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Swanigan’s Pursuit of Rotation Minutes with the Blazers

A look at Caleb Swanigan’s development following his return to the Trail Blazers.

Indiana Pacers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

After a short pit stop with the Sacramento Kings, big man Caleb Swanigan has returned to the Portland Trail Blazers. The third-year player out of Purdue was taken with the 26th pick in the first round in 2017 by Portland, but failed to see significant time on the court during his short tenure here.

But now he’s back via the blockbuster trade from two weeks ago and is getting minutes off the bench thanks to a still depleted frontcourt. Knowing that the Blazers need big bodies as of right now (which hopefully someone nicknamed “Biggie” can provide), what can fans expect from Swanigan?

What happened last time?

Well, not much to be honest. The 6’9” 260 pound tweener only played in 46 games during his time in Portland, stuck behind significantly better players in Al-Farouq Aminu and Zach Collins at the power forward spot and Jusuf Nurkic at center. He had moments during his sophomore campaign where he looked like he could be a viable option, including a double-double performance against the Pacers and a 10 rebound game against the Rockets.

But then he fizzled, Meyers Leonard proved to be a better option, and Swanigan was demoted to the G League. He actually played well there. He averaged double-doubles during his first two seasons while spending time with the Canton Charge and the Texas Legends, but never really found his place on the court with the Blazers. At the deadline he was flipped for Skal Labissiere and sent off to Sacramento.

How did he enjoy the Kings?

It was a similar story for Swanigan in Sacramento; he languished on the bench while also playing for the Stockton Kings. He appeared in only 10 games during his time in Sacramento, averaging a measly 1.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per game.

With Stockton he wasn’t that much more impressive. He averaged a pedestrian 8.6 points and 10 rebounds per game in five games with the G League squad in around 20 minutes per game. His per 36 numbers aren’t bad, but they certainly aren’t the dominant minutes you want from a hopeful NBA bench player. He was still slow despite slimming down, was a negative defender, and never truly flashed the ability to stretch the floor (26.2% from three).

But as you well know, there was one team in desperate need of someone comfortable with the system and capable of playing minutes in the frontcourt. So alas, after 345 days away from Portland, Biggie was on his way back.

What about now?

So where does he stand now. Call me crazy, but he actually hasn’t looked horrible?

I know, I gave him a low bar to clear and he’s probably just barely cleared it, but the Blazers desperately need big men and he has done some good things while on a basketball court for Portland. Reportedly, he’s lost around 40 pounds since the last time he was in Portland, and it shows in how he moves around on the court. He’s shown flashes of being an effective rebounder once again—including seven boards against a Pacers squad sans Myles Turner—and has at the very least been passable in the minutes needed.

He’s looked comfortable at times in the offense as well, the advantage of being a part of the team less than a year ago. In his return to the team against Dallas he played 23 minutes, more minutes than he had all season with Sacramento, and looked fine alongside guys like Damian Lillard. He ran the court (at his own deliberate pace) on this fastbreak to put himself in a good position for a score here. It’s only one play that isn’t indicative of the entirety of his limited offensive repertoire, but it is something.

He’s still far from the perfect role player, however. He can’t stretch the floor like you’d like from a tweener and he is slow defensively. The defense thing is especially bad when you’re a team like the Blazers who just gave up *checks notes* a million points to an injured and tired Pacers team (Okay, it was “only” 129, but still, not ideal). He’s a primarily paint and post player who isn’t exactly the best size for doing just that.

Regardless, Swanigan actually is important. For now. My expectation at least is that once the frontcourt is fully healthy that he’ll find himself in a similar situation to his last stint in Portland: struggling to find minutes for a playoff-bound squad. Labissiere is much better than Swanigan and will be reevaluated soon. But when it comes to the current state of the Blazers and how Swanigan fits in, Lillard said it best:

“Biggie’s a really good dude. I think it’s a great opportunity for him especially because he’s been here before and we actually need big bodies.”

Even in his slimmed down state, Swanigan can be just that. Right now Swanigan is playing to stay in this league. If he can be competent off the bench as a slightly bigger option, that’s all Portland needs right now until reinforcements arrive.