SALT LAKE CITY — By the time their series of pre-draft workouts concludes before June 22, the Utah Jazz will have had more talented players work out for them than Caleb Swanigan.
Not many — if any — will have a better story than this NBA prospect with strong Utah ties, though.
“It’s a story that you take into account knowing that he has a desire and a dedication to become an NBA player from where he came from,” Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin said. “It’s just an absolute great story, a story that, who knows, one day may be on the big screen.”
The early part of Swanigan’s Hollywood-worthy experience happened in the city where he had a chance to audition for the Jazz on Saturday. This intriguing pre-draft workout also included Derrick White (Colorado), Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State), Mathias Lessort (France), Andrew White (Syracuse) and Jordan Mathews (Gonzaga).
Swanigan lived in the Salt Lake Valley — in downtown, Glendale and West Valley City — from the age of 5 until 13. His mom, Tanya, moved her six children to Utah away from his dad, who had a crack cocaine addiction, in hope of stabilizing the family. Instead, they bounced around different homeless shelters and low-income housing, and Swanigan ended up attending 13 different schools by his teenage years, according to ESPN.com.
He also gained a bunch of weight, packing around 360 pounds as a junior high student.
Swanigan believes those rough younger years helped chisel his character into the high-achiever he’s become. The 20-year-old said he enjoyed his time in Utah, where most of his immediate family still lives.
“It (challenges) makes it huge. A lot of guys may feel pressure on the court, but when you face real-life pressure, it’s a total difference,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier on the court. It’s really just basketball. It’s fun.”
Swanigan smiled when a reporter welcomed him back to Utah prior to his interview Saturday morning.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s very humbling coming from the places like this around the city and coming back (trying) to be on a pro team. … To have these opportunities is a blessing.”
Swanigan’s opportunities grew immensely when his brother’s former AAU basketball coach, Roosevelt Barnes, threw the 13-year-old kid a lifeline and agreed to adopt him before his eighth-grade year. Swanigan’s older brother, Carl Jr., had asked Barnes, a millionaire agent, to take Caleb into his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, hoping to help his sibling overcome a life of obesity that had plagued the family. Their dad passed away three years ago at age 50 from obesity-related causes.
Barnes gave Swanigan structure and helped instill healthier eating habits in the young athlete’s lifestyle, leading to the basketball player going from morbidly obese to about 260 pounds when he left high school as Indiana’s Mr. Basketball in 2015. The 6-foot-9 Swanigan, who was second in the nation in rebounding as a Purdue sophomore last season, is now a fit and muscular 246 pounds heading into the draft. He still has the nickname “Biggie,” though.
Swanigan said being adopted gave him “stability in my life,” which was just what he needed to tap into his talent and size.
“That helped me,” he said. “That enabled me to be successful.”
Perrin is stunned by Swanigan’s progress after having seen the hard-working go-getter play for the past several years.
“I’ve seen the transformation,” Perrin said. “He’s got a better body now than he had two, three years ago, and it’s much better than it was four, five years ago. It’s an absolutely fantastic story. … He’s really worked on getting his body into NBA shape."
Swanigan will have participated in about 15 workouts by the time his pre-draft tour is over. This process is putting him on the verge of fulfilling a dream he’s had since he was a young kid — a Denver Nuggets fan, mind you — in Utah. His basketball career can be traced back to time spent on courts at the Sorensen Rec Center and other spots around the city.
“I always wanted to be in the NBA,” Swanigan said, “since I was young, since I was here playing in the park against my brother.”
Perrin credited Swanigan for heading from the airport to the practice facility the night before his Utah tryout to get in an extra workout with Evans. That gave a glimpse into the work ethic of a young man who earned All-American honors while averaging 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds at Purdue last year.
“He’s done a great job in getting himself prepared for the NBA,” Perrin said of Swanigan, a projected second-round pick. “He’s an extremely hard worker.”