When Cleanthony Early arrived at Wichita State two years ago, the 6-foot-7 forward understood he was an unknown.
As the top freshmen in the 2012 recruiting class – names such as Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA), Nerlens Noel (Kentucky) and Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) – stepped foot on their respective campuses as five-star, future lottery picks already on the radar of all 30 NBA franchises, there was Early, a junior-college product arriving at a mid-major program fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons.
Early spent two seasons at Sullivan (N.Y.) County Community College, peaking his sophomore year when he averaged 20.4 points and 11.4 rebounds and was named the NJCAA Division III player of the year. A handful of high-major schools – Baylor and Washington State, among others – showed interest in the talented forward, but he opted for the Shockers, which had shown interest early in the recruiting process and never wavered on wanting him.
Though he was expected to contribute from Day 1 for the projected conference champion in the Missouri Valley Conference, no one knew his name.
No one, except Shockers head coach Greg Marshall.
“As soon as I came in, we actually had a conversation about my goals and his expectations for me. This was a realistic goal, and he told me not a lot of people probably knew who I was coming into Division I, but he’s seen my talent, he’s seen the things I’ve accomplished and he liked what he saw,” Early said at the NBA Draft Combine two weeks ago.
“He made some bold predictions and big predictions before I even played a game about the type of player I was. And I continued to buy in and listen to him, and I now I’m here in front of you guys.”
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It wasn’t as simple as Early making good on bold predictions his head coach set for him, but at times he made it seem that way. In two seasons he averaged 15.2 points in 75 career games, advanced to the Final Four as a junior and, this past season, helped the Shockers become the first team in a decade to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.
It was a whirlwind journey for Early, who went from a relative unknown to the leading scorer on one of the best stories in all of college basketball the last two seasons. And he did some of his best work on the big stage; he averaged 16.2 points as a junior during the Shockers’ run to the Final Four, including a 24-point outing in a loss to eventual champion Louisville.
And when the Shockers were placed in the gauntlet Midwest Region in last year’s NCAA Tournament, Early scored a season-high 31 points in a third-round loss to eventual runner-up Kentucky, in what many considered the tournament’s best game. His final collegiate game put him on the national radar – “performing like that against those guys showed potentially what I could do and what I’m capable of,” he said – and ended a collegiate run that he admitted was made possible because he was able to adjust to his new surroundings.
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“I think life in general is just about adjusting, and each level you go on there’s new things that you have to learn and adjust to, and if you’re willing to listen and work hard you’ll be just fine,” he said. “And the way I’ve worked, the way I continue to work, the way I listen, I’m willing to put my ego aside for certain things and look at the bigger picture and continue to study the game of life and study the game of basketball.”
At 23 he’s older than the majority of his fellow NBA hopefuls in this year’s class, but his numbers both on and off the court have him in the conversation as a potential first-round pick (Draft Express has him at No. 33 to the Cavaliers; NBADraft.net has him going No. 20 to the Raptors; all three CBS mock drafts have him going in the first round).
His 6-foot-11 wingspan, 40-inch vertical and 4.5 percent body fat were all positives at the combine, and this past season he made 38 percent of his 3-pointers and 85 percent of his free throws. In two seasons with Wichita State he had 17 games of 20 or more points (including a 39-point effort as a junior) and made a triple in all but five of his games as a senior.
All those factors will serve him well at the next level – a small forward with 3-point range has become a necessity rather than a luxury in today’s NBA – but for Early, it’s about his work ethic and ability to continue adapting everywhere he goes that will yield him success.
“I think I would fit anywhere well because I’m just willing to learn, adjust and observe and just listen to the coach and buy into the system because I’m trying to win wherever I go,” he said. “Just the fact that I’m hungry and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get to where I need to be and that’s work hard and improve on anything they feel is a weakness, continue to improve on anything they feel is a strength and just work my tail off to be the best that I can be and help the (organization) out.”
Cleanthony Early is known. He’s performed admirably on a national stage, helped rewrite the college basketball history book and transformed himself from a mystery junior-college recruit to a highly sought-after NBA prospect. He's made good on his promise to adjust in every setting in which he's been placed, yet for all the stops he's made on his unlikely journey it's his core values that has the Middletown, N.Y., native optimistic he will succeed at the next level, even if he begins his next step as an unknown.
“Being from New York my confidence is pretty much always high," he said with a smile. "I just pick up certain things and it works for me, and I love the results I see from it."