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Caleb Swanigan and the Evolution to 20-20

We don’t blame you for forgetting about Swanigan’s woes as a freshman, but you’re doing him a disservice if you do.

NCAA Basketball: Crossroads Classic-Purdue at Notre Dame Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It can be very hard to get your point across on the internet. So let me be very clear: Caleb Swanigan was not a good basketball player last year. I’m sure this won’t go down the easiest for you. I know this because I spent last year screaming this, over and over again, on this site and on twitter and in our group chats and in conversations at the bar. Mostly, people replied back with something like - Look at all his rebounds! At this point I would blow a raspberry like a small child, dismiss this person as unworthy of my presence, and then walk away from them in an arrogant and pretentious manner. I’m a fairly haughty and full of myself, I admit.

However, it’s important that we all agree: Caleb was not good last year. It’s important to acknowledge that now so we can fully appreciate this incredible basketball player he’s turned himself into. Let’s go through his more measured improvements.

My go to stat last year was that Caleb Swanigan’s offense rating on Kenpom was 96.1. That was the lowest rating on the team. The next lowest of players who played was Rapheal Davis. Davis still managed an offensive rating of 104.5.

Last year’s Caleb Swanigan came in as a five-star recruit, but also a kid who left high school a year early. Unfortunately, expectations was more based around the five-star than acknowledging that physically and mentally, he was a full year behind most kids. The transition from high school to college is hard enough. Let alone with those kinds of expectations and with that little experience. The potential was there in Swanigan’s freshman season, but only in brief flashes.

It doesn’t do Caleb a disservice to mention this. It does the opposite. It’s mind blowing to look at the difference in numbers in Caleb’s game this season.

Freshman Year: 25.7 mpg, 46 fg%, 29 3p%, 8.3 rpg, 1.8 ast, .2 blocks, 10.2 ppg

Sophomore Year: 30.4 mpg, 59%, 52 3p%, 12.5 rpg, 3 ast, .8 blocks, 18.3 ppg

It’s not just that his counting stats have improved. Everything has improved. Swanigan worked his ass off to get into better shape. He’s quicker than before, stronger than before, and the most important part of his game isn’t his shot or his size, but his motor. He’s coming off his second straight 20-20 game and the third of his year. 20 rebounds doesn’t happen for any other reason than you just want the ball more than every other person on the floor. Coach Painter talked about Swanigan’s work ethic from day one. From the improvement we’re seeing this year, CMP might have been underselling his phenom.

Caleb Swanigan’s game has entirely changed. He’s no longer uncertain, hanging around the perimeter hoping to catch A. J. Hammons’ scraps. He’s gone from a free throw rate of 33.3 to 59.7 - the 105th best rate in the country. That’s resulted him in more than doubling his free throws a game from 2.8 to 6.4 attempts a game.

He’s scoring from everywhere more efficiently. The biggest problem in Biggie’s game last year was that he turned the ball over while also not scoring efficiently enough to make up for it. This year he’s shooting nearly 60% from the field when he didn’t even crack 50% last year. He’s already made 11 3-pointers, 10 less than his entire season output last year. The difference is he’s shot them at an over 50% clip compared to hoisting 72 of them last year and shooting less than 30%.

Caleb’s turnovers are up, but this is natural and expected with a 4% increase in usage rate. There’s still some sloppiness to his game, and an occasional lackadaisacalness to his sizing up opponents, but he’s doing too much right to be concerned about three bad possessions a game. His turnover number is up but his actual turnover rate is down while he’s nearly doubled his assists.

But the most important improvement has nothing to do with the huge numbers he’s putting up on the scoreboard. It’s his improved physical tools and better understanding of Matt Painter’s defense. Caleb Swanigan is no longer the worst defender on the team. Players do not turn him into a turn style every time they dribble at him. He’s gotten more fluid laterally, has raised his awareness, and provided Purdue with a defense capable of switching all positions while still providing some rim protection. His blocks have quadrupled, his block percentage has nearly tripled, and the Boilermakers finally won a Crossroads game because of Biggie’s defense, not offense.

Haas’s limitations are real. Good teams, with good pick and roll players, will carve Isaac up. This was known going into the season. The thing we didn’t know was whether Caleb was up to the task of anchoring a defense all on his own. The game against Notre Dame answered that. Biggie has turned himself into a 20-20 machine. He’s turned himself into a National Player of the Year candidate. He’s turned himself into the favorite for B10 player of the year. He’s turned himself into the absolute best player on a really good Purdue team.

Which is an incredible thing to say considering at times last year, he might have been Purdue’s worst player. This isn’t an insult. It’s the biggest compliment. The things Swanigan could control - getting into the gym, learning, working his ass off - he conquered. Now he’s conquering college basketball as well, one 20-20 performance at a time.