One of the more intriguing storylines of the 2017 College Basketball season was the rise to prominence of Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan. Having battled a variety of personal problems at a young age including weight issues, homelessness, and the death of his father, Swanigan was able to transform his body and career during his two seasons of college basketball.
A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Swanigan wavered between commitments to Cal and Michigan State before electing to stay home and play under Head Coach Matt Painter at Purdue. Swanigan showed promise during his freshman year, but after testing the draft waters and opting to return to school for his Sophomore year, Swanigan proved to be one of the most dominant players in college basketball, earning First Team All-American honors, while leading Purdue to their first Big Ten Conference title in seven years.
Standing 6'8.5 and weighing 246 pounds, Swanigan was one of the more physically imposing players in the NCAA this season. That wasn't always the case earlier in his career. Having weighed over 350 pounds as an eighth grader, Swanigan has worked diligently with dieting and conditioning to turn his size and strength into an asset. He most likely projects as a small-ball center at the NBA level given his athletic limitations, and although he is somewhat undersized at that position, he has the length (7'3 wingspan) and strength to compensate for some of his deficiencies. He is fairly underwhelming from an athletic perspective, and while he has shown improvement with his mobility and quickness, his lack of explosiveness affects his finishing and shot-blocking abilities, two crucial components of a modern-day NBA big man. His 2016 max vertical jump of just 29 ranked third worst of any prospect at the 2016 NBA Draft Combine. His pure strength and length helped him around the rim at the college level, but his athleticism will be tested on both ends of the floor at the NBA level.
Offensively, Swanigan was one of the biggest mismatches in the NCAA. He was one of only three players in a major conference to shoot above 54% on 2-point field goal attempts and 44% on 3 point attempts. Having primarily relied on his size to score as a freshman, Swanigan showed some improvement creating his own offense out of the low post. While he is most effective using his strength to seal deep post position, he showed improved touch scoring with his back to the basket using either hand to finish with short jump hooks or creating separation with mid-range fade away jumpers.
As effective as Swanigan was converting interior scoring opportunities, the same cannot be said for his ability to create offense from the perimeter. His first step is on the slow side and he is still limited as a ball handler, so creating off the bounce is still very much a work in progress for him. His turnover rate of 4.1 per 40 minutes is the highest of any player in the 2017 DX Mock Draft, an unusually high number for a player who is not a point guard and spends most his time off the ball. He is easily sped up and has a difficult time making decisions or controlling the ball versus pressure defense. Swanigan will not be asked to handle much playmaking in the NBA, but his ability to make smart decisions with the ball and play out of closeout situations is something that he will need to improve on.
Swanigan did show a much-improved feel for the game as a sophomore, particularly as a passer. His 3.7 assists per 40-minutes average was the highest number of any big man in the 2017 DX Mock Draft. He shows great vision using his size to pass from the high post or with his back to the basket. He won't see as many double teams at the NBA level, but his ability to pass out of short rolls or within the flow of the offense will be valuable skills for him early on in his career as his playmaking continues to develop.
The most significant improvement in Swanigan's game from his freshman to his sophomore year was the addition of a consistent perimeter shot. Having shot just 29% from deep as a freshman, Swanigan took a big step forward this past season, knocking down 45% of his 3 point attempts on a solid 2.4 attempts per game. His ability to stretch the defense is a huge skill for any big man in the NBA these days, particularly for someone who can score inside as well. Swanigan has a compact, but flat stroke which he looked comfortable using as a floor spacer off the ball, out of pick and pop situations, or as a trailer in transition. The huge jump for Swanigan as a perimeter threat came as a bit of a surprise, but his high free throw percentage (78.1%), touch around the rim, and flashes from NBA range lead you to believe that he has the potential to be a stretch big at the NBA level.
As dynamic as Swanigan's development was on the offensive side of the ball, his ability to play high level NBA defense is still very much in question. His size and athletic ability limit his potential on the defensive end of the floor. While he has length and strength to make up for some of his weaknesses, he really lacks the height or bounce to be a presence as an interior defender, and he doesn't quite have the quickness or mobility to defend on the perimeter. His average of 1.0 blocks per 40 minutes is the lowest number for any Center in the 2017 DX Mock Draft. The tasks of containing pick and roll on the perimeter or chasing around stretch bigs will likely be difficult adjustments for Swanigan to handle, forcing a team to pair him with a more mobile big man that can help cover for his deficiencies.
The most NBA-ready skill that Swanigan brings to the table is as a rebounder on both ends of the floor. He had four games of at least 20 rebounds, his average of 12.5 rebounds per game was the second highest in the NCAA, and his defensive rebounding percentage of 32.7 was the third highest mark in the NCAA. On both ends of the floor, Swanigan shows impressive instincts finding the ball off the glass, and makes a consistent effort to use his size to carve out space with physical box outs. While at times his lack of athletic ability shows, he can be dominant using his strength to establish position as a rebounder. His willingness to focus his energy as a rebounder could be a way for him to find minutes early on in his career.
Caleb Swanigan certainly has some limitations from a physical and athletic perspective, but given the strides he has made, and the commitment he has shown to improving his body and skill level, it would not be surprising to see him continue to develop at the professional level. He is not going to be the modern-day rim protector and pick and roll threat that a lot of teams are seeking at the 5, but he will bring a different skill set to a team as a hardworking, physical presence, with a potentially consistent inside and out offensive game. Having just turned 20 in April, he is fairly young for a sophomore and has the potential to develop into a unique NBA player.