This is the third part of the five-part series looking back on the college careers of the best recruit each year that committed and played their college careers in the Big Ten. For rankings’ purposes, we used 247Sports’ Composite rankings.
2014: D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
The most highly ranked recruit to join the Big Ten in the 2014 recruiting cycle was combo guard D’Angelo Russell, out of powerhouse Montverde Academy. Other famous attendees of Montverde include Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Francisco Lindor, R.J. Barrett. Russell and Ben Simmons actually played alongside each other during their high school days. Russell was ranked as the 16th overall player coming out of high school, ultimately choosing Ohio State over Michigan State, North Carolina, and hometown team Louisville.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta immediately put the five-star guard to good use, as Russell earned the start in his collegiate debut, scoring 16 points. A few weeks later, the Buckeyes played Russell’s hometown team, the Louisville Cardinals. He showed no remorse, recording 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in the game. This game would foreshadow the type of player that Russell would be for the Buckeyes all season - a stat sheet stuffer. The 6-5 guard recorded the first triple-double by an Ohio State freshman when he posted a 23-11-11 stat line against Rutgers in Big Ten play.
Russell ended the season averaging 19.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 5.0 apg. This earned him the Jerry West Award - which is given annually to the nation’s best shooting guard - as well as earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and consensus First Team All-American. The southpaw declared for the 2015 NBA Draft, forgoing his final three years of eligibility, and was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers 2nd overall.
Despite the rocky start to his professional career, headlined by the Nick Young feud, Russell has found a way to make his offensive inefficiencies work in the modern NBA. He averaged a career-high 21.1 points this past season with the Brooklyn Nets, receiving his first All-Star selection. Russell joined the Golden State Warriors this past offseason in a sign-and-trade, via the Nets.
Ultimately, Russell turned out to be one of the more successful players in this series, being selected 2nd overall in the NBA Draft. While his sole season in Columbus ended without a Sweet Sixteen appearance, he had arguable the most successful season for a Buckeye freshman in history.
2015: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Swanigan had previously committed to Michigan State, but ultimately chose to stay close to home in West Lafayette. The big man overcame a lot of struggles in his childhood, including an abusive father who battled drug addiction and a mother who couldn’t provide a stable household for her children. At the request of Caleb’s older brother, Swanigan’s AAU coach, Roosevelt Barnes, stepped in and adopted Caleb in the 8th grade. Barnes played football, basketball, and baseball at Purdue before a brief career playing for the Detroit Lions in the NFL. Barnes has now become a successful sports agent, negotiating for Ray Lewis and Ndamukong Suh.
With the unstable upbringing, Swanigan struggled to stay at a healthy weight. The move-in with Barnes allowed Swanigan to focus on eating healthy and working out, instead of wondering when his next meal was going to come. By the time the big man arrived on Purdue’s campus as the 19th overall ranked recruit, he had slimmed down to a much healthier 260 pounds. He became Purdue’s first Mr. Indiana Basketball since Glenn Robinson in 1991.
The Indiana-native came in and started every game for the Boilermakers in his freshman season, forming a formidable trio alongside AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas. Swanigan ended his freshman season averaging 10.2 ppg and 8.3 rpg, earning him a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team in 2015-16. He flirted with entering the 2016 NBA Draft, but decided to return to West Lafayette for his sophomore season.
Purdue entered the 2016-17 season with high expectations, mostly based on the return of their star big men, Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Swanigan did not disappoint as he averaged 18.5 ppg and had the second-most rebounds in the nation at 12.6 per game. This combination helped him lead the entire nation in double-doubles, recording 25. He also recorded four different 20-20 games in which he had 20 points and 20 rebounds. These insane stats earned Swanigan consensus First Team All-American honors as well as Big Ten Player of the Year.
Along with the individual awards, the Boilermakers were a good team collectively. Purdue earned a four seed in the NCAA Tournament, beating Vermont and Iowa State on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. The Matt Painter-led team bowed out of the tournament there to one-seeded Kansas, despite Swanigan’s 18 point, 7 rebound performance.
After the season, Swanigan entered the NBA Draft and was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 26th overall pick before being traded to the Sacramento Kings this past February. He has struggled to carve out a role in the modern NBA game that is more guard-heavy. However, it is still early in his career and has shown the ability to play on the perimeter, despite his dominance in the post. Chock up Swanigan as another success story in terms of his college career and don’t write him off as a possible contributor professionally in the coming years. Regardless, him overcoming his disastrous early years and breaking the cycle of abuse, drugs, and crime makes it impossible to not root for the kid.