WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WTHR) -Enjoy him while you can, Purdue. Enjoy Caleb “Biggie’’ Swanigan as he bolsters his NBA stock night after night, routinely posting double-doubles, consistently establishing himself as the best player in the Big Ten. He thought about going pro last year, but did the smart thing, taking the advice of NBA talent evaluators and those closest to him. That won’t happen again after this season. Count on it.
Meanwhile, enjoy him and appreciate him because Swanigan, Matt Painter’s most decorated recruit and a former Mr. Basketball, is doing things that an NBA hopeful should do. He is dominating and he is leading his 20-th ranked Boilers to a first-place tie in the Big Ten after a 66-55 victory over No. 13 Wisconsin. All he did Sunday afternoon was finish with yet another double-double (18 points, 13 rebounds), his eighth double-double in a row and his 14th this season.
Shoot, he almost had what one of my Twitter followers smartly called a “Lance Stephenson triple-double,’’ adding eight turnovers to his otherwise sterling stat line. But we won’t talk about that. Because, you know, this is a column lauding the continued growth of a player who ranks as the conference’s best player, or at least one of them.
Understand, he was good last year, very good, one of the best freshmen in the country. He averaged 10.2 points and 8.3 rebounds while producing eight double-doubles -- remarkable numbers for a freshman who just so happened to graduate high school in just three years. Now, though, he’s become a force of nature, averaging 18.3 points and 12.9 rebounds. We’re talking about a Player of the Year candidate, owner of four of the eight 20-20 games this college basketball season. He currently ranks second in the nation in rebounding.
Swanigan showed why the new rule allowing all players to test the NBA waters without penalty is a good one, especially if you listen to the right advice. Most folks thought he was a goner after last season but Swanigan listened to NBA talent evaluators, listened to his adoptive father, former Purdue athlete and current player agent Roosevelt Barnes, listened to people who said he still needs to grow his game. So he came back with a leaner frame, an expanded skill set and a relentless, even ruthless desire to own the paint.
“He used the opportunity for what it’s supposed to be used for,’’ Matt Painter said. “He took what they (NBA scouts) said and he’s come back and he’s improved his body even more and he’s done a good job of playing through other people. Even though he’s our leading scorer, when he’s passing the ball…he’s very, very efficient.
“He’s just improved in every facet of the game. He puts in extra time and he works really hard at it…How many guys average 10 and 8 their freshman year and they skipped their senior year of high school…He was 380 pounds in middle school. He has an unbelievable story and he keeps getting better. I don’t see how he’s not going to keep on improving down the line, especially when he’s a pro.’’
When Swanigan plays like he did Sunday…when Isaac Haas plays like he did Sunday…when the Purdue guards make perimeter shots and put defenses between a rock and a hard place, the Boilermakers are an extraordinarily strong team, one of the two or three favorites to win the Big Ten regular-season title. Ryan Cline, the Carmel kid, had nine points. Dakota Mathias, who has played his way back into a bigger role recently, had eight points. P.J. Thompson scored nine. The Boilers don’t get that every night, but when they do, look out.
“It’s maybe as complete of a Purdue team as I’ve seen in a while, maybe back to Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore and that group,’’ Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “They can hurt you in so many ways…Last year you could lock in on Swanigan and Haas and (A.J.) Hammons inside, but their perimeter game has improved immensely and it presents a lot of problems.’’
It’s hard to imagine Purdue could turn the ball over 18 times against Wisconsin and still dominate them all afternoon, but that’s what happened. The Boilers shot 52 percent, including 47 percent from three. They out-rebounded the fifth-best rebounding team in the nation, 34-22. And defense…man, they played defense. Wisconsin shot 39 percent, including 2 of 14 from three.
In the end, though, it all comes back to Swanigan. If Purdue is going to win the Big Ten, if Purdue is going to avoid those first-round NCAA potholes, it will all come back to Swanigan. Purdue needs to take advantage of his presence (ital)right now (endital) for this simple reason: He isn’t coming back to West Lafayette next year. That’s not some kind of scoop or anything, that’s just common sense. He did the right thing this time around, returning to school, improving his body and improving his game, but you watch him now and wonder: How can he improve his draft stock?
Answer: He can’t.
“This year, he’s taken it to a whole new level,’’ Gard said. “To be able to hurt you in so many ways. He’s relentless on the glass, now you have to respect the three, he’s better from the free-throw line – he’s taken a step that you would think a player at his level would take.
“He’s taken it to a pretty elite level. He’s a handful…And he plays the game the right way. Regardless of what tape I put in, how hard he plays really jumps out.’’
Enjoy the ride while he’s a Boilermaker. Enjoy every minute of it.