Before Trail Blazers rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan even put on a Portland jersey, there have been some pretty heady statements tossed around.
Collins, on the night he was drafted No. 10 overall, confidently and matter-of-factly stated that he doesn’t see a reason why he can’t win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
And for Swanigan, the 26th overall pick, his surrogate father Roosevelt Barnes said on Monday that the goal is for the 6-foot-9 forward to some day lead the NBA in rebounding.
It’s part of the reason why Blazers’ president of basketball operations Neil Olshey has been buzzing since Thursday’s draft, telling any one and every one about the skill of Collins and the toughness and relentless nature of Swanigan.
“We are incredibly pleased with what we were able to accomplish in the draft with both of these guys,’’ Olshey said Monday.
Not since 2013, when Olshey gushed about stealing CJ McCollum with the 10th overall pick, has Olshey been so effusive in praise of his picks.
His confidence flies in the face of critics who say the 19-year-old Collins didn’t start in high school until his senior year, and came off the bench during his only season at Gonzaga. It also belies those who say that Swanigan is a “tweener” who is not quick enough to guard small forwards and not big enough to neutralize power forwards.
So what is it about these two that has Olshey so enthusiastic?
The more people talk about Collins and Swanigan, the more the same words keep surfacing: Fight. Tough. Compete.
“They are aggressive,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “And I like their mentality.’’
Swanigan has a well-documented background of living in homeless shelters as a youth and attending more than a dozen schools between Indianapolis and Salt Lake City.
His father was in and out of jail, and struggled with drug addiction, which eventually contributed to his death at the age of 50. It is the reason Swanigan will wear No. 50 for the Trail Blazers.
Compounding his childhood struggles was a weight problem that Swanigan says ballooned to 350 pounds as an eighth grader.
When he was 13, at the urging of his older brother, Caleb was adopted by Roosevelt Barnes, a former three-sport athlete at Purdue who became a sports agent. Barnes, who played three seasons as a linebacker for the Detroit Lions in the NFL, had coached Caleb’s brother in AAU basketball.
“He gave me structure early on, support, everything you would want a father to do for you,’’ Swanigan said. “He’s always held me accountable, always told me the truth in everything I did, and that’s all I could ask from someone.’’
At first, Swanigan was a tough shell to crack.
“Very quiet. Very guarded,’’ Barnes said. “Which was natural because of the environment he was in. He didn’t express a lot. But he was always really intelligent.’’
An early conversation, Barnes said, was teaching Swanigan the origin of his first name.
“First thing we talked about was who he was and what his name meant,’’ Barnes said.
He told him the Biblical story of Caleb, and how he was one of Moses 12 spies.
“Caleb made it to the Promised Land,’’ Barnes said. “So I told him he was supposed to make it.’’
The biggest lesson in his quest for the Promised Land, Swanigan said, was developing a work ethic. In six years, he shed 100 pounds and earned Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award as the state’s top prep player. He went on to attend Purdue, where he shed 15 more pounds and became the Big Ten player of the year last season.
“Never stop working, that’s my biggest thing I try to carry about myself,’’ Swanigan said. “Always keep working, always keep my head down and focused on a narrow path.’’
While Swanigan’s story is more rags-to-riches, Collins has been groomed to be on the elite stage from an early age.
But that hasn’t come without some hardship.
He was white in a black-man’s game, and even though he was skilled, he went through an awkward stage during a late-growth spurt.
“I just think from a young age, regardless if I’m white or black, I’ve been doubted and had certain expectations that I’ve exceeded,’’ Collins said.
At Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, the school won four consecutive state titles, but he wasn’t a starter until his senior season.
“The simple answer is I was a late bloomer,’’ Collins said. “Up until my junior year, I wasn’t a jumper. My sophomore year I was 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, and I could barely dunk. My body just took a long time to develop. So from middle school to high school a lot of people have doubted what I can do on the court.’’
Once his body was done growing into its 7-foot frame, he still had the skill of a 6-foot-5 wing.
“At first I wasn’t very quick, I was a little clumsy, then once my body developed, people understood that I could actually play,’’ Collins said.
It’s not just the skills that stand out with Collins, however. His demeanor, according to Olshey and Stotts, is that of a winner. He fights for rebounds. He challenges people trying to dunk. He scraps on the floor for loose balls. And above all, he carries himself with an air that he belongs.
“My dad was a guy who taught me to never back down from anybody,’’ Collins said.
His dad, Mike, is 6-foot-10 and was once the Nevada high school player of the year. He went on to play collegiately at New Mexico State and was planning to transfer to Duke before he had a severe foot injury that ended his career.
“When he played he wasn’t the most skilled guy on the court all the time, but he was probably the meanest wherever he went,’’ Collins said. “That kind of runs in the family.’’
If Mike was the meanest wherever he went, Collins’ mom, Heather, might be the toughest.
“My mom is a fighter ,’’ Collins said. “Everybody hears about my dad, and that’s great, but mom is really the one who holds it down at home.’’
Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Zach was a child.
“She acts like she doesn’t have it,’’ Collins said. “She’s probably going to be mad I told you, because she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She just fights through it. You wouldn’t be able to tell unless you knew.’’
The first test for both rookies will be at the Las Vegas Summer League. The Blazers kick off their schedule on July 8 against Utah, when Collins is expected to start at center and Swanigan at power forward.
It will be the first inkling whether Olshey’s giddy mood the past week is warranted.
For Swanigan, he says fans should not judge him on his stats, but rather his effort. If at any time they don’t feel like he is giving effort, he says they should “boo me off the court.’’
Much of that effort, he says, will be exerted in the pursuit of rebounds.
What makes a good rebounder?
“Going every time. That mentality. There’s nothing else but that. Wanting the rebound every time,’’ Swanigan said. “And not being tired. So you have to be in the best shape if you want to be the best rebounder.’’
At Purdue last season, Swanigan led the Big Ten with 12.5 rebounds as a sophomore and had the nation’s No. 2 defensive rebounding percentage.
“If you are going to be a great rebounder – you have to have want-to,’’ Barnes, his adopted father said. “He wants to be best rebounder in the league. He’s always been the best rebounder wherever he has been – every team, every league – he has always been the best. So his goal is to come here and be the No. 1 rebounder in the NBA. Most people, they think about they want to score – he wants to do the dirty work.’’
Collins, meanwhile, already has his teammates intrigued.
McCollum has amassed a scouting report on Collins and came away impressed.
“Collins is polished and very skilled,’’ McCollum said. “I hear comparisons to (Orlando center Nik) Vucevic. I think he has a big ceiling.’’
Whether the heady talk and exuberant moods of executives is warranted will play out over the coming seasons, although Olshey forecasted that both rookies will make a contribution this season.
“I’m going to try and go in and have high goals for myself,’’ Collins said.
And that, is a start.