For the sixth time in the 12 years Matt Painter has coached at Purdue he will have a player drafted. It is the first time he has had an early entrant stay in the draft. Carl Landry, E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, Robbie Hummel, and A.J. Hammons were all four-year guys who maxed out their eligibility. So far, JJ is the only first round selection that he has had, but Caleb can change that.
The fact that he might not be a first round selection is a large problem I have with the NBA. I love college basketball. I love the passion from the fans. I love that it has raucous student sections that turn it into a real game atmosphere as opposed to piped in music during play while bored rich people sit courtside to be seen as opposed to actually watch a game.
But the NBA Draft, to me, represents the worst of the league. You have a 30 team league where, in any given year, there are about 5-10 teams that are openly not trying in order to get a better draft spot. The Lakers and Sixers are prime examples of this. You also have teams that clearly have no idea what they are doing year to year and get stuck in the lottery. The Kings, Knicks, and Nets are here. Finally, when you go into a season where maybe three teams have a legitimate shot at winning the title barring catastrophic injury it makes for a lack of interest.
But the draft offers hope that maybe you can luck into the next Lebron. For everyone else, the teams draft more on potential than on actual production. The second round is full of teams drafting guys on potential and stash in them in Europe because maybe, some day, they can contribute, as opposed to drafting a player that can contribute right now.
That is, unfortunately, what will hurt Caleb Swanigan. We know what he does well. He is a player that will not be an instant star and won’t single-handedly win a team a championship someday. He will, however, be a solid 10-15 year pro that can help a good team become even better. Because he is not an instant impact superstar that will hurt his stock, but he does a lot of things that will make him a steal in the long run.
Purdue fans are more than familiar with Caleb’s story and abilities, but the greater NBA crowd may not be aware. Swanigan was a McDonald’s All-American that came to Purdue two years ago with a lot of promise, but a lot to work on. He wanted to be a one-and-done guy, but after averaging 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds as a freshman he still had a lot to work on. He went through the draft process, got his feedback, then returned for his sophomore season with a list of things to work on.
And boy, did he work on them.
This past season Caleb was one of the best all-around players in college basketball. He was a finalist for National Player of the Year honors, was a First Team All-American, a Second Team Academic All-American, Big Ten Player of the Year, and was basically a human double-double. He shattered Purdue’s single-season rebounding record with 436 boards in 35 games. He led Purdue in scoring at 18.5 points per game by scoring in a variety of ways. He had a solid low post game and demanded a double team most times, but he could also step out and shoot the three. He finished the season shooting 44.7% from three, an improvement from 29.2% as a freshman. His overall shooting percentage went from 46.1% to 52.7%. For good measure he also shot 78.1% from the free throw line.
Caleb was also an excellent passer. He finished the year with 107 assists, which is very impressive for a big man. Caleb has great court vision and while he never got that elusive triple-double, he came close with a 20-12-7 in the NCAA second round game against a very good Iowa State team.
Some of the numbers were just insane. We came to take his double-doubles for granted so much that we were more stunned when he didn’t get one. This happened only 7 times in 35 games. By comparison, he had four games where he had at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same game. Among his best performances:
· A 32 point, 20 rebound game against Norfolk State. Sure, it wasn’t a huge opponent, but it was impressive to see no less.
· A 28 point, 22 rebound effort in a home loss to Minnesota. Purdue struggled mightily in this game and the Gophers played one of their best games of the season, but it was Swanigan’s basket that got the game to overtime.
· A 16 point, 14 rebound, 3 assist game at Indiana against fellow prospect Thomas Bryant. This was only sullied by the odd double foul call that took both out of the game in the closing minutes.
· At Michigan State, the school where he originally committed, he dropped a dominant 25-17-3 against a ton of vitriol directed at him. The Spartans had no answer for him at all, and it didn’t go much better in the second game where he had a 24-15-5 in the game at Mackey Arena.
Basically, Purdue knew it was going to get at least 15 points and 10 rebounds from him, every night, regardless of opponent. Even in the seven games where he did not get a double-double it didn’t matter much. Purdue blew out Morehead State and Arizona State. It won at Penn State in overtime despite him having his worst game of the year (“only” a 10-9-4). Against defending national champion Villanova he had a 20-8-4, but was dominant until missing a tying three at the end of the game. The other three non-double-doubles were an 83-78 loss at Iowa (we’ll get to that), an 82-70 loss at Michigan, and the 98-66 loss to Kansas in the NCAA tournament where the Jayhawks blew open a close game after halftime.
Caleb is a ridiculously hard worker too. In drafting him a team will get a player that will bust his ass at all times. Statistically, his career reminds me of Draymond Green and Kenneth Faried in their final college seasons. Caleb was listed this past season at about 20 pounds heavier than both, but slightly taller. Both of those players were human double-doubles in their final college seasons. Swanigan has similar rebounding numbers to Faried, and he can stretch the floor with his shooting like Green. His absolute ceiling is being a Green type where he is not the best guy on the team, but he is a guy that plays hard, rebounds, can spread the floor with shooting, and in general just be someone that other teams still have to worry about.
Purdue showcased this role for him at times by playing him at the five with other shooters on the floor. Unlike his freshman year, when he had Hammons and Isaac has always playing at the five, Purdue could go small and survive just fine with Swanigan at the five.
This is where the comparisons to Faried and Green go away. Faried is an athletic freak of nature, and while Swnaigan is good, he lacks that elite athleticism that NBA Scouts drool over. This is probably the biggest knock against him. A player like OG Anunoby at Indiana never came anywhere near Caleb’s level of production, but Anunoby’s athleticism is what scouts want and it is why he is expected to go ahead of Caleb.
Caleb also is not a great defender, and is nowhere near as good of a defender as Green. It is probably the one area he could have improved upon had he returned for his junior season. Even then, he did show improvement this past season. He had 28 blocked shots compared to just 8 as a freshman, and he had 15 steals compared to 12. Swanigan’s lack of quickness was exploited in the two losses to Michigan. The Wolverines exposed him a bit with Mo Wagner, who drew him away from the basket defensively. Wagner could shoot over him or get by him for a better shot from the perimeter. Michigan also had the shooters to make spreading the floor more dangerous. Two of Purdue’s eight losses were to the Wolverines, though the second was in overtime and more the result of Purdue missing key free throws in regulation.
Purdue discovered some very interesting things in close game situations with Swanigan. It is no doubt that Swanigan was Purdue’s best player, but he was not Purdue’s best player when it needed a basket in crunch time. Purdue did better when it went away from Swanigan at the end of a close game. Teams would key on him with a double-team because they knew he was going to get the ball, and that exacerbated his turnover issues. In losses at Iowa and Nebraska Purdue forced the ball to him in a late game situation and teams could stop him because he was doubled. He turned hte ball over in each game with the game on the line because he tried to force things a little too much. Against Villanova trailing by 3 he forced a bad three when Purdue we could have found a better shot. It is almost like we felt like he had to have the ball in those situations because he was the best player. Against Maryland, with Swanigan fouled out, Purdue won because it attacked the basket with Carsen Edwards and was forced to do something different.
That is not something I expect to be a huge issue in the NBA, however. Caleb will be a good player in the league, but he is not going to be the go-to best guy on a team like he was at Purdue. He is the perfect complimentary NBA player in my eyes because he can do a lot of things very well, serve a certain role with a team, and generally mesh with other established stars.
Turnovers were also an issue with him. He had 118 this year for 3.4 per game, but much of that comes from his high usage rate and teams swarming him because he demanded a double-team on the low block. We learned to live with it because he was throwing up an 18.5-12.5-3.1 every night. NBA teams won’t need him to be the end-all, be-all guy, so those numbers will go down.
Caleb is going to have a great pro career. Yes, he could have come back, worked on his defense, and maybe cracked the top 15 in next year’s draft, but he didn’t have much more to prove. He can work on those same things this coming season and get paid a lot of money to do so. Given his background, I don’t blame him.
This is a kid that was well over 300 pounds as an overweight 8th grader a few years ago and nowhere near the NBA. He transformed his body, won a state championship and Mr. Basketball honors in high school in Indiana, and made himself an NBA player through grit and hard work. In pre-draft workouts it looks like he has dropped even more weight, which can help with his athleticism issues.
Swanigan would be a great complimentary player for a team that is already a contender. He can come in as a 7th or 8th man and shoot, rebound like a demon, bang in the low post, and stretch the floor a little. I would absolutely love for him to go to San Antonio at No. 29 because that is a franchise that would know how to develop him further. I can see him going anywhere in the 25-40 range, and the team that drafts him will not be disappointed.
And that is where I am so frustrated with the NBA. They would rather draft a guy that might work out in the long run and be a little better. Caleb is a guy that will work out. You know what you’re getting with him: a hard worker and elite rebounder that will do whatever is asked of him. He is a sure thing, just not an elite sure thing.