Drafted by: New York Knicks, 34th pick overall
School: Wichita State
Height/Weight: 6'7", 209 lbs
Age: 23 years old
Projected NBA Position: Small Forward
Pro Comparison: Poor Man's Harrison Barnes
Twitter Handle: @Clearly_BallLyf
With strong performances in back-to-back NCAA tournaments, Cleanthony Early of Wichita State has turned heads at the NBA level despite hailing from a mid-major conference.
He took the unconventional route to the Association, as he went to junior college and then transferred to the NCAA stage. But his key role in the Shockers' success gave him a chance to prove that he passes the eye test against any competition.
Early's NBA stock got the final boost it needed after a 31-point display against Kentucky, as he showcased his inside-out scoring attack and pro-caliber athleticism.
We're probably not looking at a star wing here, but there's no doubt he has the size and offensive versatility to be a factor.
Early's physical tools and athleticism put him squarely at the small forward position. It's tough to see him spending any time at the 2 or 4.
He's 6'7.25" with shoes on, and his wingspan is 6'10.75", which is solid at the 3 spot, but his standing reach is a good-but-not-great 8'5.5". Taller, longer wings who match his athleticism will sporadically bother his shots and contest his drives.
Fortunately, Early is an elite leaper who can hang with NBA athletes in the open floor. His standing vertical is an impressive 34", and his max bounce hits the coveted 40" mark, per DraftExpress.com.
This upward agility will help him get off shots against similar-sized wings, and it gives him a good chance to finish around the bucket when he slashes.
Finishing Around the Rim
On his transition attacks, half-court slashes and interior opportunities, Early is adept at elevating and scoring skillfully through contact.
He doesn't have an ultra-bulky physique, but he's strong when he drives to the tin or puts the ball up after a rebound. Early's not going to shy away from contact, and he'll be able to go over or through most opponents when he gets momentum to the rim.
So many playmakers and wings are great at blowing by their man on the perimeter, but then they fail to finish against the next line of defense.
Early, on the other hand, doesn't have the most advanced ball-handling skills or speed, but once he puts his man on his hip, he can get to the rim with one or two dribbles and score forcefully. He notched 30 and-1 plays in 2013-14.
Despite his lack of shifty moves on the wing, Early can still make an impact from the outside in the NBA.
He's become a highly effective three-point shooter, especially in catch-and-shoot situations. Although he's not the craftiest player around, he does slide well on the wing, ready to shoot off flare screens or pin-down screens. Early is also dangerous on spot-up opportunities from the corner.
He can create his own jumpers too, although not too often from three. From 17-20 feet, he's dangerous on step-backs or one-dribble pull-ups. With a jab step forward and quick stride backward, he creates room to pop up and confidently drill mid-range tosses.
Early exhibits solid form on his jumper, and while it's not the most fluid stroke, it's simple and clean.
Rebounding and Defending His Position
This isn't a major strength that will stand out in the NBA, but Early's wingspan, athleticism and toughness will help him chip in on the boards and on defense.
Foes will have to keep an eye on him and box him out, because his strength and agility make him a rebounding threat. Early grabbed 8.7 boards per 40 minutes during his two years at Wichita State.
Defensively, he didn't dominate like you would think in the Missouri Valley Conference, but he often flashed his length and forced turnovers. If he really focuses on that end and is aware within his system, his tools will do the rest and fuel success.
In college, Early didn't show much proficiency when it came to making quick reads with the ball or creating plays.
He doesn't have great court vision or sharp decision-making skills as a passer. In 2013-14, he posted 1.1 assists and 2.8 turnovers per 40 minutes. And let's remember, at 23 years old, he's no young-buck freshman.
When he catches the ball on the wing, Early may also struggle to shake his man, as his ball-handling skills aren't fluid or tight enough to fool anyone or create separation.
These questions lead us to wonder if his offensive role will be limited to spot-up chances, one-on-one step-backs and transition scenarios.
When Early embarks on the 2014-15 campaign, he should step in and stretch the floor with his shooting while competing with his athleticism.
I don't foresee the rookie being much more than a fourth scoring option when he's out there, but his bounce and length on the wing will make noise.
Early's prime probably won't feature a huge transformation in usage or playing style. His basketball identity is pretty much set as a strong, agile forward who can hit timely threes.
However, as he grows more comfortable and knowledgeable in his squad's system, he'll improve his shooting efficiency and find more opportunities to drive through the seams. And when he executes those plays, he'll bump up his playing time.
Early's skill set doesn't exactly scream "start me" right now, and it's difficult to stand out as a small forward in the NBA. But his ability to score inside and out could lead to a starting role down the road if he consistently puts up good per-minute numbers.