If falling into the second round of the NBA Draft bothered Cleanthony Early, he hid it behind his excitement at joining the New York Knicks.
Early, born in the Bronx, spoke to reporters on a conference call Monday and focused on his future. Projected by many to go in the first round, Early waited at Brooklyn’s 40/40 Club on Thursday evening until the Knicks grabbed him with the 34th pick, four spots into the second round.
"It’s a blessing," he said. "I can’t ask for a better position. It’s where I was born and where I was raised."
Slipping comes with a price. First-round picks receive a guaranteed two-year contract. Second-round picks must make the team, a process that starts in July in the Las Vegas Summer League. Early, a 6-foot-8 forward from Wichita State, became the first Shocker drafted since 1987.
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His age may have caused some teams to pass. Early is 23, which may cause some teams to see him as a player with limited up-side. The usual, hard-to-predict, influx of foreign players also changed things. Some NBA teams, who want to avoid paying a rookie salary immediately or lack a roster spot, will draft a foreign player and stash him away overseas to develop for a season or two.
"I just left it in God’s hands," he said. "I feel like I’m a good player, who has much room to improve. With that attitude, I just knew God had me. Whatever situation that I end up in, I’m going to do what I need to do to be where I need to be. I’m even more happy that I got an opportunity to play for my city."
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 third round of 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.
His performance against Kentucky convinced many that he possessed first-round talent. New York media outlets proclaimed him the steal of the draft.
"You fall a little bit, so it feels like someone might have overlooked you or slept on you," he said. "It’s definitely motivation, maybe triple."
The Knicks face a transition with the arrival of Phil Jackson as president and Derek Fisher as coach. All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony is a free agent. Center Tyson Chandler and guard Raymond Felton are gone, part of the trade that gave the Knicks the 34th pick.
Guard Toure Murry, also a former Wichita State player, is a free agent.
Learning from Anthony is attractive. Early, however, knows the business side of the NBA. Several teams, including Chicago, Houston and Miami, are expected to try to lure Anthony away from the Knicks.
"It's going to be cool in both settings," Early said. "IF (Anthony) does come back it's going to be awesome. I'm going to be able to play with him, play under him and get to learn from him as much as possible. If he leaves I still got Phil and the rest of the guys that are there. I'm pretty sure they want to be good and we got a lot of stepping up to do."
Early compared his game to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, although they departed college with dramatically different reputations and similar body types. Leonard was a demon defender and rebounder without three-point range. Early is regarded as a good fit in the NBA, especially for Jackson’s preferred triangle offense, because of his shooting ability.
"I think I can play basketball regardless," he said. "Me being a learner, me being willing to listen and coachable, and my competitive nature, all of those things allow me to play basketball at a high level. The fact that Phil Jackson is there and Derek Fisher, I think I'll be perfectly fine."
Early’s arrival at WSU helped take the Shockers from a strong Missouri Valley Conference team to a nationally prominent program. He helped the Shockers reach the Final Four as a junior in 2013, turning in a resume-building effort against Louisville in the national semifinal. As a senior, he helped WSU win its first 35 games and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"Wichita was great for me, that experience," he said. "Learning from (coach Gregg) Marshall. You have to have team chemistry. You have to be a team player. You have to have a good attitude, be a good character guy. I think that translates to any level, whether it’s NBA or college. I’m all about that."