TOM DAVIS: Caleb Swanigan has his money, but at what cost?
INDIANAPOLIS – Less than seven minutes into the second half of Purdue’s basketball game Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Boilers scored on a lay-in by senior center Isaac Haas, which put them up 26 on an overwhelmed and overmatched Butler squad.
Many of the 18,680 fans in attendance at the Crossroads Classic had to have been thinking the same thing as me: How great is this Purdue team?
But in addition to that thought, I was also curious as to just how special would Purdue be if it actually had its best player from last season still in uniform?
Last spring, Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan chose to declare for the 2017 NBA Draft as opposed to returning and being THE key piece in what looks like COULD be the Boilers’ first Final Four team in nearly 40 years.
Was it worth it? That is for Swanigan to decide. However, you do have to wonder (as I did) what is going through his mind – truthfully, not what he would say publicly – as he watches Purdue chase history and he rarely gets out of his warm-ups while sitting at the end of the bench for the Portland Trailblazers.
On the night of Nov. 24, the Boilermakers pounded No. 3-ranked Arizona, which kick-started their current seven-game (and growing) win streak.
On that same night, Swanigan never got in the Trailblazers’ game at Brooklyn, which began his own streak, and it hasn’t been of the memorable kind.
Swanigan has either not played in, or been deemed inactive, in 10 of the past 11 games. His lone appearance during that stretch was a 63-second sprint a week ago in a road loss at Golden State, in which he neither scored a point nor grabbed a rebound.
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A year ago, Purdue won the Big Ten championship with Swanigan earning the honor for being the league’s top player, but this season, from a statistical perspective, the Boilers are even better without him.
“It’s hard to replace a guy like Caleb,” sophomore guard Carsen Edwards said Saturday. “We just come into every game working hard, listening to our coaches and (following) the scouting reports.”
It’s nonsensical to insinuate that Purdue is better off without Swanigan, but the numbers are intriguing to study.
This year’s team is shooting better (50 percent as compared to 47.9 last year), getting to the free throw line more (four times per game more) and is more accurate (76.5 percent to 75.7) once it does get there.
Purdue is rebounding just as well (37.7 per game a year ago versus 37.5 this year), taking care of the ball better (the Boilers have reduced their turnovers this season), and Purdue has been significantly better defensively.
A year ago, the Boilermakers allowed their opponents to shoot 42 percent overall and 33 percent from 3-point range. This year, those numbers have dropped to 38 and 31.5, respectively.
“We learned from our mistakes,” Boiler senior Vince Edwards said in comparing today’s defense to a year ago. “We know that we can score the ball with anybody in the country. We can really score at a high level. But what is going to separate us and allow us to be really successful throughout the rest of the season, and in the postseason, is defense.”
Defense is important, but so would have been having the Big Ten Player of the Year return for his junior season.
As a first round selection, Swanigan secured a two-year guaranteed contract that will pay him approximately $1,600,000 in net pay. Absolutely, that is a tremendous opportunity for any 20-year-old. However, who is to say that money wouldn’t have been available 12 to 24 months from now?
And even if he were to go undrafted later, Swanigan most assuredly still could have made very good money playing elsewhere. The narrative that a player has to take the money immediately or be poverty-stricken forever is completely inaccurate.
Swanigan got his money, which is fantastic for him, but he did so at the expense of potentially leading the Boilermakers to heights not achieved in decades.
As he sits at the end of the bench Monday in Minnesota, watching his teammates play in just another of a long line of non-descript games, I don’t wonder this about Swanigan, I know it: There has to be a big part of him that wishes he were in West Lafayette right now.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.