Cleanthony Early, 6-foot-8 small forward, Wichita State
2013-14 stats: 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG, .486 FG%, .375 3P%
The former junior-college player of the year made a big impact in his two seasons at the four-year level, helping transform Wichita State into a household name for the first time since the days of Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr. Rugged, yet athletic and equipped with perimeter skills, Early is the rare college senior that many observers believe still has plenty of room to grow. However, the 23-year-old does have holes in his game that need to be addressed in order to maximize his talent in the NBA.
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Career highlights: After transferring from junior college in his home state of New York, Early was only a part-time starter for the Shockers as he adjusted to a new level of basketball, but still shined, averaging 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, becoming a first team all-Missouri Valley Conference selection and being named the league’s newcomer of the year, en route to a Final Four run, with a 25-point, nine rebound performance to beat Iowa and a career-high 39-point outburst in a win over Southern Illinois highlighting his campaign. As a senior, Early posted averages of 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds, while shooting an improved 48.6 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from three-point range and 84.4 percent from the free-throw line. Early was one of the keys to Wichita State winning its first 35 games of the season and he saved his best game of the year for last, scoring 31 points in a heartbreaking NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky, again winning first team all-league honors along the way, as well as receiving third team All-American accolades.
Strengths: Possessing deep shooting range off the catch or screens, Early also has the explosiveness to finish above the rim, whether in transition or off strong drives. He utilizes that same athleticism to be a factor on the boards and be an active defender, with lateral quickness to defend on the perimeter and the length to guard bigger players inside. While the level of competition he faced was often questioned, if Early’s solid performances in Wichita State’s tough non-conference schedule wasn’t enough, his stellar outing against a Kentucky team loaded with future pros certainly showed that he’s at least the equal of other top prospects from programs with more name recognition.
Weaknesses: While Early should be given credit for being aware of his limitations on the floor, it’s clear that he isn’t much of a creator off the dribble, meaning that as a perimeter player on the next level, he will need to rely on set plays and the playmaking ability of his teammates to score in half-court situations. His ball skills in general are somewhat of an issue, as he isn’t much of a passer and is a somewhat one-dimensional player offensively. Due to his somewhat rare background for a first-round prospect, which included an apparent anonymous stint at prep school following high school, Early is regarded as having more upside than usual for his advanced age, but his ceiling is still lower than many of his younger counterparts.
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Draft projection: Likely a mid-to-late first-round pick, Early’s stock could go up if his competitiveness manifests itself well in pre-draft workouts with more ballyhooed prospects. He has a ready-made niche in the NBA as a three-and-D player, given his defensive pedigree coming from Wichita State and its “Play Angry” style, in addition to his outside-shooting prowess. Early might not develop into a star at the next level, but he can certainly make an impact as a long-term, role-playing contributor, with his value proving evident from the outset of his career.