Wichita State is back in the business of producing NBA players, with Gal Mekel and Toure Murry landing roster spots this season.
Mekel and Murry took the difficult route to the NBA, toiling away as undrafted players in the minor leagues before earning a spot. The next Shocker may go through the front door. Senior Cleanthony Early put himself on NBA lists last season and scouts are making regular visits to Koch Arena to check in this fall.
“He’s got the complete attention of those folks,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s got the stage on which to perform. Now it’s just a matter of doing it consistently.”
Early, a 6-foot-8 forward, showed NBA potential last season with his athletic ability and scoring. His 24 points and 10 rebounds in the Final Four game against eventual NCAA champion Louisville highlighted his NBA resume. The raw talent is clearly there. Now he has a year to show the NBA scouts he can execute some of the game’s finer details.
Over the summer, he set about improving his ball-handling in order to diversify his offensive game. Marshall wants him to cut out silly fouls while still playing aggressive defense. Added strength and weight will help him stay healthy.
“He’s worked on his body; he’s really strong and fit and athletic,” Marshall said. “He’s trying to defend a little better and be a little smarter with his defense.”
Early is excited about the NBA prospects, but he wants to keep the focus on the Shockers. He averaged 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds last season, making 45.5 percent of his shots and 31.8 percent of his three-pointers.
“I’m thinking a lot about this season right now, just doing what I’ve got to do and being productive,” he said.
The Shockers changed some of their conditioning emphasis, doing yoga and concentrating on flexibility to avoid injuries. With the NCAA adding practice time throughout the year, players don’t get out of shape. Early likes the challenge of yoga.
“I feel like I’m in better shape than I was last year,” he said. “I’m getting my lower-body strength more up to par and stretching more doing things that help me improve on staying low and being in that defensive stance.”
NBA television analyst Jeff Van Gundy, former coach of the Knicks and Rockets, watched WSU’s practice last week before working the exhibition game at Intrust Bank Arena. He told Marshall that sophomore guard Ron Baker possesses an NBA shooting form and accuracy. Marshall hears that a lot from NBA scouts.
“They all ask about Ron when they leave,” Marshall said. “He’s got a big-time stroke.”
Early is happy to see his teammates get some attention from scouts tracking him. He compared it to his days in junior college when NCAA Division I coaches came to watch him.
“If five schools are here for me — I can only go to one,” Early said. “I really appreciate these guys working hard and gaining those opportunities and I hope more of my teammates have those opportunities.”
Marshall said he believes Early has the potential to get drafted in the first round next spring. Mock drafts from websites specializing in the NBA don’t include him as a first-round pick. Early has a lot of time to change that perception.
“Now, he’s got to play well,” Marshall said. “There are a lot of other players trying to become first-round draft picks. That’s what he was striving to become this summer.”
“We played better than I anticipated,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised with how we rebounded the ball against such a big, athletic, talented team. Our core guys didn’t really play well, but they played well enough.”
The new officiating emphasis on curbing hand-checking, bumping and physical defense made for a long day. Marshall said Baylor shot 23 free throws in one 20-minute segment.
“You’re going to see a lot more foul shots, a lot more foul trouble, you’re going to see people driving to the basket,” Marshall said.