Why Cleanthony Early Could Be a Real Asset for New York Knicks' Future

Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterJuly 1, 2014

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 23:  Cleanthony Early #11 of the Wichita State Shockers celebrates after a basket in the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 23, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

What seemed like just a throw-in in the trade that sent Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton to the Dallas Mavericks, the No. 34 pick could prove to be the most valuable asset the New York Knicks got in return.

I can't imagine there was much debate in Phil Jackson's draft room when the Knicks were on the clock and Cleanthony Early was still on the board.

The Knicks had to be drafting in best-player-available mode, and there's a good chance it's going to result in second-round robbery. 

Early has a unique track record for an incoming rookie. He was the 2012 Junior College Player of the Year before jumping to Wichita State and leading the Shockers to a memorable Final Four appearance in 2013. 

This past year, he carried them to an undefeated regular season.

Ironically, Early's stock got the biggest boost in the last loss of his collegiate career, when he dropped 31 points and seven boards against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. 

But from a scouting perspective, the key takeaways from Early's two years in Division I should focus on the NBA tools he's flashed and the progress he's shown.

Based on his strengths, this is a guy who the Knicks might be able to count on right out of the gates. And when you take into account the leap he made from his junior to senior year, it makes you wonder just how much he'll continue to grow fundamentally down the road. 

The Knicks might have got the best of both worlds here with Early—an NBA-ready body with some long-term upside in the tank. 

As of July 1, New York lacks depth and athleticism up front, and it doesn't have the spending money to shop for either. Cue Early, who's got the versatility to offer both right away.  

At 23 years old, Early should be fairly prepared for the physical transition. He received plenty of time at power forward for Wichita State, where he showed a knack for playing through contact—an admirable quality for an incoming rookie.

He finished with 30 and-1s last season, per DraftExpress, and he shot 57.9 percent on his two-point attempts. Early also scored 1.13 points per possession in the post, which ranked first amongst the top 2014 small forward prospects in the class, per DraftExpress. 

And he blends his scoring prowess in the paint with an electric 40-inch max vertical, smooth athleticism and a developing outside jumper, which should allow him to log minutes at the 3, where the Knicks have been forced to use 2-guards like 6'5" Iman Shumpert. 

Following his junior year, scouts had questioned whether or not Early could make the transition to small forward, considering he shot just 31.8 percent from downtown.

However, that concern has faded over the past few months, as Early finished his senior year having made 1.8 three-pointers per game at a respectable 37.3 percent clip. And his mechanics look fluid, natural and promising. 

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 21:  Cleanthony Early #11 of the Wichita State Shockers takes a shot against the Cal Poly Mustangs during the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Scottrade Center on March 21, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

There's no doubt about it—Early's jumper could ultimately make or break him as a pro, but at this point, the improvement he's made is encouraging. 

The height of Early's NBA ceiling is debatable, given his age and limited off-the-dribble game. He isn't the type of player who's going to create offense for New Yorkrather, an athletic forward who can finish it from multiple spots.

And that's just short term. As a rookie, Early gives the Knicks an athletic upgrade in the frontcourt and an extra high-percentage target for new point guard Jose Calderon, a very slick passer. 

Long term, Early still has room to improve as a shooter, ball-handler and defender.

"He picked me for a reason," Early said of Jackson to Scott Cacciola of the The New York Times, "and whatever that reason is, I just got to continue to develop. It's Phil, man."

Early has some fine-tuning to do, but between his athleticism, finishing instincts and shooting potential, he's got some promising strengths for a complementary scorer—both now and in the future. 

The Knicks can't really afford to improve the roster in free agency. They could get much-needed value in Early on a second-round contract moving forward.