In the summer of 2012, Toure Murry and Joe Ragland played in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. They texted Cleanthony Early, a player with potential whom they met on his recruiting visit to Wichita State.
“Keep hooping. You could be right there.”
Murry and Ragland saw that Early belonged. On Thursday, a professional team is expected to agree by grabbing Early, a 6-foot-8 forward, in the NBA Draft.
He started his college career as a little-known player at NJCAA Division III Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College. Four seasons later, he leaves Wichita State as a second-team All-American and a possible first-round draft choice.
“It’s a dream come true,” Early said.
Early will take a different route to the NBA than Murry, who completed his rookie season with the New York Knicks after playing overseas and in the NBA Development League. When Early is picked, he expects to hug his mother, celebrate that night, and then get back to work.
Draft night is part of his journey from the Bronx to Middletown, N.Y. to Wichita and beyond. It is not the destination.
“I’ve got more dreams than that,” he said. “It’s a job now. You can’t lose focus.”
Murry wasn’t drafted; he had to ride buses and play in empty arenas in McAllen, Texas and Fort Wayne, Ind. before the Knicks signed him. Early, if he is a first-round pick, is on the fast track to the NBA with a two-year guaranteed contract.
“He’s at a great time in his life right now,” Murry said. “Sometimes you’ve got to look past all the luxuries. You’re living good. You’re around all these superstars that you’ve been looking up to. You’ve got to work on your craft and not get caught up in being comfortable.”
Early has no intention of coasting after Thursday. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall likes to recruit junior colleges because he says those players are hungry. They’ve ridden in buses, eaten fast food and adjusted to new coaches and new schools. Early had all that and significant athletic ability and scoring skills.
Early averaged 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds as a senior, ending his career with 31 points in a loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. He made 66 of 176 (37.5 percent) three-pointers, shot 48.6 percent from the field and 84.4 percent from the foul line. As a junior, Early averaged 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds. He made 31.8 percent (47 of 148) of his threes and shot 45.5 percent from the field.
When Early came to WSU, Marshall saw NBA talent. His mind and work habits needed refining.
“The athletic ability, it’s easy to see,” Marshall said. “The big key for him was the mental game — buying in to being coached, getting in the gym and working on his skills. Keeping his emotions in check, allowing us to coach him and make him be part of something bigger than himself. He bought in. He embraced it, which is not always the case.”
That juco hunger would serve Early, 23, well in the NBA. When he visited the Boston Celtics, he told reporters he knew what he wanted people to see during a workout with five others who play his position.
“That I’m better than these guys,” Early said. “And I’m pretty sure they’re trying to show the same thing.”
Early appears to make a strong impression in workouts. A Sports Illustrated draft analysis quoted an anonymous scout calling Early “A great kid. What a great interview.”
Shocker fans who got to know Early as a talkative, friendly, positive-thinker can understand him acing that part of the test. He enjoyed meeting NBA coaches and general managers and enjoyed discovering new restaurants during his visits to NBA cities.
“I connect with a lot of people,” Early said.
Thursday’s selection — Early appears to be pegged for late in the first round or early in the second — means he hits the basketball jackpot. He said he began thinking about the NBA as a youngster, even though baseball was his main sport until 13. Early played third base and shortstop.
“I was pretty good,” he said. “Most of my trophies were from baseball.”
He grew up a fans of NBA players such as Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter. He alternated favorite teams — Bulls, Nets, Lakers — along with favorite players.
“When you have a dream, it’s always been realistic for you,” he said. “Everybody has elite dreams.”