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Cole Swider wants to be a bigger, better Duncan Robinson

Comparing himself favorably to the Heat’s $90 million-man, the Lakers’ undrafted rookie on a two-way contract has his sights set on more than mere viability.

2022 NBA Summer League - Charlotte Hornets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Down seven with five minutes to go, the Lakers looked ready to whimper to the finish line for the second straight game to open up their run at the Las Vegas Summer League. After holding a 15-point lead earlier in the contest, their offense had fallen stagnant, allowing the Hornets to creep ahead as the clock wound down towards the game’s final moments.

Suddenly, as if a natural force as strong as gravity swung the game’s pendulum back towards its equilibrium, the Lakers came back to tie in a mere matter of moments. In just 32 seconds, Cole Swider knocked down four shots to complete back-to-back four-point plays, tying the game up at 75 apiece.

After Swider’s McGradian run culminated in the laser beam below, he couldn’t help but say a few words in the direction of Kai Jones — the Hornets’ 2021 first-rounder who Swider lauded for his “physical gifts” on defense. When I got a chance to ask Swider about the contents of his verbal outburst, he admitted that he sees himself as “a very passionate player,” but denied any modicum of direct trash-talk, referencing his Wildcat background as something that required learning to play with “a robot face on the whole entire game.”

If Swider can’t quite maintain android-like composure, it’s understandable. He has had plenty of reason to feel good since beginning his professional career with the Lakers. Swider had just finished a 5-8 performance from long range, making him a blistering 17-30 from deep in his first five games as a pro.

So far, nobody’s made more threes than Swider, leading to one of the most efficient scoring profiles across all of Summer League:

He’s such a capable sniper that opposing teams have actually begun loading up on him to take away the Lakers’ Summer League team’s most capable offensive weapon.

“Even here in Summer League, you can feel the scouting report on him is get in his airspace. Sometimes he’s getting fouled on some of those threes because that’s how close they are,” observed Lakers Summer League head coach Jordan Ott.

Even against universally suffocating coverage, Swider’s gotten up 15 triples over two games, a top-five mark in the Las Vegas Summer League as of the conclusion of the Lakers’ last game. However, Ott said that he thinks Swider can be even more aggressive in finding his shot than he has been, noting his shooting gravity as an essential benefit to the team’s offensive spacing.

In his own postgame presser after Sunday night’s game, Swider was asked who he’d compare his own game to, Swider immediately cited Duncan Robinson as someone whose narrow, but elite skillset has created a lane for more players like him to carve out legitimate lives in the league.

“That’s why I got this opportunity to play with the Lakers,” Swider admitted. “Because of guys like Duncan Robinson, like Joe Harris, like all these guys throughout the NBA that have proven that you need a [movement shooter] like that who [you] can run actions for.”

He also credited his high school and college systems for instilling in him the habit of always running without the ball in order to get open.

“Especially this last year at Syracuse there were plays [that were run] for me, so I kind of got used to running without the ball,” Swider said.

As one of the Orange’s most threatening offensive options, he simply had to sprint without the basketball if he ever wanted to get a touch against defenses intent on preventing him from seeing open looks from deep.

And while it’s probably fair to say that Robinson underperformed the first of his five-year, $90 million contract while shooting just 37.2% from deep — his worst mark since his 15-game rookie season — it makes sense that Swider would aspire to follow in his footsteps. Almost any team can use a top-of-the-scale shooter, even if Swider lacks Robinson’s foot speed or overall polish at this point in his career.

Like the undrafted Robinson, however, Swider fell to a team with an impeccable record of finding and developing undervalued talent. For now, Swider’s two-way contract will limit him to a maximum of 50 NBA games in his rookie season and bar him from playoff contention, lest the lakers decide to give him a full, guaranteed NBA deal. At just half of the league’s minimum salary, Swider has a chance to make an immediate impact on a Lakers roster starved for some dependable shooting.

Also like Robinson, who spent three years at the University of Michigan after transferring from Division III Williams College, Swider has a relatively long track record of playing within some of the college game’s most consistently competitive systems. After three years as a rotation player at Villanova under head coach Jay Wright, Swider transferred northwards to take on a primary scoring role as a member of Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange for his senior season.

However, the 6’9’’ Swider (correctly) stated that he’s actually bigger than the 6’7’’ Robinson when asked to define what separates him from the Heat swingman, arguing that his height advantage gives him ability to match up defensively against larger forwards. Also, as a taller player, he should be able to get his shot off against a larger percentage of players tasked with guarding him.

Still though, the height, IQ, and competitive spirit that Swider’s shown plenty of only go so far on defense — Swider’s biggest most glaring weakness and obstacle possibly preventing him from getting immediate minutes at the NBA level. Almost certainly it was his turnstile defense that prevented Swider’s name from being called at any point during June 23’s NBA Draft. He’s neither especially strong, nor much of a leaper; he moves smoothly and with purpose, but lacks the burst in any direction to hang with many of the players he’s been tasked with guarding, a challenge that will only increase at both the G League and NBA-level.

Addressing those concerns, Swider smiled confidently, in a way that made it clear he had some awareness about his own physical limitations in comparison to the typical NBA forward, saying that he hopes to add muscle this summer along with continuing to see reps against professionals, each of which might help him improve on that end.

“I want to be great at defense, don’t ever question that,” Swider said.

If he can lock down a regular role in the L.A. rotation, hopefully it’s because he’s too good to bench or demote, and not because they lack the requisite respectable players to fill out 48 minutes of basketball (like they did for so much of last season). Improving his on-ball defense enough to avoid being switch-hunted the second he steps on an NBA court (something that kept Robinson off the floor for much of this past season’s playoffs), would go a long way towards getting him the minutes to become one of LeBron James’ preferred passing targets this coming season.

If that’s the case, the Lakers’ may have found themselves another undervalued talent outside of the draft, successfully exercising one of their few pathways towards improvement in spite of their current salary cap constrictions. If Swider does grow into becoming one of the league’s premier movement shooters, the Lakers will have the opportunity to pay him like one, or extract some value from the right to do so before letting him walk in free agency (like they did with Alex Caruso).

Cole Swider might not be Duncan Robinson yet, or ever for that matter, but at as little as a 36th of the price, this low-risk signing has a chance of being one of the Lakers’ best this offseason.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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