2015 Purdue Basketball Preview: Caleb Swanigan
[Click here to see the rest of the 2015 player preview posts.] 2014-2015 Season Expectations
Everyone reading this knows the story, but just in case…here are the cliff notes.
Caleb was a struggling 350lbs in 8th grade, when he was adopted by Roosevelt Barnes, an agent and Purdue football/basketball/baseball alumnus. Fast-forward five years, and Swanigan was 2015’s Indiana Mr. Basketball, a McDonald’s All-American, IN state champion with Homestead, 2015 FIBA U-19 & 2014 U-17 Gold Medalist, and a consensus top 20 high school recruit (#9 ESPN, #13 Scout, #19 Rivals).
He reclassified to graduate in 2015, initially favoring Cuonzo Martin and Cal’s pitch. Then he committed to Michigan State out of the blue (which even caught Tom Izzo by surprise). He decommitted three weeks later. And then…
Two weeks ago, word broke that his commitment to Purdue (and thus his eligibility) was still under investigation. On October 30, the NCAA rightfully cleared Swanigan.
What a whirlwind. But, in my completely biased eyes, Biggie ended up exactly where he could thrive most easily. Generously listed at 6’9”, Caleb is an undersized collegiate center, and most naturally fits as a power forward if his eyes are on the NBA. Cal and Michigan State would have played him at center, and he would have struggled to get a well-defined role right away at Kentucky or Duke. At Purdue, he gets to play alongside two behemoth centers in AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas, and can play small minutes at center thanks to Vince Edwards’ versatility. He won’t be counted on right away to lead the team as a scorer, and is surrounded by weapons that can (hopefully) give him plenty of room to work.
Really, Swanigan is an ideal fit for Purdue, and Purdue was perfect for Swanigan.
Many national recruiting analysts are concerned that Biggie could struggle away from the post, and that would really make sense if you look at his high school tape.
That highlight from his junior year doesn’t exactly scream quickness and versatility.
And in the preseason game on Sunday…
And OH MY GOD HE’S GOT A DIRK SHOT NOW TOO:
Holy hell. That doesn’t even look like the same player. Biggie has dropped to 250lbs, and seems to look much more comfortable running the floor. He moves very methodically, with an attention to detail when it comes to offensive footwork. Even though he looks plodding at times, there is actually very little wasted movement and he always ends up exactly where he wants to be in the paint. (Also: because he’s a bulldozer. But still.)
Going back to my main counterargument against the concerns national analysis have with Biggie’s fit as Purdue’s power forward: his dribbling and passing skills. His ball handling has developed faster than any other part of his game, a byproduct of sheer practice hours since his junior year. Biggie can move with the ball comfortably enough to execute very effective short-rolls from the elbow in a crowded paint…again, maybe due to the fact that nobody was strong enough to stop him in high school. Going up against forwards that can body him in conference play could slow Biggie down a bit, particularly because of his lack of vertical athleticism (read: he can’t jump over a phone book). But, looking at the schedule, there are few Big Ten teams who have two bigs that can handle both Biggie and Isaac/AJ simultaneously.
Finally…we get to my favorite part of Biggie’s game. His passing and court vision from the high post is only rivaled by Vince, and could make for some incredibly fun highlights. Here’s an alley-oop Biggie threw to Haas in the preseason game:
Not even fair. He’s tall enough to see everything when standing beyond the arc, and skilled enough to put passes where only his center can reach. There were a few gorgeous feeds from the high post to a quick-attacking Haas that had me drooling…that combination could be lethal against any bench unit (as Hammons will undoubtedly get the start most nights). The passing angles available when both Vince and Biggie are on the court together have the potential to be mind-bogglingly beautiful.
According to (what used to be) Grantland’s Zach Lowe, post passing might be the NBA’s emerging “most important skill”, especially with the way pace-and-space basketball is headed. Lowe argues against the “death” of post-up play, rather pointing to an evolution of big man responsibilities. What is now often referred to as the “stretch 4” (describing a power forward that can step out and nail a jumper) is being replaced with a “playmaking 4”; a forward who can use his passing and driving ability (in addition to the threat of a shot) to stretch the floor in every direction.
So…is it me or does that absolutely scream BIGGIE? I think, despite his lack of athleticism, Biggie could have a perfect place in the NBA using his basketball intellect and natural playmaking abilities from the high post (as we should see at Purdue).
The biggest question in Biggie’s game is defensively, where he could struggle to stay in front of quicker forwards, particularly against high-powered smallball lineups. Like Haas, Swanigan will need to work on his lateral quickness, but his footwork is usually pretty passable and he’s got an absolutely absurd 7’5” wingspan so there is some hope. In a perfectly ideal situation, Biggie could develop into something of an “in-shape Boris Diaw” (the first of many comparisons for Biggie in this post)…combining next-level playmaking abilities with his size at forward to be a lethal offensive weapon, while using his length to be a good-enough system defender to stay on the floor in crunch time.
Undisputed Strength: Half-court passing/playmaking vision, and being a bully in the post. Also, like Vince, his hair game is on point.
Biggest Weakness: Lateral quickness on defense.
Best Offseason Story: Not even close. Jason King’s piece in Bleacher Report chronicling the incredibly difficult childhood Swanigan survived was nothing short of heartbreaking and impeccably researched. Between this and seeing his maturity in interviews (both in high school and now), I can’t be more excited to have this kid in black and gold. A must-read story for any Boilermaker fan.
GIF/Vine/moving picture of the year:
An early frontrunner for GIF of the year. Love you, Biggie.
CLICK HERE to see projections for everyone on the team.
Methods: Projected each player’s stats per 40 minutes (loosely based on increases/decreases from last year), scaled to my projected minutes per game.
Assumptions: Nobody (read: Cline and Smotherman) redshirts, and the team totals are as stated. Parenthetical numbers are where those team totals would have ranked in 2014-2015. Remember, last year’s team was 10 players deep, this year’s team could be 13 players deep.
I’m stupidly all-in on Biggie this year. I really do see him as an instant double-double guy. Now, these are borderline unreachable numbers, but it’s what a lot of you are expecting to see from Biggie this year. I do think it’s in the realm of possibility (at least, on paper), which puts him in very unique company…particularly when you look at that astronomical assist total. In fact, here’s a list of guys who averaged over 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists as freshman:
Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Eddie Griffin, Chris Gaston, Blake Griffin, Caleb Green, Kawhi Leonard, BB Waldon, Andrew Bogut, David West, Venky Jois, Tony Mitchell, and Nerlens Noel.
That’s one hell of a list. And honestly, my predictions coupled with this list was designed to show readers how hard being an instant double-double, facilitating machine would be for Biggie as a freshman. But honestly…I think he could do it. Not because he’s better than that list, but because he’s the perfect player in the perfect situation and could get close just by crashing the offensive glass (9 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists would be a ridiculously successful season)
And, in terms of previous basketball comparisons…the name I’ve seen most is Zach Randolph, for a few obvious reasons. Both are big forwards, committed to Michigan State, showed the potential to shoot, and are from Indiana. But, in addition to in-shape Boris Diaw, I have a few comparisons I like a little better.
In terms of collegiate success, following the model set by Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng (9pts, 9rbs in his sophomore and junior years on two stacked teams) in the body of Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes (6’8”, 260lbs, double-double with over 2 assists during his sophomore and junior years) or NC State’s Richard Hollowell (6’8” 260lbs, 12.7pts/10.9rbs/1.7asts as a senior) are realistic comparables. Even a slimmer version of Baylor’s Rico Gathers last year (6’8”, 260lbs, 11.6pts/11.6rbs) with better court vision is a great prism to view Biggie’s upside.
If you really, really, really want to stick with Biggie in the mold of certain NBA archetypes (which I don’t endorse, because the crown is heavy), let’s take a quick look at four names. DeJuan Blair is the first one that came to mind, as an undersized forward with great skills and basketball IQ to pair with average athleticism. We can also talk about Zach Randolph’s ability to play a completely horizontal game, in addition to his incredible high-low post passing skills (just watch some highlights of his chemistry with Marc Gasol if you want a best-case-scenario for his interplay with Hammons and Haas). I also thought about Paul Millsap’s rebounding prowess, but Biggie has a much better playmaking ability (and doesn’t have early the athleticism that Millsap had in college).
But the one name a few people threw out that might fit well is a not-quite-as-good Kevin Love. In high school, Love was fairly heavyset and known for his fantastic rebounding and interior scoring. Love never really had a great jumper in high school, but college and early years in the NBA saw him work his tail off to become a lethal floor-spacing forward. Love’s passing stood out in high school as well…particularly his outlet passing, which he used in full effect with Minnesota and now in Cleveland with LeBron.
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar.
Now, remember…Love was a consensus top-3 recruit his senior year. Biggie isn’t nearly as good…but with a little bit of luck (and a whole lot of hard work) Swanigan could have an absolutely special year.
Unsolicited BS Advice for 2015-2016:
Don’t worry about stepping on anyone’s toes as the “new guy”, just go out and play your game. Rely on the centers to give you options in the paint, and make opponents pay when they see you at the elbow in a triple threat position. Work on your ball-handling skills and showcase your post-passing, because those could be the abilities you showcase for NBA teams.
Defensively, stay active and alert. AJ will have your back if you make a mistake (and you probably will, with a fairly high fouling rate as you get used to collegiate play), just make sure to help on AJ’s man as he goes for the highlight-reel block.
Overall, just make sure to have patience. You’re bound to have a frustrating stretch this year, it happens to all freshman. Just fall back on the skills that shouldn’t variate too much: passing from the post and rebounding. If you come back for two years before bolting for the NBA, you could very well be lottery-bound. Trust your work ethic, and that Coach Painter (and his staff) want you to succeed as this program breaks through to unseen heights.
Freshman don’t get a Best/Worst Case Scenario this year, because I don’t want my jinx hitting their vulnerable ACLs.
Feature image from PurdueSports.com