Wichita State Shockers

Cleanthony Early ready to build on rookie year with Knicks

Cleanthony Early shoots against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of an NBA Summer League game Monday in Las Vegas. Early, who played two seasons at Wichita State, says he’s focused on improving each day.
Cleanthony Early shoots against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of an NBA Summer League game Monday in Las Vegas. Early, who played two seasons at Wichita State, says he’s focused on improving each day. Associated Press

Cleanthony Early looked across the lobby at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. That’s where his newest New York Knicks teammate, Kristaps Porzingis, stood talking to fans.

“He’s huge,” Early said, flashing his trademark smile, “He’s 7-foot-3, that’s no joke.”

Early, who played two seasons with Wichita State, was quick to talk up Porzingis, the No. 4 overall pick in last month’s NBA Draft, and less quick to talk up himself after an up-and-down rookie season with the Knicks after being picked in the second round in 2014.

“It’s a grind,” Early said. “It’s hard work, constantly. You can never stop working … doesn’t matter if it’s the offseason.”

That work is what brought Early to Las Vegas, where he’s part of the Knicks’ summer league team for the second year in a row. He’s averaged 14.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in three summer victories after averaging 5.4 points and 2.5 rebounds last season as the Knicks struggled to a 17-65 record — the second-worst in the NBA and only one win ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

All in the year after Early and the Shockers went 35-1 and grabbed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“Just stay positive, that’s all you can do,” Early said. “Listen, learn, keep improving. I”m not a negative type of person. I always look at the positives.”

Nagging injuries limited Early to 39 games — he was out from mid-November to January with a knee injury and missed several games late in the season because of an ankle injury. He struggled with his jump shot and had his most success putting the ball on the floor and taking it to the hoop — he shot 35.5 percent from the field and 28.8 percent from beyond the three-point arc.

As one of only five Knicks with a guaranteed contract — Early is in the second year of a two-year, $1.3 million deal — he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to prove himself this season and set himself up for a bigger contract as a restricted free agent if he can produce.

Not that Early, who grew up in the Bronx before moving upstate to Middletown, N.Y., is thinking about any of that.

“I’m focused on the here and now,” Early said. “Getting better in Vegas, getting in sync with my new teammates.”

He’s also kept tracked of his old teammates — when asked if he followed WSU’s run to the Sweet 16, he scoffed.

“Of course I follow them,” Early said. “Followed them really closely, all year.”

And he was quick to respond when asked about the NBA prospects of ex-teammates Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, who both passed on the NBA Draft to return for their senior seasons.

“Yes, they can play (in the NBA),” Early said. “No doubt about it. Both of them.”

Reach Tony Adame at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @t_adame.

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