The next big thing—literally—in college basketball is Caleb Swanigan.
Swanigan, a top prospect in the class of 2015, is a mountain of a post player—at 6'8" and 260 pounds—who has actually eaten his way to excellence.
See, it's rare in college basketball to find a big man who is successful because of his wide frame but doesn't become so wide he makes himself obsolete. The cautionary tale has become Josh Smith, the current Georgetown and former UCLA mammoth, who weighs 350 pounds. Smith has one more year in college to show his true potential, but his career has mostly been a string of "what could have beens" because of his weight.
There's hope that Swanigan, who Scout.com ranks as the eighth-best player in the Class of 2015, can dominate with his size and control his weight as well. The proof is in what has already taken place in his young career, as the big man just helped the United States' Under-17 team win gold in Dubai.
Swanigan weighed 350 pounds as an eighth-grader. That's shortly after he left his family in Utah to move in with Roosevelt Barnes, a former NFL linebacker and current sports agent who is Swanigan's legal guardian.
Living under Barnes' roof, Swanigan started shedding pounds by simply starting to eat healthy. In the last three years, he's lost 90 pounds as he's grown 4.5 inches.
"He knew he needed to lose some weight, and he dedicated himself to doing that," Barnes told Bleacher Report in July during Nike's Peach Jam tournament. "Once he decided to be a basketball player strictly, he really focused in on what he was eating and really got involved with cardio. It was a combination, but it was mostly all his hard work."
Football was Swanigan's other sport, and by looks alone, that's the sport most tailored to his frame. Chris Johnson, his basketball coach at Homestead High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., said he believes Swanigan could have been an NFL left tackle had he stuck with football. There was already interest from some of the blue-blood football programs when he was a freshman.
Now he has that interest on the hardwood.
Swanigan improved his stock this summer playing in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL). He averaged a double-double (17.7 points and 12.0 rebounds per game) and led the EYBL in rebounding. He recently received an offer from Kentucky and is also being recruited by a slew of other schools such as Michigan State, Indiana, Kansas, Louisville and Purdue.
What makes Swanigan special is the combination of his size and his awareness of how to use it. He carves out space with his big backside. He plays mostly below the rim, but he is so strong and patient that length doesn't seem to bother him.
"My game is not predicated on my quickness," Swanigan said. "Once I catch it, I'm not in a rush."
It's refreshing to watch Swanigan's approach. Most big men these days want to play on the perimeter. Diamond Stone, for instance, is one of the top-rated big men in the class. A college coach recently told Bleacher Report that Stone is really talented on the blocks, but "he's too in love with his jump shot."
Stone was the top post player for the United States at the U17s, averaging 13.4 points per game, but Swanigan was the most efficient. He averaged 8.0 points on 69.6 percent shooting, compared to 51.9 percent for Stone.
Swanigan has added a jumper to his arsenal, but it's more of a complement to his low-post game. He knocked down two buzzer-beaters—Christian Laettner style—to force overtime and double overtime in a game at Peach Jam. He made seven of 20 threes last year for Homestead. His jumpers, however, are few and far between. He says his goal is to get a layup every time he touches it.
"We work on back-to-the-basket work every day," Barnes said. "Because when he decided he wanted to be a basketball player, we consciously made a decision that he was going to be an old-school power forward in the Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Buck Williams, even guys like Al Jefferson, Zach Randolph type where he's going to beat you up and he's going to rebound the basketball."
Those below-the-rim bangers are extremely valuable in the college game. When Smith was able to play real minutes as a freshman at UCLA, he was the second-best offensive rebounder in the country—per kenpom.com (subscription required)—and he's averaged double figures in the two years where he played at least 19 minutes per game.
An even better comparison for Swanigan could be former Marquette big man Davante Gardner, who was able to play enough minutes to become a borderline star. Gardner was one of the most efficient scorers in college basketball the last two seasons—his offensive rating of 122.4 this past year ranked seventh nationally among players who used at least 24 percent of their team's possessions, per kenpom.com.
Swanigan could end up better than both. His ceiling is more along the lines of the player he's compared to the most: Randolph. Swanigan may even follow Randolph's path to the NBA.
Randolph played his high school ball at Marion High School—Marion is about an hour away from Fort Wayne—and many consider Michigan State the leader for Swanigan. Deyonta Davis, his teammate for Spiece Indy Heat, is already verbally committed to the Spartans, and they would both fit well in the Michigan State system.
Earlier this summer, Swanigan and Barnes decided to speed up the process by reclassifying him from the 2016 class to 2015.
"Playing another year of high school basketball, we just didn't feel like it was going to benefit him because he's so much bigger and stronger," Barnes said. "He's bigger and stronger than people here at the EYBL and this is the best of the best."
The summer has been such a whirlwind that Swanigan said in late July that he hadn't even started planning official visits yet. Barnes said Chicago State, the first school that recruited Swanigan, was the only school they knew they would visit for sure.
It can be dangerous to rush a player's progress at this point in his career, but Swanigan looks ready and Barnes has plenty of experience mentoring young athletes. He's already a successful agent—he and his firm have represented the likes of Ray Lewis, Dez Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald—so you would think Barnes' interests have nothing to do with getting Swanigan to the league as quickly as possible.
It's too early to say Swanigan will even make it to the NBA. But in the college game, he has the potential to end up as the most productive big man in his class. Smith had similar potential as a freshman, and that's what has made his career so frustrating to watch.
Will Swanigan follow a similar path? Because of his past, that question will follow him. But those close to him don't seem to be too worried.
"When he gets to become an adult, I don't think he's going to have a problem," Johnson said. "I don't think there's even going to be a concern."
"He knows what he eats affects how he plays," Barnes said.
That's why Swanigan says he has been able to keep the pounds off. He's seen firsthand the difference in his game when he's in shape. And it's much more appetizing than fried foods and sweets.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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