A prominent NBA general manager took Cleanthony Early to dinner as part of Early’s workout with the team. Early raved about Wichita State, so much so the GM said he felt compelled to leave coach Gregg Marshall a voicemail message.
The GM, whom Marshall didn’t feel comfortable naming, relayed Early’s strong feelings about the basketball atmosphere and the family feeling he experienced at WSU.
“He was big-time impressed with Cle and things Cle had to say about his time here,” Marshall said. “That really made me feel good.”
That is a good look for WSU. It is also a good look for Early, who is almost to the end of a four-month interview for his NBA future. By Thursday’s draft, he will have worked out for at least 14 teams, trying to impress with his basketball skills, personality and work ethic. Most are teams with picks in the late teens and down, such as Utah, Toronto, Boston, San Antonio, Phoenix, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
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“It’s pretty much like a job interview,” Early said. “I’ve got good vibes from all of them. It’s hard to have a bad workout. They want to see your skills. They want to see your competitiveness.”
Early, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward, is on track to become the first WSU basketball player drafted since 1987, when the Los Angeles Clippers took Henry Carr in the seventh round. Many projections have Early going late in the first round, a status last bestowed on a Shocker in 1985, when Seattle grabbed Xavier McDaniel with the fourth pick.
The first-round consists of 30 picks and athletes in those slots receive a guaranteed two-year contract. Rookie scale is around $900,000 for the No. 30 pick. The 31st pick starts the second round and no money is guaranteed.
“It’s a mutually beneficial situation,” Marshall said. “The higher he goes, the better it reflects on us. And our program helps him with the success we’ve had. I love the fact that he’s come so far.”
Marshall said he talked to around a dozen teams in recent weeks. The NBA scouts ask about Early’s work ethic and personality. Marshall gives him high marks for listening to coaches. When he came to WSU out of junior college, he needed work on his defense and controlling his emotions. While it wasn’t always easy, Early steadily improved. Marshall talked to him from the beginning about progressing from unknown to All-Missouri Valley Conference to All-America to NBA prospect.
Two years later, Early is on the edge of fulfilling all those goals.
“My point to these (NBA) guys is, if he embraced our program and the way we do our business, you will have no problems with him,” Marshall said. “He’s held accountable here. Our expectations are really high for these young men, on and off the court, and he dealt with that.”
Shocker fans who watched Early for two seasons know his strengths. NBA scouts see him as a player with the potential to help a team soon, because he is 23. His outside shooting ability is his strongest skill and his 6-foot-11 wingspan and athletic ability are solid for an NBA small forward. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in seven NCAA Tournament games, highlighted by strong performances against Louisville in 2013 and Kentucky in 2014.
For those reasons, he may appeal to teams such as Oklahoma City, Houston and Miami, who are contending and looking for a rotation player already physically mature.
“He shoots the ball well enough,” Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told reporters after Early’s workout. “He’s long. He’s athletic enough. I think that will be a fairly easy transition for him.”
His passing and dribbling must improve — in two seasons at WSU he totaled 40 assists and 131 turnovers. Most of his offense came from three-pointers, around the basket or on fast breaks. His ability to score off the dribble using fakes, mid-range shots and drives to the basket is in question. He improved his defensive focus late in the season for WSU.
“To occupy the three-spot at the next level, Early needs to beef up his off-the-dribble dimension,” wrote Adam Ganeles of NBADraft.net. “Ball handling and willingness to attack are on the incline, but he’s far from secure … He avoids dribbling into tight quarters and creativity is lacking.”
Early hears the questions, which can be summed in his potential to adjust from playing the power forward in college to the small forward in the NBA. Early performed many small-forward duties at WSU, shooting from the outside and guarding smaller opponents. In the NBA, he rarely will be able to overpower smaller defenders in the post. At 6-8, he is fighting the label of “tweener.”
“The team is going to pick you on your potential to adjust and grow,” Early said. “Different teams play different offenses. Whatever it is, you adjust to that playing style.”