As far as mid-major NBA hopefuls go, there haven’t been many that enjoyed a college experience quite like that of Cleanthony Early. Transferring to Wichita State after two years of Division-III ball, Early led the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, their first appearance since 1965. As an encore, he guided Wichita State to a one-seed this March by way of a spotless 34-0 record.
Early and the undefeated Shockers fell in spectacular fashion to eighth-seeded Kentucky in the second round. In what was an instant classic, Early put on a show in his final college game against an opponent loaded with future NBAers, including a head-to-head matchup with soon-to-be lottery pick Julius Randle. He totaled 31 points on 12 of 17 shooting against the Wildcats, adding seven rebounds for good measure in what was an unforgettable performance that undoubtedly boosted his draft stock.
Even so, Early is already 23 years old, which puts a serious cap on his upside. In a recent chat with his readers, ESPN’s Chad Ford indicates that Early is likely a mid-to-late first round pick, with his age being a potential red flag. Later in the chat, Ford referred to draft prospects turning 23 as “the kiss of death” in the NBA’s analytics world. However, Ford did mention that Early’s tournament performance did, in fact, help him.
Early averaged 16.4 points per game as a senior at Wichita State, though his scoring prowess was perhaps best measured by the 24.5 points he averaged per 40 minutes, as the Shockers played in plenty of lopsided affairs. He was also very efficient, shooting 48.6% from the field, 37.5% from three and knocking down 84% of his free throws. He pulled down just under six rebounds per night for the Shockers.
With his ceiling may be limited, there is plenty to like about the 6’8″ forward. His offensive game is polished, as he boasts the ability to score inside and on the perimeter. He predominantly played power forward in college, though he has an improving three-point shot. Most important, his game is NBA-ready. Early is tough, skilled and physical enough to contribute right away. If he lands in the right spot in the back half of the first round, we could soon see Early playing meaningful minutes in meaningful games for a contender.
As Jonathan Givony of Draft Express points out, there is some position concern with Early, making his ceiling as a role player all but certain. He played power forward in college, but doesn’t have the size or wingspan to do so at the next level. He has some of the requisite skills to play the three, but his ball handling needs to improve, as does the consistency and range of his jumper. He also needs to get better defensively. But the question remains:
How much can he be expected to improve, given his advanced age?
One thing Early has going for him is that he has shown an ability to rapidly progress his skill set, transforming from a Division-III standout to a surefire NBA draft pick in only a few years. That should not go unnoticed, though in today’s NBA when everyone but the elite teams is looking for upside, Early sure has the look of a late first-round pick.