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Cleanthony Early Needs To Earn More Playing Time

Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Cleanthony Early was a second-round pick of the New York Knicks in 2014, the 34th overall selection in that draft. For college basketball fans, it was a strange slide for a player who’d gained significant notoriety after leading Wichita State to a 34-0 regular-season record (including the conference tournament) as the second-ranked team in the country and one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They lost to the eventual runner-up Kentucky Wildcats, 78-76, despite 31 points and seven rebounds from Early, who was a dominant 12-of-17 shooting in the game

But even with an impressive collegiate résumé, he fell to the second round. Some may have felt it was a steal to get such a polished player that late in the draft, where often all that’s left available are relative unknowns or flawed players with limited skill sets. Early had been a star and didn’t have the obvious flaw in his game to point to that would prevent him from having success at the NBA level. Yet in his rookie season, he struggled mightily, playing in only 39 games for the Knicks (injuries didn’t help).

It isn’t that Early was somebody who could’ve been a lottery pick the Knicks lucked into. He wouldn’t have played out all four years of his eligibility if he’d shown first-round potential earlier in his career. Of course, that’s mitigated by the fact that he spent his first two years of eligibility at Sullivan County Community College as the two-time Division III NJCAA Player of the Year.

He’d been a star in junior college and a star at Wichita State. With good size and myriad strengths to his game, he had the feel of a player the Spurs would draft and be able to turn into an efficient rotation piece, making everybody scratch their heads down the road as to why he fell so far in the draft.

At 6’8″, Early has skills as a ball handler and playmaker on the wing. Nominally an NBA small forward, in college he was more comfortable at the 4, which could be a home for him in smaller NBA lineups. He also has potential to play some guard and has experience bringing the ball up the court, where he may never be a primary ball handler but can be a secondary option on the court.

Early was an efficient scorer, putting up more than 16 points per game as a senior. He shot 58 percent from inside the arc and a respectable 37 percent from deep on five attempts per game, to go along with 84 percent from the free throw line, per Sports-Reference.

Seeing efficiency numbers dip moving from college to the pros is expected, but shooting only 26 percent from deep and under 36 percent overall was a disappointing way to begin his career in New York. His per-36-minute numbers aren’t hellish, with nearly 12 points to go along with more than five rebounds per 36, but with such a drop in efficiency, it isn’t a wonder he averaged less than 17 minutes in the 39 games he did appear in.

Part of the reason Early missed so much time was due to a six-week absence after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, which threatened to take away some of his explosiveness he sorely needed to keep up with NBA wings. He also struggled with ankle sprains throughout his rookie season.

But even when healthy, he was limited to mostly garbage time, averaging 10.7 minutes across 18 contests in which the Knicks were trailing by 20 points or more, per NBA.com. He didn’t play more than 4.1 minutes per game in any other split.

While he was stout defensively at power forward in college, that didn’t translate to the NBA, where his weight and wingspan went from outstanding to below average. Moving to the wing, he no longer has an athletic advantage over his opponents.

He had his moments, scoring 12 points against the Nets early in the season, 16 in extended playing time against the Rockets after coming back from injury, and 51 across four games at the end of March and beginning of April before the injury bug struck again.

Knicks fans, along with Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson, are hoping to see the Early who was able to put the ball in the bucket consistently, especially among second-unit offenses. There’s been talk of the team making a move for another scorer to strengthen the backcourt and allow the offense to run without Carmelo Anthony and Arron Afflalo on the floor.

Early is the in-house candidate for the job. He fixed his jumper once in college, and now he’ll be asked to do so again while adjusting to the NBA three-point line. He’ll also need to stay healthy and available. Without J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, an improved Early should be slotted to take over as a sixth or seventh option in the rotation.

Early’s many skills take the pressure off in a way. He doesn’t need to become a sharpshooter from the wing or a scoring machine from the post. The Knicks aren’t looking for a defensive specialist. His role is to be someone they can rely on to log big minutes without messing up what they’re trying to do. He can’t mess up the spacing on the perimeter or clog the paint, and he can’t be an absolute liability on defense. He needs to be a flexible piece who can work in multiple lineups.

The scoring and playmaking will come on its own. He’s done that at every level. He exhibited those abilities already in his brief playing time in the NBA. Now the Knicks need him to do the other little things he’s capable of so he can stay on the court for potentially 25 to 30 minutes every night.

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