Scoring in has never been a problem for Cleanthony Early since learning basketball on the blacktops in the Bronx.
True to form, Early returned to Koch Arena on Monday for his first practice with the Aftershocks, the Wichita State alumni team playing in this week’s The Basketball Tournament, and drilled a three-pointer on the first possession of the scrimmage.
It’s that type of scoring that Shocker fans remember fondly of Early’s two-year run with Wichita State, which resulted in two of the most successful years in program history — the 2013 Final Four run, followed by the historic 35-1 season. In the process, Early scored 1,035 points (ninth-most of any WSU player in a two-year span) and became the first All-American at WSU in three decades.
Scoring has been what Early has always prided himself on and he says WSU fans can expect a lot of it when the Aftershocks begin TBT at 8 p.m. Thursday against Iowa United. All-session tickets starting at $45 and single-session tickets starting at $15 are still available to purchase on GoShockers.com for what is expected to be a record-setting event at Koch Arena.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to get the ball in the basket as fast as I could,” Early said. “When I was younger, I couldn’t dribble, so all I could do was shoot. That made it easier for me to get the ball in the basket fast by shooting it or by doing one move where I didn’t really have to dribble it. I got really good at scoring with jab steps and bare-minimum movements.”
Early admittedly “sucked” when he first started playing, but remembers the fifth grade as the first time he realized he could hang with kids his age. He would play with his cousin, who was two years older, at parks scattered across the Bronx in New York City.
“I played with my cousin and his friends and they were better, more complete players,” Early said. “I was always naturally good at shooting, but I had to learn the game by just playing it. We would walk to the park and play on the concrete. That was different, but when you’re young, you’re not paying attention to that, you’re just playing.”
By the time Early arrived at WSU in 2012, he had transformed as a basketball player. He was still a shooter, but he added levels to his game. He had improved his ball handling to an acceptable degree and become a threat at scoring at the rim, from mid-range and from distance.
The thing that elevated him at WSU was his self-confidence, which was secured over years of playing New York City’s best.
“That’s just part of who we are growing up in New York,” Early said. “Very confident, very loud, very talkative, very opinionated. Talking on the court is something that definitely helped get me going.”
Early did a lot of talking on the court for the Shockers, but backed it up with his game.
He led the Shockers in scoring, at 13.9 points, during their Final Four run, then came back even better and helped lead WSU to its historic 35-1 season. Early upped his scoring average (from 13.9 to 16.4), his field goal percentage (from 45.5% to 48.4%) and his three-point shooting (from 31.8% to 37.3%).
That propelled Early to the NBA, where he was a second-round draft pick by the New York Knicks and played 56 games, including nine starts, for the team from 2014-16 and averaged 4.3 points in 14.3 minutes. But his NBA career was halted when Early was shot in the right knee outside of a night club in New York City in 2015.
He eventually recovered from the injury and has been trying to return to the NBA, playing in the G League in the years since with a brief stint in Japan this past year. Through it all, Early says the memories he made while at Wichita State still stand out.
“I remember the whole run so clearly because we worked our (tails) off to get there,” Early said. “Everybody stepped up. Everybody had a certain level they were playing at, then everybody just took it to another level. That was the thing about our team, we didn’t have just one leader. I led by a certain way, Demetric (Williams) led by a certain way, Malcolm (Armstead) led by a certain way. We all led in our certain way and then we all held ourselves accountable.”
Like many of the former Shockers who have been out of college for a handful of years now, the chance to return to Koch Arena and play in front of Wichita State fans one more time was alluring for Early.
And after practicing with the Aftershocks, which has some of the top Shockers from the Marshall era, Early believes the team has what it takes to win the $2 million grand prize in TBT.
“You can just tell that everybody on our team really is a professional,” early said. “Everyone here knows how to play the game. Everyone was taking good shots and communicating and being aggressive and working hard. I was really impressed by how we played. I can’t wait for (Thursday).”