Summer Debates: Will Caleb Swanigan return to Purdue?
So it turns out we have this feature on the Boiled Sports dot com website thing where we can write words about topics that a lot of Purdue fans might be interested in. Who knew?
The current topic of intrigue is Caleb Swanigan's flirtation with the NBA. As we all know, the NCAA came to its senses and made the draft evaluation process a little more player-friendly, allowing underclassmen like Biggie to work out for NBA scouts at the draft combine, as long as they don't hire an agent. This weekend is the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, so it seemed like a good time to address whether Swanigan will return to Purdue next year.
Biggie, DraftExpress' 71st ranked prospect, seems to be approaching the Combine with his patented super-seriousness that has more than one Purdue fan worried that he might bolt after just one year in West Lafayette.
The question: What do you think are the chances Swanigan, currently a second round prospect, leaves Purdue for the NBA this summer?
I texted you earlier that I put it at 75% and I'll keep it there. Swanigan is not the type of guy to be dissuaded by a second-round grade. So, whereas some prospects might look at that and see a clear message that they should return to school to improve their grade, I think he views that as an inaccurate reflection of reality, and thus something that must be overcome. And something that he feels he's capable of overcoming. I don't think it's a huge secret that the thing he wants most is to be in the NBA, and if there's any indication that he'll get there this year, I think he goes for it, regardless of whether that's in the first round or second.
On a related note, I actually think his situation reflects all that is wrong with amateur sports in America (#hottake alert). In a more sane system, Swanigan - a pro-caliber prospect who nonetheless is not ready - would develop his skills in something resembling the Premier League's Professional Development League; a well supported (in terms of finances, facilities, and coaching) development program. Instead, players like Swanigan spend time in college, pretending to give a shit about getting a degree, basically wasting a bunch of time that their soccer brethren spend honing the skills that will give them the best possible chance to succeed at their desired career. University is excellent job training for most people, athletes excepted. And don't talk to me about the D-League, because the D-League is hot garbage, and also the strength of the PDL is the age limit of 21; if you're not good enough to make it as a professional by then, your opportunity is over, unlike the D-League which has no maximum age. It incentivizes development in a way that the D-League cannot.
To be clear, I don't think Swanigan wanting to jump to the NBA asap is morally wrong in any sense, what I think is wrong is that the system of amateur sports is set up to benefit the athlete the least out of all the actors involved. The athletes are forced to operate in a system that actively works against their best interest.
I totally agree that the NBA needs to have a better Development League option, as current D-League salaries of ~$33,000/yr are a significant pay cut from what most 5-stars receive from Division 1 colleges. (I kid, I kid...kinda.)
On the contrary, I think Swanigan going full-force through the NBA combine is reflective of how seriously he takes everything basketball-related. Swanigan, and Roosevelt Barnes, seem like they value experience beyond anything else, and getting a run-through of the NBA gauntlet before coming back to boost his stock. I'm sure Biggie is supremely confident in his abilities, and grades himself as a first-round value, but even he has to know that his conditioning is nowhere close to NBA-ready, and that's the biggest obstacle between a first and second round grade for a guy with Swanigan's profile (a 6'8" rhinoceros with a 7'+ wingspan and a high basketball IQ). Coming back as Purdue's primary option next year and bolting to the NBA right after is the most logical option.
Now, there are a few things working against that theory. First is that this year's draft is quite a weak one, which could inflate his value to contenders that draft in the second half of the 2nd round. Developing with, let's say, the Utah Jazz or Memphis Grizzlies (assuming they stick with their grit and grind play after hiring a new coach) while making close to $1M seems like a pretty cool thing to do. Going undrafted and proving his worth in training camps, though, seems like a mistake for the 9th ranked high school prospect in 2015.
Second, and this is pure speculation, is that a less-than-deal relationship with Matt Painter and Purdue's coaching staff could push him to really consider leaving a year earlier than he planned. There's no way to know their relationship unless you're a part of that locker room, but Painter gave Biggie the start all year and never really called him out in the media for his weaknesses (his high turnover rate, conditioning, etc). From that small amount of information, I guess I'm assuming their relationship is fine...but any type of friction could push him to the NBA earlier than we thought.
For the record, I think there's a 15-20% chance Swanigan leaves for the NBA, and that's particularly true if his recent calf contusion hampers him during the NBA combine next weekend.
A small addition: Watching interviews of Biggie like this, it underscores my idea of Swanigan as a single-minded guy. His goal, seemingly since Rosey adopted him, has been the NBA and he's going to do everything in his power to get there. If he comes back, he'll be playing for Purdue to increase his stock for the NBA next summer.
I love his determination and confidence so much. A potential smallball frontcourt of Vince + Biggie makes me drool.
If I'm Caleb Swanigan, and I'm as singularly focused on making the NBA as everyone assumes (with plenty of supporting evidence), I don't think I'd be as excited about a Vince + Biggie frontcourt as the rest of us. The NBA - or at least, smart NBA teams - place a high emphasis on 'fit'. And a 6'9" center whose range ends at 15" (being generous here) doesn't fit many schemes. If you're going to be a PF or a C in the NBA these days, you'd better be a.) tall or b.) a good shooter. Caleb is neither. The guys that are rotation players in the NBA that don't meet either of those criteria are usually guys like Serge Ibaka, who has a great mix of athleticism and defensive instincts (both of which Swanigan lacks). And even with him, they tried to turn him into a "3-and-D" guy because that wasn't enough.
So given that, he needs to be a PF at the next level, and his closest comparison is Zach Randolph. But the days of a bruising, below-the-rim, Dale Davis-type PFs are over. So he's kind of in this weird spot, where he has obvious NBA skills (motor, rebounding, passing out of the block, free throw shooting, touch around the basket), but obvious flaws that won't fly in the NBA either (short for his ideal position, average athleticism, weak jumper, average defender when played straight-up, below average defender when forced to move laterally).
If I'm Swanigan and I decide to head back to Purdue, I want to play the 4 exclusively, to show off any improvement that I've made at the deficiencies listed above (and given his stellar work ethic, I'm sure he will show improvement in each of those areas). The best thing to happen to him in that regard would be for him to have the same role next year that he did this year, but with improvements across the board, thus proving to skittish NBA execs that he's a solid bet to play the 4 in the NBA, and he gets drafted in 2017 in the first round.
But...what if he stays, but things don't play out exactly the way he wants them to? A small-ball frontcourt benefits Purdue greatly; the rest of the B1G and college basketball as a whole doesn't have a ton of NBA-quality athletic bigs who could exploit Swanigan's weaknesses. As a 5, Swanigan could have his way with the vast majority of the guys he'd be matched up with, and I'm fairly confident in saying that he'd at least hold his own against the other elite-level guys. Moving Vince to the 4 is a nightmare for opponents; there's literally nothing he can't do on offense and his defensive skills are more aligned with the 4 than the 3. Can you imagine? Isaac Haas batters the hell out of people for 20+ minutes, then Swanigan destroys whatever poor fool he's matched up with when Haas takes a breather. That's so exciting I almost passed out.
But while that benefits Purdue greatly, it hurts Swanigan more than anything else. If you're an NBA scout, you're seeing a guy dominate, but by splitting his time between his target position (PF) and his most natural position (C). And the question will arise: is he good enough to be a full-time 4 in the NBA? If you're being cautious, at this point next year, with Swanigan splitting his time, you'd say, you know, not enough data to say one way or the other. It cements his role as a C-PF tweener and doesn't offer him enough opportunity to settle the word on whether he's adequately addressed the deficiencies that would hold him back from being a successful PF in the NBA. And that's a tough place to be in, just ask JaJuan Johnson.
Maybe that's your concern if you're Swanigan, and maybe that's a big enough concern to tip the balance a little more in favor of going to the NBA early, even though he's not ready. Timing an early entry is so hard. Go too early, and you find yourself working your ass off just to make a roster (and it's no secret that NBA teams pour more resources into their first round picks than their second rounders / undrafted free agents, as they are more much invested financially in their success). Put it off too long, and maybe you get injured; plus the longer you stay in college, the longer scouts have to pick your game apart. Swanigan has some negatives that will never go away (he's done growing, and he's not going to suddenly have De'Andre Jordan's athleticism), and the longer you stay in college, the larger those negatives loom.
It's my uninformed opinion that Swanigan should come back to Purdue and leave next year no matter what, barring injury or a complete headline-worthy meltdown. If he fixes a few of his issues, he'll get that all-important first round guarantee and then he'll be set. And I know that Barnes & co. have access to information that most prospects (especially those who grade out like Swanigan) don't have. He should be getting really honest and helpful feedback (because the NBA won't want to sell Swanigan a bill of goods and have their relationship with Barnes suffer as a result) and I'm guessing that feedback will resoundingly be: "go back for one more year." But Swanigan is very confident in his abilities, and will be given every resource necessary to succeed, and has shown at least a little tendency to make emotional, rash decisions (*ahem*, the MSU commit). Maybe I'm putting too much of an emphasis on that, but I think he has every intention of leaving, and him staying would require a mountain of facts discouraging it.
I’ll add a few quick responses, and we can give our final thoughts:
Smallball is a thing that isn’t going anywhere, and a bruising power forward like Biggie must show positional versatility to be valued as a real long-term NBA asset. The ability to hold his own in the post (check), stretch the floor with court vision and a jumper (work in progress), and effectively guard most SF/PF/C’s (nooope) needs to be perfected before Biggie is prioritized by an NBA team. He wants to make a roster, but Roosevelt Barnes has the foresight to realize that he needs to earn developmental time from any franchise by showing glimpses of those skills.
Coming back to Purdue and dominating, whether that means alongside a sequoia of a center like Isaac Haas or a playmaking forward like Vince Edwards (both with decent NBA chances themselves) seems like a natural proving ground. The smallball lineup I suggested wouldn’t be played more than 8-10 minutes per game, so I wouldn’t be too hesitant if I were Biggie or Barnes.
I’d actually suggest players like Paul Millsap or DeJuan Blair as blueprints for Biggie’s potential. With Biggie’s confidence, I’m sure he’s watching tape of Kevin Love and Draymond Green, but you get the picture. Those are more realistic molds for the modern NBA than Zach Randolph, who seems to be phased out (see Julius Randle’s predicament as a talent-with-no-role, especially playing for an awful coach in Byron Scott).
I especially like the Millsap comparison, and see that as a real possibility if Biggie’s athleticism dramatically improves. The ability to switch screens onto small forwards remains a massive obstacle for Biggie, one that NBA teams will surely notice during the combine.
Bottom line: positional versatility and NBA-level conditioning (paging Josh Bonhotal), which is the opposite of a positional guarantee at the 4, would be what I’m looking for. And I agree, stay for one more year and go get that NBA money in 2017.
I really like Paul Millsap as an aspirational goal for Swanigan. Millsap is a respectable shooter, defender, and rebounder. If Swanigan can be even 80% of that, he'll have a long career. If he's not able to improve his defense and shooting, then it'll be a tougher road.
I think he really, really wants to go pro this year, but the evidence is overwhelming that he should come back. And reason has historically won out with Caleb and his support system, so maybe I'm overestimating the likelihood that he'll leave. I hope he comes back, and is pissed that he had to spend two years in college, and just destroys everyone. I will gladly accept that.