Measurables: 6-8, 219 pounds, senior forward from Wichita State
Key Stats: 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 48.6 FG%, 37.5 3ptFG%, 84.4 FT% on 5.0 attempts/game.
Projected: Late first or early second round.
Matters to No One But Me …
Cleanthony Early played a near perfect game versus Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, finishing with 31 points and 7 rebounds on 12-of-17 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 from three while playing 39-of-40 minutes. Four future NBA players – Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and James Young – attempted to guard Early and all four were ridiculed at some point by his antics. Early led Wichita State in scoring and screen setting all season and both facets were on display versus Kentucky. Early obliterated Kentucky without dominating the ball which speaks to the grace of his game and his ability to visualize the court from the forward spot. His perfection versus Kentucky was exemplified by his patience on both ends of the floor, lack of mistakes, and ability to create shots for his teammates.
Early sprung teammates by jamming defenders off screens. In the image below, Early plants Dakari Johnson with a Kevin Garnett elbow nudge which leads to an easy layup. Early is not afraid to bang inside despite being undersized.
Early, does it again in the second half on an a set inbounds play. Early sprints from the three-point line to the paint and lands a solid screen that leads to another layup opportunity.
In the image below, Early gives up the ball at the top of the key, waits patiently while anticipating the back screen on Randle, before cutting hard to the paint which draws two defenders and leads to an open corner three. Note the vigor with which Early cuts to the paint. It’s glorious.
Defensively, Early was at times bullied against the bigger Randle in the paint and struggled to rebound against Kentucky’s line of 7-footers. Early will likely not have this problem at the next level as he should slide back to the small forward position, which fits his frame, but is a spot he did not play at Wichita State.
Can Early be a stretch four? His ability to shoot the three drew larger defenders to the perimeter, created space for the guards, and Early was able to utilize his speed and ability to finish at the rim to take advantage of isolation opportunities versus Kentucky’s bigs.
When Kentucky tried to guard Early with the smaller Poythress, Early was able to run off screens, create space with jab steps and the threat of driving, and shoot over his defender if necessary.
In a pick-and-roll situation late in the game, Kentucky tried to switch a smaller guard on Early and bring help in the paint which allowed him to showcase his footwork, court awareness and craft in the post.
If Early makes that baby hook and an alley-oop with about eight minutes left in the game, we would never have to watch Christian Laettner highlights again because there would be a modern perfect game that dismantled Kentucky to celebrate. So close.
Fits with the Pistons because …
Early is exactly the type of versatile player that the Pistons need to acquire this offseason. Early does things offensively that the Pistons desperately need. He sets screens, stretches the floor, is a great finisher in transition and genuinely appears to enjoy playing off the ball. He can also come off screens and make open shots:
How beautiful is that jumper? Straight up and down, great elevation, no hesitation, sweet follow-through. It’s not consistent yet but it’s still gorgeous.
Early is also crafty in pick-and-roll situations, already implementing Amir Johnson’s signature clear-out technique by oddly twisting his body and altering his speed to set an illegal screen to create space for a driving guard.
Early fills a need as a perimeter scorer while significantly enhancing the skill level and intelligence of the Pistons roster. The Kentucky game was just one game and should be considered alongside his entire career but it’s worth emphasizing that his inside-out game similarly torched Louisville in the Final Four the previous year. Early is a creative playmaker who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to succeed. Considering the ball-dominant players on the current roster, an unselfish scorer like Early could be a welcome fit on the current Pistons team.
Doesn’t fit with the Pistons because …
Early’s success at the next level isn’t guaranteed because of his tween-er status. His true position is somewhere between small and power forward and he needs the right coach and situation to succeed. Early needs an open-minded situation and a coach who is willing to experiment with different lineups. The Pistons have not displayed the necessary lineup flexibility (see: starting Josh Smith at small forward for 70-plus games) it will take for Early to stick in the league. Early will flourish in an up-tempo system that values ball movement and unselfish play – all principles that are not consistent with last season’s Pistons team and the players under contract for the next bunch of years.
From the Experts
Early was one of the best scorers in college basketball, averaging 24.5 points per-40 minutes pace adjusted, the fifth best rate among prospects in our Top-100 Prospects rankings. He’s a fairly versatile scorer who Wichita State utilized in many different ways this season, be it in transition, posting up, shooting from the perimeter, as a cutter, and attacking the basket in a straight line. Not only did he score prolifically, he was also extremely efficient (58% 2P%, 38% 3P%, 84% FT%). His 64% True Shooting percentage ranks seventh among Top-100 Prospects.
Early is a solid shooter with his feet set, making 39% of his catch and shoot attempts on the season, up from 31% last season. He’s done a good job of working on his previously very poor shooting mechanics to make this a real weapon in his game, but there are still some question marks about how this might translate to the NBA 3-point line.