This is the 10th in a daily look at the top prospects in the NBA Draft: Their strengths, their weaknesses, and whether or not they're a fit for the Celtics. Today's prospect: Cleanthony Early of Wichita State.
CLEANTHONY EARLY, Wichita State
6-foot-7, 219 pounds
HIS STORY: Cleanthony Early was a key piece in leading Wichita State from a good Missouri Valley Conference basketball program to national prominence over the past two seasons. In 2012-2013, we got to know the entire Shocker squad, including future pros Early, Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet (the latter two are returning to school) as they made an improbable run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. Last season, the Shockers were expected to be good but they were perfect through 35 games until they ran into eventual national runner-up Kentucky. Early and his teammates were rarely tested in their mid-major conference but they put to bed any questions that they couldn’t play with the big boys, even in their defeat against the Wildcats. These two teams played the highest level No. 1-vs.-No. 8 matchup we’ll ever see in the tournament. It was a Final Four-level game, when the lights were incredibly bright, Early was the best player on the floor and that includes expected lottery pick in this draft Julius Randle. Early went off for 31 points in an incredibly efficient 12-for-17 from the floor (4-6 from three).
HIS STENGTHS: Early is a highly-skilled player. He played power forward in college and was such a tough player to guard because he could step out and knock down threes (37.5 percent). He also could play with his back to the basket, has good footwork and can finish over both shoulders with a number of different moves (58 percent on 2-point shots, via kenpom.com). He was undoubtedly the go-to guy for the Shockers, taking 29 percent of their shots, but managed that well, scoring an efficient 16.4 ppg and adding 5.9 rpg.
The performance against the Wildcats and the Wichita State run in the 2013 Tournament will help Early. He did not have a ton of opportunities to perform against future pros. When he did, he stepped up.
HIS WEAKNESSES: GMs will question his ability to perform at the highest level (he was a junior college transfer, only playing two years of Division I). That’s not because he hasn’t done it in the past, but I’d argue it's because he’s a tweener. At 6-7 with a normal wingspan of 6-9 and not great athleticism he’s a small forward in the NBA. Although he played power forward in college and his skill set is better suited to be a stretch 4 than it is to be a 3 man. If he plays the 3, he will struggle to defend that position which is usually the most athletic guys on the opposing team. He will have an advantage offensively in posting those guys up although if he catches the ball on the wing, facing his defender, he’s not going to be able to go by any small forwards. That’s not his game. He needs to improve his ability to create his own shot regardless of position as he was not asked and did not do that in college. As a power forward, he could struggle to hang with them physically and athletically. I think he will have to put on some weight and muscle if he’s going to be a consistent 4 in the NBA. Still, that brings up his age and potential ceiling. He’s already 23 and given the NBA’s obsession with potential and how good guys could be, not how good they are, this will probably hurt his draft position as well.
IS HE A FIT FOR THE CELTICS? The Celtics already have their Cleanthony Early-type player in Jared Sullinger. The Green need a pure wing scorer and that is not Early. To be honest, I’m not sure what Early is other than a good basketball player. Overall, the NBA has become a more perimeter-oriented league. He would best fit as an undersized 4. If he impresses at workouts, he could go as high as 15. If his struggles to create off the bounce and average athleticism expose weaknesses, he could drop to the mid 20s. In the right situation, he can be a productive player right away. He’s not going to move your franchise needle but he could have a solid NBA career as a rotation guy.
COMING ON FRIDAY: Adreian Payne of Michigan State