Cleanthony Early and coach Gregg Marshall remember the moment basically the same way, until the end. Early, in his first Wichita State basketball practice of the summer, took a 17-foot turnaround jumper from the baseline, the type of shot he won’t take if he wants to play for the Shockers.
“It probably went in, though,” Early said.
Marshall remembers it falling three feet short of the rim.
“He turned and shot it like, I guess, the way he did last year at his junior college,” he said. “He wasn’t open. It was a bad shot, even if he was open.”
Early’s memory reveals his role and his confidence. He can score. He can play multiple positions. He defends and rebounds. Making baskets, however, is his identity.
“I’m a scorer,” he said. “I know with the offense that we have, scoring won’t even be something I should focus on, because I know it’s something that’s going to come, whether it’s me crashing the boards on offense and getting tip-ins or getting an open shot. I’m going to score.”
Early, a 6-foot-8 junior forward, proved that at Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College, where he averaged 24.2 points as a sophomore and made 58 percent of his shots and 23 of 62 three-pointers (37 percent). He is WSU’s most prominent newcomer after earning NJCAA Division III Player of the Year honors twice at Sullivan.
As Marshall’s anecdote demonstrates, Early needed to learn how to play smarter to take advantage of his physical gifts. WSU guard Malcolm Armstead, a senior who practiced with the Shockers last season while redshirting, notices Early picking up one of the key points of the offense.
“He understand that if he sets a good screen on somebody else’s man, then he’s going to be open just as much because his man has to help,” Armstead said. “He is understanding what his role is and what coach wants him to do. He’s a gifted player, because he’s 6-8, 6-9 and he can score on the perimeter. He can run like a guard, but he’s big.”
Lost in practices this summer, Early made fast progress and Marshall counts him as a player ready to contribute at both forward positions.
“He will be a factor from Day 1,” Marshall said. “We haven’t had anybody like him since I’ve been here – a forward that is incredibly athletic, and fairly skilled and 6-foot-8 and pretty strong.”
While WSU needs his scoring, Early knows other jobs are important. He won’t be the offensive focal point for 40 minutes as he was at Sulllivan. Defenses will be more difficult to master in the Missouri Valley Conference. The best players contribute even when shots aren’t going in.
“Whatever I can do, whether it’s getting rebounds, blocking shots, making passes, scoring the ball — whatever I feel like is in my ability, I’m going to try to do it at my best,” he said. “I’ve got to worry about stopping my man, getting that loose ball, boxing out. That’s what I need to focus on and become better at.”
Early’s progress is critical for chemistry, which is an issue after losing five seniors. WSU, which went 27-6 and played in the NCAA Tournament last season, is mixing in six newcomers. Armstead calls Early a good catch-and-shoot scorer, someone who doesn’t need a dribble to set himself before shooting. He can run the pick-and-pop and is fast enough to score on the break. When he plays power forward, his outside shooting can stretch the defense.
“Guys know where your spot is and where to find you,” Early said. “Demetric (Williams) and Malcolm, they’re starting to learn my game. That’s always been the type of player I’ve been, to rely on a good point guard to set me up and make even better. They’re going to make sure I’m in the right spot.”
Early’s attitude helps his progress.
“He listens very well, so he tries to pick our brain,” Williams said. “He is very coachable. He is very hungry and humble and wants to really be out there this season.”