Cleanthony Early was getting impatient. The first round of the 2014 NBA Draft had just concluded, and his name wasn’t one of the first 30 called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver. Early had been projected as a late-first round talent, but with his name still on the board, he could only sit and wait.
Early had a very productive senior season at Wichita State, averaging 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds to make the Wooden All-American Team and help the Shockers pull off a perfect 34-0 regular season record. He played even better during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 27 points and seven rebounds while shooting 65.6 percent from the field. His 31-point outing against the Kentucky Wildcats turned heads around the league, even if it wasn’t enough to keep Wichita State’s season alive.
At the NBA Draft Combine, Early measured well at 6’7 with a 6’11 wingspan and he tested out as one of the most athletic players in the class. His 40-inch max vertical and 3.18 three-quarter sprint were impressive, and DraftExpress’ athletic testing composite score ranked him the third-best athlete in the class.
Yet, here was Early, still on the board as second-round picks started to come in. Damien Inglis to the Milwaukee Bucks with the 31st overall pick. K.J. McDaniels to the Philadelphia 76ers with the 32nd overall pick. Joe Harris to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick.
Despite his success, it seemed that Early’s age had scared some teams. At 23 years old, he’s one of the oldest players in the class. In the draft, teams often choose young, high-upside players over older, experienced players, opting for phenoms with potential over veterans with successful resumes. This is how a player like Early, who seemed to fit the mold of a first-rounder, ends up slipping on draft night.
With each pick, Early’s frustration grew, but fortunately his long wait came to an end early in the second round.
“With the 34th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks select Cleanthony Early from Wichita State University,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announced to the cheers of Knicks fans.
Early, who was born and raised in the Bronx, was thrilled. As upsetting as it was for him to fall out of the first round, he feels like it all happened for a reason because it allowed him to return home to New York.
“I was excited, I was happy, especially for the fact that I get to stay home next to my mom and be a part of the Knicks organization all at once,” Early told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a dream come true, just be in this position. Getting to come back home is just everything. I couldn’t ask for more. It feels very surreal.”
Early at No. 34 is incredible value, and he may end up being the steal of this draft. After receiving little attention out of high school, playing two years in junior college and going overlooked at Wichita State, he already had an enormous chip on his shoulder. Now, after being passed over by every team, he’s definitely using it as motivation.
“At the end of the day, they made their decision, they made their choices, and they’re going to have to live with that, they’re going to have to stick with that,” Early said. “I’m going to have to live with that, I’m going to have to stick with that. But the only difference is, the way my heart is set up and the way I am, I’m going to use it as motivation. It fires me up. If I ever feel like I am being overlooked or I feel like I got something to prove, I’m willing to accept that challenge. The only thing I have to do is get in the gym and continue doing what I’ve been doing, honestly. I’m not going to get caught up in making crazy comments about the situation. It is what it is, it happened, get over it.
“It’s time to eat. I’m ready. I can’t wait to play any one of those guys [who went before me] and play any of those teams that passed on me when it would’ve been a good fit. It’s just going to be a little extra motivation, you know what I mean?”
Early had an interview with the Knicks at the NBA Draft Combine, and felt really good about it. Even though the team didn’t have a draft pick at the time, he started to sense that New York was somewhere he may land.
“I just had a gut feeling that I would end up in New York, and I just kept believing,” Early said. “When I had an interview with them, I thought I could end up there. How? I don’t know. I felt like there was a possibility, even though they didn’t have a pick. It wasn’t like, ‘Why am I having an interview if there’s no chance of me coming here?’ But the interview went really, really well. Going through the process, you think you might end up somewhere, but you never really know. I was just going to be happy with wherever I went. Then, once they acquired a pick, I was just like, ‘Alright man, this could be real.’”
While Early’s age is what caused him to be passed over on draft night, he feels it will actually help him on the Knicks since he’s NBA-ready and prepared to make an impact immediately.
“I definitely think I can contribute right away,” Early said. “I guess it’s like that Drake line, ‘I’m the rookie and the vet.’ I just got to take it for what it is and use it to my advantage. There’s younger guys, and they have a lot to learn and more years to learn, but when we’re talking about right here and right now, I’m going to be ready to play and make the most of my opportunity.”
Early grew up supporting the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers – idolizing Phil Jackson – so he can’t believe that he ended up being the Zen Master’s first draft pick.
“It means everything,” Early said. “It’s very humbling, but at the same time it’s very inspiring – that’s exactly what it’s doing for me. It’s keeping me humble and it’s keeping me inspired because he had players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Now, with him drafting me first, you have an expectation to live up to. And it’s not just what anyone else sets for you, it’s what you set for yourself and where you see yourself. If you have high goals, you’re going to work hard and Phil Jackson is the perfect teacher. People call him the Zen Master and a genius, and you get labels like those from having a great resume and being a great person and I think I could do great with those type of people because I’m willing to learn from as many people as possible. When you have a great teacher and someone who’s willing to listen and is as open to learning as I am, only positive can come out from this.
“I’m going to keep working on everything – ball-handling, reading screens, ball-screens, defending, communicating, bringing my energy, it’s pretty much everything. I’m always trying to work on everything. I’m getting up shots off the dribble, spot up shots and shots coming off screens, I’m not going to limit myself to what I’m trying to improve on. I get to learn from Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher and all those guys who know so many different ways to put the ball in the basket and how to share the basketball and how to free another guy open and how to get yourself free by just setting screens, moving, cutting to the basket. I want to learn as much as possible and I can’t wait to start.”
Early has already gotten to meet some of his teammates and he believes he’ll fit right in to the Knicks’ culture.
“I got to meet some of them and they seem like cool guys, good guys like [Iman] Shumpert, Tim Hardaway, J.R. [Smith] – those guys all seem pretty chill,” Early said. “As far as the offense, they’re new to it, just like I’m going to be new to it. They have stuff to learn, just like I got stuff to learn, but they’ve been playing together for a while. My thing, just with my energy and my openness, is to continue to learn and listen and communicate with everyone properly. I’ll do whatever I can to learn and contribute.
“We haven’t spoken specifically about my role on the team. I know that they see me as a high-character guy and a guy who’s talented and has the ability to play basketball. But I’ve got to learn a new offense, and that goes for everyone. As far as my role, I’ll be someone that’s going to come in and make an impact and play defense, defend, rebound, shoot the ball well, get to the basket, create shots for teammates, just pretty much be a basketball player. With the offense that we have now, we just have to learn and find the minutes pretty much.”
Fans in New York are thrilled to welcome Early to the team, because they realize that he can be a rare second-round player who emerges as a difference maker right away. Early appreciates the support he has been getting from Knicks fans.
“It’s been nothing but love, man,” Early said. “I love the Knicks fans. I love New York. I love all of our fans really, whether they’re in New York or not. Anyone who’s down to support me or anything that I’m doing or organization that I’m in, I think that’s great. I give that energy right back and I’ve got nothing but love for those people that believe in me.”
Early can’t wait for the season to start so he can pull on his Knicks jersey for the first time and make his NBA debut. Entering next season, he believes that New York has the pieces to be very competitive in the Eastern Conference.
“I think we can be really, really good,” Early said. “That’s me, I’m very optimistic and I believe everyone here works hard, and they want to win and if you have that then we can be really, really good. Especially with a good coach and good players. We have a great president, a really good coach and good players, so the potential is there. We just got to all buy in and play for each other and do what we need to do, which I believe we’re going to do.It’s real early to tell, but I believe the sky is the limit for us.”
The sky is certainly the limit for Early, and he’s ready to prove it.