It’s always dangerous to speak in hot takes. It’s especially risky when using a small sample size to project the entire career of a 20-year-old prospect.
But what fun is sensible analysis during the dog days of the NBA offseason?
The Portland Trail Blazers’ summer league season kicked off this weekend with a strong 72-63 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The team followed that up with a 70-64 dud against the Boston Celtics, but in an exhibition league focused on prospect development over team success, it’s the individual players whom most fans and analysts are there to witness.
As far as Rip City is concerned, it’s all about Caleb Swanigan. Yes, people want to see what Zach Collins can do (not to mention Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman and R.J. Hunter), but through two contests, it’s the former Purdue Boilermaker who has found his way into the spotlight and looks like an absolute steal.
After going No. 26 in the 2017 draft, Swanigan showed out in a big way in Game 1 of summer league competition. The 6’9” forward scored 16 points and corralled 13 rebounds. He nearly had a double-double by halftime and although he wasn’t the most efficient from the field (4-of-12), he did knock down 7-of-8 free-throws.
Skip ahead to Game 2 against the Celtics and the numbers aren’t quite as impressive. But this isn’t designed to be a game recap. It’s a look ahead at what could be a surprisingly impressive rookie season—if he gets the opportunity to show what he can do.
At this point, the Blazers have seven players sharing two frontcourt positions entering 2017-18. Jusuf Nurkic, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Collins and Swanigan will all play either the center or power forward position this season. Move Aminu back to the 3, you say? Maurice Harkless likely ends up as a 4 in that scenario where he played 32 percent of his total minutes last season, per Basketball-Reference.com. So the move is moot as far as clearing space is concerned.
One thing is clear: Swanigan will need to make a name for himself behind the scenes well before fans get a regular look at him. He’s an elite rebounder with soft hands and good length—all despite his subpar athleticism—but minutes will be earned, not given. Unless significant moves are made ahead of the new campaign, he’ll start the year far enough down on the depth chart that any on-court improvements will be made at the practice facility in Tualatin, not the Moda Center.
The thing about Swanigan that we can’t ignore, though, is that he’s overcome adversity before, and on a much grander scale than being paid millions of dollars to sit on an NBA bench.
As a kid, Swanigan dealt with problems in his personal life that ranged from weight control and homeless all the way to the death of his father. As an eighth-grader, he weighed 350 pounds, yet he did what he needed to do to get his body ready for elite competition and is now a 6’9”, 250-pound enforcer at the rim who averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and shot 44.7 percent from the three-point line during his sophomore year.
In Portland, Swanigan will have an opportunity to defy all odds once again. The beautiful thing about a crowded frontcourt is that it inspires competition. And when it comes to this particular frontcourt, Nurkic is the only surefire starter unless you consider Aminu at the 4 a permanent lineup solution.
If Swanigan can show in practice what he showed in Game 1 of summer league (an ability to finish and defend at the rim, and a bruising style of play that puts his size and strength to good use), there’s no reason he won’t start to see time over the likes of Leonard, Vonleh and Davis.
And if the big man can get himself playing time on a playoff hopeful where he’s showing his two-way capabilities, the league will realize what a gem they passed on 25 times over this past June.