The New York Knicks may have landed the steal of the draft with the 34th pick in Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early. Knicks fans can expect Early to have an immediate impact in his rookie season.
The New York native was the best player on a Shockers team that entered the 2014 NCAA tournament undefeated. Considered by many scouts to be a first-round talent, he slipped to the second round due to concerns about his age (23), the quality of competition he faced in college and the dreaded "tweener" label.
Many scouts believed that Early's upside is limited by his age. The flip side of that argument is that with four years of college experience under his belt, he should be able to contribute immediately.
Concerns about the competition he faced in college are overblown. While the Missouri Valley Conference is far from elite, Early proved himself against top programs.
He was the best player on the floor in Wichita State's 78-76 loss to a loaded University of Kentucky team, dropping 31 points and grabbing seven boards against Coach Calipari's squad. And the year before, Early posted 24 points and 10 rebounds, with zero turnovers in the Shockers' Final Four loss to the eventual champion Louisville Cardinals.
Early was one of the top athletes in the draft, with a 40-inch maximum vertical leap, via draftexpress.com. He likes to get out on the break, is an explosive finisher at the rim and is capable of scoring from all over the floor.
Early played power forward for the Shockers and should be able to exploit smaller players on the block, though at 6'7'', he projects as a small forward in the NBA. He will serve as the Knicks backup 3 and could log some minutes as a small-ball power forward. His experience playing in the high post for Wichita State should help him acclimate to the Triangle Offense that Derek Fisher is expected to run.
Early's best-case long-term projection is as a starting 3-D forward and his proficiency in those two areas, three-point shooting and defense, will determine how much of a contributor he can be this season. He also needs to improve his ball-handling skills.
His perimeter defense was spotty at Wichita State. Quick forwards often caught him flat-footed. However, with his elite athleticism and 6'10'' wingspan, he has the tools to develop into a solid defender.
His three-point shooting percentage jumped from 31.8 percent in his junior season to 37.6 percent in his final year at Wichita State. His shot is very flat and greater arc caught help him maintain that accuracy from NBA range.
Early's explosiveness makes him an ideal fit for a second unit that will include second-year guards Shane Larkin and Tim Hardaway Jr., both of whom like to get up and down the floor. New York will push the ball and look for easy scores when all three are in the game together.
Knicks fans can expect a steady dose of highlight-reel dunks like this throwdown over two Dallas defenders in the Knicks' first Summer League game.
While Early's athleticism should ensure him a spot in the rotation, he will be competing with a glut of wing players for minutes.
Carmelo Anthony's decision to return to New York will cut into Early's playing time. The seven-time All-Star will soak up plenty of minutes on the wing, and his presence will cause Fisher to lean on his veterans as the Knicks look to contend this season.
The degree to which Anthony will impact Early's role will depend in part on how Fisher uses his superstar. The coach could start a small lineup with Anthony at the 4 and Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith at the 2 and 3 spots, or opt for a more conventional unit of Anthony at small forward, in which case Smith or Shumpert would come off the bench and cut into Early's playing time.
Hardaway Jr. earned a spot in the rotation with an impressive rookie campaign, and sharpshooter Wayne Ellington, who was recently acquired from Dallas in the Tyson Chandler trade, will be in the mix as well.
The safe assumption is that Early will play about 15 minutes per night. If the Knicks are out of contention or suffer a rash of injuries, that number could creep up to the 23-minute-per-game range that Hardaway Jr. averaged in his rookie season, with the possibility of even more minutes come March and April.
Early was extremely efficient in college, connecting on 57.9 percent of his two-point attempts in his senior season, via draftexpress.com, though like any rookie he will experience his ups and downs. There will be games when he scores 8-12 points in 20 minutes and others when he is quickly pulled after a few ill-advised shots.
Knicks fans have who pined for young talent for more than a decade have reason to be excited about Early, though they should temper their expectations. The Wichita State star will be fun to watch and should make an immediate contribution, but he is not a game-changer.