Blazers' Swanigan: Now it's time to work
When the Trail Blazers selected Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan with the 26th pick of the first round in the June 22 NBA draft, it fulfilled the first part of a childhood fantasy.
"I've hit a milestone, making it here," Swanigan, who turned 20 on April 18, said Tuesday after the first practice of the Portland entry to the Las Vegas Summer League. "My dream is to be one of the best best 'bigs' ever. I haven't accomplished it yet. I have a long way to go, but I've hit a big milestone just to get this opportunity."
If the 6-8 1/2 Swanigan makes it in the NBA, it will be one of the league's truly great stories — and not just because he has trimmed more than 100 pounds off his once-blubbery frame to a chiseled 250.
Swanigan's formative years in Indianapolis were marked by a lack of discipline and instability. Caleb was the youngest of six children to Carl Swanigan Sr., who battled a crack cocaine addiction, spent time behind bars and physically assaulted his wife, Tanya, while not playing much of a role in his kids' lives. The family bounced from between Indianapolis and Salt Lake City, living mostly in poverty.
It was a recipe for disaster. Three of Swanigan's siblings faced criminal charges in their 20s. All of his brothers and sisters dropped out of high school. Swanigan recalls living in at least five different homeless shelters and figures he attended 13 schools by the time he was 13.
The summer before his eighth-grade year, Swanigan was 6-2 and weighed 360 — on a similar path to his father, who weighed nearly 500 pounds when he died in 2014 at age 50 due to complications from diabetes along with years of drug abuse.
Before Caleb's eighth-grade year, Tanya Swanigan was fixing to move her remaining brood to Houston. Caleb's brother, Carl Jr., — 12 years older — placed a call to Roosevelt Barnes, his former AAU coach in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Barnes agreed to bring Caleb to Fort Wayne if he could adopt him and raise him as a son.
Barnes put Swanigan on a workout program, addressed his diet issues, emphasized academics and got the youngster on the right track. A trimmed-down Swanigan was named Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" as the state's top prep player as a senior.
Swanigan burst onto the national college scene as a sophomore at Purdue last season, averaging 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds — the latter ranking second in the country — while shooting 45 percent from 3-point range. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American.
Now Swanigan is a Blazer. Barnes, working these days as a sports agent — Portland native Ndamukong Suh, now with the Miami Dolphins, is a former client — is representing his adopted son, who signed a deal that calls for him to make nearly $1.466 million his rookie season.
"He's my dad," Swanigan said of Barnes. "He's a father figure, he's my agent, he's a friend — he's all that to me. My first contract, he's not taking any money from it. It's never been about that for him."
The parallels between Swanigan and a Blazer power forward of another era are striking.
Zach Randolph is from Marion, Indiana, 50 miles from Fort Wayne, where Swanigan wound up. Both had absent fathers. Both were athletic, talented, physical big men coming up. Both committed to Michigan State, though Swanigan eventually changed his mind, opting to stay closer to home at Purdue.
After his freshman year at Michigan State, Randolph was taken by Portland with the 19th pick of the 2001 draft. Swanigan will wear No. 50 with Portland, the same number as Randolph, though that part is coincidental. Caleb will don No. 50 in honor of his biological father's age when he died.
Swanigan welcomes the comparisons with the 6-9, 250-pound Randolph, who will begin his 17th NBA season this fall with Sacramento.
"I've met Zach before," Swanigan said. "I've talked to him a couple of times. Good dude.
"The way 'Z-Bo' plays, I take from that era. I like the toughness of it. I liked all the old Blazers — Damon Stoudamire, Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, who was from Indiana, too.
"All the guys from Indiana — if you can't shoot it, you have to be tough. You're either one of those pretty boys who can knock down shots every day, or you're a grinder. I'm one of the grinders."
But like Randolph, Swanigan has a versatile offensive game and feathery touch from outside, as witnessed by his 3-point percentage last season.
"It's something I've added to my game over time," he said. "I've always practiced the 3. I started putting it in my game throughout my college years."
Does he see himself as a 3-point shooter in the NBA?
"I see myself as a shot-maker," he said. "You leave me open, I'm going to hit it. I'm not going to look for 3's. I don't care to shoot them, because I know what I'm good at. I'm going to work you down low. But if you leave me open, I'm going to make you honor it."
"You're going to see a really good off-the-ball guy," he said. "You don't hear that often. There's a lot of focus on on-the-ball defense. But if you're good off the ball, that's going to help your team a lot, because you're in the right place at the right time."
Swanigan pronounces himself in "great shape," but knows it's an on-going process.
"It's a daily thing," he said. "If I take a week or two off, I have the type of body where I'll gain weight. That's why I don't take weeks off. I keep going."
Does he still have cravings for candy and junk food?
"Definitely," he said. "I'm still human. But I know what I'm eating. I know enough that I won't eat the bad stuff every day non-stop. Maybe some candy once or twice one day, but nothing the next few days. It can't be an every-day routine.
"You have to have the money to afford to eat the right things. I've got that now. I'll be able to eat healthy and stay healthy."
On Tuesday, Swanigan moved into his apartment near the Blazers' Tualatin training facility, where he'll live by himself through the upcoming season. For the past week, he has been at the facility, working out and getting prepared for summer camp. He showed Blazer coaches he is ready to go during Tuesday's practice session.
"Caleb is a very hard worker," said assistant coach Jim Moran, who will run the team in Las Vegas. "He is in the gym all the time. That's one thing that has impressed us as a coaching staff. He works. He is very respectful, he listens, he does what he is told.
"His work ethic is going to take him a lot of places. He has the talent, but he loves to put in the time. When you spend that much time working on your craft, you can't help but get better. He's going to be great in (September) training camp. We're going to have a lot of battles with our bigs. The competition is going to be great."
Before that, though, are a string of summer-league games beginning Saturday. Already, Swanigan has his game face on.
"The nervous part is over," he said. "You're on the team; now's your time to work. For me, it's about winning. I'm not going to Vegas planning on losing."