Quantifying Biggie Swanigan's Dominance
Today, class, we are going to talk about Caleb (Biggie) Swanigan, his two-year career at Purdue, and the extent to which his talents developed during that time. We will use analytics to demonstrate the exponential awesomeness observed during those seasons, and we will close with evidence demonstrating that the Biggie era was a rare treat in the era of NCAA analytics. Those who see otherwise will be sent down the hall to Professor Aneesh for Opinion Rehabilitation.
Biggie's freshman season was unremarkable only in that it matched expectations for him: despite playing in just over 60% of available minutes, Swanigan finished 20th nationally in DReb% (27.2), leading the Big Tenteen in conference play (28.8), and had top-20ish conference numbers in OReb% (7.4), FD/40 (4.6) and 2Pct (.519). (It should be noted that AJ Hammons posted a DReb% of 24.8 himself that season and made kenpom's all-conference Top 5.)
With that in mind, Biggie's closest kenpom match in 2016 was 2014 Julius Randle, the one-and-done who just posted a 16.3 PER with a bad, bad Lakers team. His second match was 2007 Wayne Chism, a solid four-year starter at Tennessee, and #3 was 2014 Aaron Gordon, another one-and-done who's turning out to be a capable player in Orlando. Turning out like any of those players would have been nice, but the Arc of Awesomeness had not yet reached its inflection point. For one thing, Biggie's numbers seemed to dip against tough competition, as one might expect in an average freshman: 3Pct dropped from .292 in all games to .250 against Tier A opponents, DReb% from 27.2 to 21.4, ORtg from 96.1 to 84.7 ... even FT% fell from .713 to .577. Clearly, there was work to be done, and fortunately, Biggie was just the man for the job.
Christmas break, 2015. My long-time Purdue friend and I get the three-game deal and sit up in the rafters to watch some Boilerball. In each game, prior to warmups, we see some guy out on the court, shooting threes, again and again and again. Probably (definitely?) a player, because he's got someone rebounding for him. Not a bad shooter either. We were too far away to tell who it was, though. He'd get in some large number of shots, then disappear into the tunnel, presumably to change into warmups and come out with his teammates.
With Hammons gone and Isaac Haas not yet ready to pick up the burden, Purdue needed Swanigan to emerge as a star. This is what they got:
- 2008 Ryan Anderson, a two-year star at California who posted .530/.410/.869 his sophomore year before going to the Nets in the first round and turning into a solid NBA player, peaking in 2011-12 with a 21.2 PER in 61 starts for the Magic.
- 2010 Greg Monroe, another two-year star who's had an outstanding NBA career to date (20.1 PER, 66th all-time), although sadly it's now with Milwaukee.
- 2016 Domantas Sabonis, who - stop me if you've heard this before - spent two years wreaking havoc at Gonzaga (28.2 DReb% (ahead of Biggie), 61.2 eFG%, .615 2Pct, 120.0 ORtg as a sophomore) before getting his feet wet in Oklahoma City this past season.
- 2012 Jared Sullinger, who finished 3rd in KPOY while painting pretty much his entire stat line yellow and red* in a season that saw Ohio State reach the Final Four before falling to Kansas by two. Yep, Sullinger went pro after two years as well, putting in a few good seasons before falling off the face of the D-League in 2017.
That list of comps suggests that Biggie exploded in 2017, and indeed he did. If there was an area of his game that didn't improve, analytics didn't capture it. Swanigan defended his conference title in DReb%, improving to 33.8% this past season. On every missed shot by a Purdue opponent, roll a d6 - 1 or 2 means Biggie got the rebound. Overall, his DReb% was 32.7, third nationally behind someone not listed on kenpom's top-100 page (I'm not even kidding for some reason it starts with #2) and Hofstra's Rokas Gustys. There are exactly two other power-conference players in the top 20: OSU's Trevor Thompson at 9 (29.6) and Seton Hall's Angel Delgado at 14 (27.7).
Oh, and there's this: .447 from three, 47th nationally. He actually led Purdue for a good part of the year before eventually falling behind Dakota Mathias (.453). It wasn't like Biggie was lighting up 300-RPI teams, either: his 3Pct against Tier A opponents was .522 ... which was representative of that group of stats as a whole. Biggie's improvement against Tier A opponents was remarkable,. especially considering he was getting about 30% more minutes as a sophomore. (Here's where I encourage you to get a subscription to kenpom so that you can marvel over the awesome numbers yourself. If I listed every stat that went up from 2016 to 2017, it'd be a fair-use violation. I can say that the only stats where he wasn't ranked nationally were TORate, Stl% and FC/40.)
To get a better idea of how his game improved, we can look at numbers from hoop-math. In 2016, Biggie's shot distribution was 25.9% at the rim, 48.6% two-point jumpers, and 25.5% from three; in 2017, that changed to 30.4%/49.4%/20.2%, moving about a fifth of his threes to the rim. While it didn't necessarily work this way, it's almost like he took his ill-advised transition threes and made them into dunks: in 2016, he was 6 for 19 (.264) on transition threes, but in 2017, that became 13 for 24 (.542). That played a role in Purdue improving as a team in transition threes, from .350 in 2016 to .399 in 2017.
Biggie's eFG% in transition also improved, from .605 to .703, and that was with a significantly higher volume (increasing from 43 shots to 59). And in case you thought it was all about offense and transition, Swanigan improved in another key area. In 2016, he blocked 8 shots ... but opponents rebounded 4 of those, 50%. In 2017, he blocked 28 (13 at the rim, 14 jumpers, 1 three - tying him for the team lead with, of all people, Spike Albrecht) ... but opponents rebounded only 7, 25%. In a sense, Biggie improved every aspect of his transition game, from creating breaks to finishing them.
hoop-math also talks about PAM, Points Above Median - basically, how many points a player adds above a baseline TS% of .480 - and breaks it down by situation: total, at rim, transition/non-transition, 2s, 3s, and FT. Last year, Biggie was 34.4 PAM overall on 282 FGA, -6.1 on threes, 28.8 at the rim not in transition or on ORebs, and 51.9 overall at the rim. This year? 146.1 overall on 421 FGA, 32.4 on threes, 51.4 at the rim not in transition or ORegbs, and 81.1 overall at the rim.
Biggie finished fourth in KPOY behind Josh Hart, Jock Landale from Saint Mary's (?), and Johnathan Motley. He was the key cog on a team that probably overperformed for the season, managing to cover its weaknesses (too many turnovers on offense, too few on defense, oddly low OReb% despite Swanigan, lack of depth) and getting it through two close games before getting waxed by a national contender. While it's possible that if he'd stayed, he could have continued to improve, it's hard to look at the evidence and find a compelling reason not to jump to the NBA: the work Biggie has left to do is best done at that level, as much as we might want it otherwise.
While he won't be in a Purdue uniform next season, Biggie did leave a mountain of numbers in his wake, most of which help to tell the tale of a young man who worked hard enough to become the player he is today ... and will no doubt continue working to become that kind of player at the next level. In short, the awesomeness of Caleb Swanigan at the collegiate level is inarguable, but just in case they're necessary, you now have the numbers to prove it.
By now, you know the unnamed player was Biggie. It was something to see: a freshman shooting threes in front of a half-full Mackey Arena crowd - it wasn't like there were just a handful of people there to watch. He would shoot and shoot and shoot, come back out for warmups, play the game, and then probably go to Cardinal Court and shoot afterward. You can't put a number on that kind of work ethic.
*national ranking colors on kenpom