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Originally published Sunday, December 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Sonics | Swift at a standstill

Nobody rushed Robert Swift back to the court prematurely. He did it himself. It wasn't the Sonics trainer, Mike Shimensky, or strength and...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nobody rushed Robert Swift back to the court prematurely.

He did it himself.

It wasn't the Sonics trainer, Mike Shimensky, or strength and conditioning coach Dwight Daub. And it wasn't new coach P.J. Carlesimo or general manager Sam Presti.

"It was me," Swift said last week during his slow recovery from knee surgery. "I did this. I wanted to get back out there. Everybody is looking for someone to blame, but I don't blame anybody. I wanted to play.

"I don't think I came back too soon. In fact, I came back too late. If anything, when I came back, I did too much too fast. I went through all, or practically all, of the two-a-days [during training camp], the full 90-minute practice before the first game. It was just too much too fast."

Admittedly, Swift also wanted to make a good first impression on his new bosses who will decide his future with the team after the season. If he misses too many games, the odds of him returning next season are slim.

Carlesimo said last week he expects the 7-foot center to miss at least another three to four weeks and essentially described Swift's fourth season as "experimental," which is particularly distressful considering he missed all of last season when he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in the exhibition finale.

After suffering a series of setbacks during the exhibition season, Swift made his season debut on Nov. 4. He lasted just one week and played five games before walking off the court Nov. 11.

Three weeks later, on Dec. 2, the Sonics announced Swift would miss about a month to recover from tendinitis and a bout of plantar fasciitis that was likely caused by the knee injury.

Now Carlesimo said he believes it will be another month before Swift is on the court again. When he does return, the coach said Swift will need a week or so to work himself into shape.

When asked if February is a logical date for his return, Swift said: "It could be. The big thing is to not do anything stupid at this point."

But time is quickly slipping away from Swift, 22, who will be a restricted free agent next summer.

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Since being drafted out of Bakersfield (Calif.) High School with the No. 12 pick in 2004, he has missed more than twice as many games because of injury (142) than he has played (68).

When pressed, Carlesimo said he is unsure whether the team will re-sign Swift — the Sonics can match any offer he might receive — because he hasn't seen enough of Swift to accurately evaluate him.

"If you're asking me who is Robert Swift, well, in all honesty I'm not exactly sure because for us he really has not ever been 100 percent," Carlesimo said. "You can still see his skills. He's got good hands. He's got touch and he's athletic. He's a lot of things that big guys are not. The obvious concern now is getting him healthy. He can't worry about this season because now it's totally experimental. Anything we get from him is a bonus. The timetable I know for him is a much bigger concern than it is for us.

"He's just got to get healthy. If it takes a week, a month, a year or whatever it is, it doesn't matter. When he gets healthy, there's no question he's got the ability to be a very good player in this league. He's also got to learn, which every young player has to learn, how he's going to maintain that. From what I understand, Robert doesn't have a long track record of staying healthy."

As a rookie during the 2004-05 season, Swift missed 25 games because of a sprained right thumb and six because of patellar tendinitis, which might have been a precursor to his current condition.

The next season, former coach Bob Hill likely saved Swift's sophomore season when he relieved fired Bob Weiss and pushed the inexperienced center into the rotation and eventually the starting lineup. It was then that Swift showed flashes of what former general manager Rick Sund once described as "someone who is naturally gifted."

That season Swift shot 51.5 percent from the field and averaged 6.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in 47 games and 20 starts. Those 47 games — including a 13-rebound performance against Atlanta and a 17-point, four-block outing against Denver — and a handful of exhibitions before the 2006-07 season are the basis for Swift's supporters.

"When we drafted Robert, the hope was that he'd mature into someone who could play the position for a decade or so," said former Sonics assistant coach Jack Sikma, now with the Houston Rockets. "There was some opinion that he could be an All-Star, but at the very least you thought he'd be a starter."

The same year the Sonics drafted Swift, Orlando took Dwight Howard out of high school with the No. 1 overall pick.

"I don't know his situation, but for me, it took me two years before I really got an understanding of what this league is like," said Howard, an All-Star. "Injuries play a role in everybody's development. If you get injured, then that throws everything off."

Hampering Swift's development even further was the decision to add at least 40 pounds of bulk to his frame this past offseason.

Carlesimo stops short of criticizing the medical staff for their handling of Swift's injury, but he openly questions the wisdom of Swift carrying additional weight during his recovery.

"That one, in my way of thinking, was a head scratcher and something that's being reconsidered now," Carlesimo said. "He's going to need to lose that weight, and even when he's back to wherever he needs to be, I'm not entirely sure he needs to be so big."

Said assistant coach Mark Bryant: "You don't need a whole bunch of weight to be strong. You need quickness and strength to play that position. He's got size. He's 7-foot. Yes, he needed to get stronger, but you never want to lose that quickness."

Still the question remains, who is Robert Swift?

Most of his former and current coaches are unsure.

"When I get back, you'll see," Swift said. "Everybody will see."

Said Carlesimo: "Maybe I will see the real Robert Swift as a Sonic or maybe it will be down the line for some other team. Centers are notoriously slow developers. I know we have to make some decisions at the end of the year and what that means for Robert, I just don't know."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Bottom of the class
Robert Swift was the third of eight high-school players taken in the first 19 picks of the 2004 NBA draft. Swift has played just 68 games in four seasons, the fewest of the group. He has also scored the fewest points, 324. (For sake of comparison, Dwight Howard, the No. 1 pick, has scored more than that since Thanksgiving).
No., player Drafted by Current team G Pts PPG RPG APG
1. Dwight Howard Orlando Orlando 273 4,351 15.9 11.9 1.5
4. Shaun Livingston Clippers Clippers 145 1,077 7.4 3.1 4.8
12. Robert Swift Sonics Sonics 68 324 4.8 4.2 0.2
13. Sebastian Telfair Portland Minnesota 237 1,802 7.6 1.6 3.4
15. Al Jefferson Boston Minnesota 223 2,535 11.4 7.4 0.8
17. Josh Smith Atlanta Atlanta 250 3,212 12.8 7.2 2.6
18. J.R. Smith New Orleans Denver 214 2,228 10.4 2.1 1.6
19. Dorell Wright Miami Miami 106 565 5.3 3.7 1.2
Compiled by Bill Reader, The Seattle Times

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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