Cleanthony Early, SF/PF, Wichita State
Wichita State finished the 2013-14 season with the best record in college basketball at 35-1. The one loss came in the third round of the NCAA Tournament to the Kentucky Wildcats, who eventually lost the championship game after an incredible run. The Shockers did nearly everything right against Kentucky, but they fell just short. Although the loss shocked Wichita State, pun intended, not a single one of the players needed to hang their heads after an incredible game, no one less so than Cleanthony Early.
Early exploded against Kentucky to have easily the best performance of his college career. He scored a career high 31 points on nearly 71% from the field, and he also had 7 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal to complement his offensive outburst. Early was a significant player for head coach Gregg Marshall and the Shockers all season, with a lot of the offense flowing through him. However, Early and the Shockers didn't get the respect they truly deserved until after their clash against Kentucky. Then, everyone knew Early and this Shockers team was for real.
Stats Courtesy of Sports-Reference
From his junior to senior season, Early's stats didn't really explode. He improved modestly in many statistical categories, but not enough for his improvement from one season to the next to stand out. The one area of improvement that really does stand out year over year is Early's improved three-point shooting. He took one more three per game his senior season than he did his junior season, and his field goal percentage from behind the arc skyrocketed as well from 32% to 37%.
Early's best offensive skill is his shooting. He's excellent in catch-and-shoot opportunities, and he's also great at using off-ball screens to free himself for a shot. Wichita State's offense is one that's largely dependent on a plethora of screens to get guys open, as is the Grizzlies half court offense under head coach Dave Joerger. His shooting at Wichita State was helped by the fact that the savvy backcourt pairing of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet always got him the ball in advantageous situations. If drafted by the Grizzlies, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, two deft passers, would certainly be able to continue doing the same for Early. His spot-up ability would be greatly appreciated on a team that is still largely devoid of consistent three-point threats.
There is still work to be done by Early in the shooting department. Rather than attack the paint with his size and athleticism, he settles for way too many outside jumpers. He took more than 7 threes per 40 minutes last season, and he's not that good a shooter to justify that many looks at the NBA level. His shot is extremely flat as he basically pushed the ball forward to the rim, and there is concern that his range might not extend to the NBA three-point line. If it doesn't, it will be hard for Early, whose offensive game is centered around shooting, to stay on the floor.
When Early does put the ball on the floor, he can get to the rim in a straight line drive using his sheer size and athleticism. However, he only takes what is given to him and is not a particularly able creator. He lacks any advanced dribbling moves, and that probably stems from him lacking a decent handle on the ball. He dribbles wildly and way too high off the ground, making it easy for defenders to disrupt his drives to the rim. When he is able to get to the rim, he uses his big 6'7, 219 pound frame to finish through contact or get to the free throw line. He demonstrates plenty of athleticism to sky and finish above the rim, which isn't necessary but is a great plus at the small forward position in the NBA.
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When the game slows down in the half court, Early is big enough to take opposing small forwards down to the low block and work out of the post. He doesn't possess any great post moves, but if he seals his man deep enough he can catch and go straight up to finish. He can also face up his defender and either knock down a mid-range jumper or drive past him, depending on the matchup.
Although matchups can be a good thing for Early given his skill set, they can also break him. Against power forwards, Early lacks the strength sufficient to muscle through them for a good look at the rim, and his average length for his height doesn't really help him shoot over slower defenders. Against small forwards, Early struggles to get around quicker guys with his average first step, which could be a problem for him on face-ups. In the NBA against stronger, bigger, quicker defenders, one wonders whether Early will be effective in the post at all.
With the ball in his hands, Early is very limited when it comes to creating for teammates. He only averaged 0.8 assists/game his senior season, and he never had a positive assist/turnover ratio in his collegiate career. He struggles to make even the most fundamental passes, often passing up open shooters to take a shot for himself. He has a tendency to dribble himself into tough situations with not exit strategy where a good pass is impossible to make. His decision making must improve to survive at the next level, because an average offensive player won't be allowed to turn the ball over at the rate that he does and still see floor time.
Early is a solid rebounder for his position, particularly on the offensive glass. He positions himself poorly for rebounds and lacks proper technique when boxing out, but his athleticism will occasionally allow him to get away with that when he is able to just jump high and snag a board. In the NBA, his rebounding ability could be lessened by bigger, stronger guys. He won't be able to hold off NBA power forwards with his slender lower body, and small forwards will likely be quick enough to outmaneuver him and gain better positioning when the ball caroms off the rim.
Defensively, Early is extremely vulnerable. He's a mediocre perimeter defender, and that's why Gregg Marshall, one of the smartest coaches in the college game, hid him on slower, less dynamic power forwards most of the time. Against power forwards much bigger and more skilled, that tactic won't fly. Against his own position, most guys in the NBA that he will face at small forward will be able to blow by him. He has a poor defensive stance, where he stands back on his heels leading to a lot of backpedaling. He can block a shot from time to time with his athleticism, but that's not nearly valuable enough to make him a passable defender. He will have to prove that he can guard a position to stay on the floor.
While Early has the frame of an NBA small forward, he's still considered a tweener largerly because of his defensive ability or lack thereof. That's a position every NBA prospect dreads to be in. Couple that with the fact that he is one of the oldest players in this year's draft class (he will be 23 in his first season in the league), and his upside and potential become very limited. When a guy doesn't make it to the league until he is 23, it's tough not to wonder if there is a reason for that. Does he have a lot of improvement left, or is he basically a finished product right now? To spin his age in a positive light, maybe he will come into the league ready to make an immediate impact because of his experience, which is something the Grizzlies could value given their narrow window to win a championship with the current group. That's a lofty hope, but one that the NBA team that drafts him will be holding onto tightly.