From unheralded recruit to college superstar to NBA 2-round pick, Cleanthony Early's journey to professional basketball has been anything but typical. The Knicks selected Early with the 34th pick in the 2014 NBA draft, capping the former Wichita State standout's unlikely rise.
A two-year starter at Wichita State, Early finished with career averages of 15.1 points and 5.7 rebounds while emerging as one of the nation's toughest defenders. The Shockers were the nation's first undefeated team heading into the NCAA tournament since UNLV two decades prior, though they lost to national runner-up Kentucky in the round of 32.
Early, 23, played two years of community college basketball prior to heading to Wichita. He was the two-time NJCAA National Player of the Year winner.
As a senior and one of the oldest players in the class, there is a fundamental misconception that Early is an instantly translatable NBA player. Seniors like Adreian Payne and Doug McDermott are largely seen as safe, lower-ceiling players because teams have so much tape to study.
While Early matches both players in age, he decidedly lacks that same polish. His tape shows a player still learning the ins-and-outs of the game—most notably on the offensive end.
Early is a non-elite shooter who could become a spacing hog at the next level if he's unable to fix his inconsistent shot. At the NBA combine in Chicago, he ranked among the worst shooters who participated in drills. His release has a bit of a hitch, at times leading to an inconsistent rotation and misses on what should be easy attempts. Though he improved to a 34.8 percent three-point shooter overall in two years at Wichita State, NBA teams are going to ignore him until he starts knocking them down consistently.
Mostly a power forward in college, Early will transition to a swing role professionally. He measured only 6'7" in shoes at the combine and weighs just 209 pounds. There could be times when the Knicks move him to the 4 as part of small-ball lineups, but those situations should be rare. Early has fine lateral quickness and top-end speed, and he plays with a relentless tenacity fostered by Shockers coach Gregg Marshall.
"Very versatile," Early told reporters of his game. "I've got a high motor and I want it. I'm hungry. There's nothing but free lunch out here so I'm going to eat. I guess I'm bigger and I'm taller but Kevin Durant is a big guy."
Early, like all rookies, will have to get better at understanding team-defense concepts. Wichita State's ultra-aggressiveness would play right into NBA teams' hands. Being aggressive is fine; being wildly aggressive and sloppy with rotations is a one-way ticket to death by way of the corner three. Early needs to be more careful about the chances he takes, especially when it comes to gambling for steals.
Ball-handling is also an issue. Early can't create for himself off the dribble at this point, as evidenced by his struggles in Chicago. He'll need to be a more stationary part of an NBA offense at first, which is an issue because of his inconsistent shot.
There is a very solid rotation player resting within Early; he is just much further away than your typical 23-year-old and won't have as long to develop as a typical player. Aaron Gordon is raw, but he's also more than four years Early's junior.
It will be interesting to see how New York utilizes Early as a rookie. It's possible that he can develop enough consistency from the corner and harness his good aggression on defense to become an instant-impact bench guy. But it's more likely that Early spends most of his rookie campaign moving back and forth between the D-League and the big club.
This is certainly a huge pick for Phil Jackson. While Carmelo Anthony's future remains uncertain, Knicks fans have to be thrilled with landing Early this late in the draft.
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