September 17, 2018, 7:10 pm
Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.
Player: Caleb Swanigan
2018-19 salary: $1,740,000
Age, experience: 21, second year
Measurables: 6-foot-8, 250 pounds (7-foot-3 wingspan)
Strengths: rebounding, interior scoring, passing
Weaknesses: quickness, speed, leaping, defensive tools, efficiency, ball security
Swing factor: rim-protection
Likely role: deep reserve, spot minutes
The offseason departure of Ed Davis and the Portland Trail Blazers’ subsequent decision to target the perimeter in free agency opens the door for an incumbent big man to break into the team’s rotation. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for Portland’s 2017 first-round pick to establish himself, right? That chance is undoubtedly coming for Caleb Swanigan in training camp. What’s far less certain, though, is the likelihood that anything comes of it.
Swanigan appeared in just 27 games as a rookie, starting three in November next to Jusuf Nurkic up front as Al-Farouq Aminu dealt with an injury. After a rash of DNP-CDs interspersed with spot-minute duty, he was assigned to the G-League the day before Christmas. Swanigan played 14 games in total last season for the Canton Charge, averaging 14.2 points, 12 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 50 percent shooting in 30.3 minutes per game. While those numbers are relatively encouraging on the surface, the same issues that plagued Swanigan during his brief early-season audition with the Blazers also reared their ugly head against competition that many young NBA players dominate from the jump.
There’s only so much Swanigan can do to mitigate the inevitable limitations of his physical profile. His journey from a 350-pound eighth grader to McDonald’s All-American and eventual first-rounder has been well-documented, and rightfully so. Other talents with his body type have had their NBA dreams dashed by an inability to control their weight. Swanigan, on the other hand, has worked diligently to get below the 250-pound mark, and has the guaranteed rookie contract to show for it. His story is already one of inspiration and success.
But as a basketball player, in 2018 and beyond, Swanigan still lacks the athleticism necessary to carve out a lasting role in the league. He doesn’t have the foot speed to capably switch onto guards or chase stretch 4s around the arc. At 6-foot-8 with subpar leaping ability, he struggles to finish in a crowd despite possessing the wingspan of a player several inches taller. He’s also stuck between positions, not yet skilled enough to stretch the floor from power forward and seemingly ill-suited to be a defense’s last line of defense at center. Some of those deficiencies can be marginalized through additional training with developmental coaches and in-game experience, but there’s simply no existing analog for a player like Swanigan in the modern NBA.
If he beats the odds and in time becomes a useful player, it will surely be due to major improvement as a jump-shooter – ongoing refinement dating back to his days at Purdue. Swanigan shot 44.7 percent from 3-point range during his last year in college, a 15-point increase from the previous season on a slightly higher number of attempts. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the strides he took from the college line weren’t long enough to comfortably reach the extra distance of the NBA’s. Swanigan went 8-of-26 from beyond the arc in the G-League, and 4-of-9 in Las Vegas over the summer – hardly the type of volume that suggests he’ll be a legitimate 3-point threat as soon as this season.
While he’s a gifted passer, it’s not like Swanigan is dynamic enough offensively to have offense run through him at the elbows. He’s prone to tunnel vision when he gets the ball in the paint, too, a penchant that’s led to high turnover rates at each of his professional stops since being drafted. Swanigan is more skilled than most assume, basically, but hardly to an extent that obscures the inherent weaknesses of his game. In today’s league, it seems more likely he spends his career toward the end of the bench than developing the perfectly-polished offensive repertoire to become a regular contributor for a winning team.
Where does that leave Swanigan with the Blazers this season? Certainly behind Nurkic and Zach Collins in the frontcourt, and probably Meyers Leonard, a much better fit off the bench due to his legitimate stretch. Stotts will likely go super small more often in 2018-19, with Aminu and Moe Harkless at nominal center and power forward. Jake Layman, the Portland’s third and final combo forward, could factor in here, too. The chance that Swanigan becomes the Blazers’ third big man, or at least is in a season-long battle for that role with Leonard, probably rests more on his ability to successfully protect the rim than anything else – a long-shot given his aforementioned physical shortcomings, but still a possibility considering his wingspan, and how Portland’s staff has helped Nurkic become an impactful back-line defender despite less-than-ideal tools.
A full season removed from the draft, Swanigan has done little to assuage concerns the game has passed him by. That’s not his fault. If he was a second-round pick, the flaws poised to hold Swanigan back would be far more easily outweighed by his slowly-expanding skill set. As a prized first-round pick for a franchise lacking team-building assets, though, he seems destined to disappoint.