now, by no means is Shai a perfect player. When things aren’t going his way, he can mope and become disinterested. He doesn't love physicality and it has worked for oppositions in the past.

For a mid-sized forward with his athletic attributes, he can be poor with his ground level pressure. He averages less tackles inside 50 than Riewoldt and Lynch in 2022. He does rush his disposal at times, often over kicking the ball.

His disposal efficiency of 63.7% is considered below average. This goes to say that for all of his rare attributes, Bolton's not a finished product. Nor should he be at 23 years old. But with a somewhat ageing list, time is of the essence for Richmond.

Richmond need Bolton at his best now.

How far can Bolton take Richmond?

Bolton is the wildcard of this Richmond team and provides a clear point of difference. Match up wise, he’s a headache. All of the best teams in the AFL have strong key position backs for Lynch and to a lesser extent, Riewoldt.

Even Dustin Martin, for all of his brilliance, has lost a step this year. Weirdly, teams probably feel more comfortable finding a Dusty match up than a Bolton one.

How many of the best teams have a true match up for Bolton?

He’s too explosive at ground level for a Lever, Hibberd, Hunt or May. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with Young, Chapman, Pearce, Newman, Docherty or Plowman taking that match up. Bews and Starcevich would be the most apt, but it highlights the point. There aren't many solid matchups for him.

When Shai Bolton plays well, Richmond rarely lose. Since 2021 to the present, when Shai averages 8 or more score involvements per game, Richmond are 11-2.

The correlation between those two things is a little murky. given the argument could be made that a player will average more score involvements when a team is scoring more and thus winning. But when you factor that into Bolton’s goal kicking and assist numbers, it paints a clear picture in how potent Richmond are offensively when Bolton plays well.

Dustin Martin has been the key to unlocking Richmond’s best version during their premiership run. That player isn’t necessarily gone but the signs haven't been promising. Richmond hope that Martin’s down year is more due to a lack of continuity, mindset and consistency of games than the aftermath of his shocking injury last year. Time will tell.

Nevertheless, the 2022 Richmond Tigers have a new star. If Bolton continues with his current rate of progression, why can't he be the difference maker come September?

Let me know if you agree.

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