Monday, July 21, 2014

Cleanthony Early Is An NBA Starter Right Now

July 21, 2014
By Anthony Tripicchio

Move over, Carmelo. The Knicks have a new starting small forward.

Cleanthony Early is not your ordinary second round pick. In fact, he is so polished that he should start at small forward as a rookie for the New York Knicks.

After posterizing rookie P.J. Hairston with an emphatic jam in Saturday’s Vegas Summer League quarterfinal, Early was showered with accolades by MSG’s color commentator Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

“I told [MSG’s play-by-play man Mike Crispino] he reminds me of Bernard King a little bit, man. He’s got that quick step,” said Frazier.

Frazier, who is one of the greatest Knicks in franchise history and second on the team’s career scoring list, was an instrumental piece to the Knicks’ championships in 1970 and 1973.
When one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of all-time makes a statement like that, you listen.
Crispino added kudos for Early.

“He seems to me to be an instinctive player. He does what is necessary in a given moment in a game whether it’s offense or defense,” said Crispino.

Early, the Knicks 34th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, went to Wichita State and impressed many this past year throughout the regular season and the NCAA Tournament. As a native New Yorker, he is thrilled to be in his home state to begin his NBA career.

Imagine his exuberance if he is announced by Madison Square Garden P.A. announcer Mike Walczewski on opening night as part of the starting lineup.

Obviously, small forward is Carmelo Anthony’s natural position. However, he has thrived in the last two years as a power forward. Therefore, sliding the 6-foot-7 inch Early into a spot he’s accustomed to aids the overall lineup and bench.

Early has a very similar offensive game to Anthony. Granted, no one is expecting him to win scoring titles as Anthony has. Still, Early can score in a myriad of ways, is athletic and can give the Knicks a secondary offensive punch that they have been searching for since Anthony arrived in New York.

Mid-range shooting, scoring from the post and finishing are all great strengths of Early, similar to Anthony. His handle needs work, but it won’t stop him from being productive immediately at the NBA level. His body has also been criticized as he may not have the strength to post power forwards.

However, if he’s used appropriately, that won’t be a problem. Anthony has the bulk Early lacks to bang with the big boys alongside him.

One observation you could glean from watching Early in the Vegas Summer League is that he is the epitome of a two-way player; he plays exceedingly hard on both offense and defense. The well-rounded attributes of Early will serve the Knicks as they attempt to rebuild their nucleus.

Early is a very intense perimeter defender and highly aware of his surroundings, which is a quality that Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher would love to see Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani learn through osmosis.

Help defense might not be their forte, but Early knows where people are supposed to be positioned. It was evident during a Summer League play in which Early was beat on the perimeter and a big should have been helping out, but was not. Early, showing remarkable confidence and leadership for a rookie, called the center out after the play questioning him for his poor awareness.

He will be an incredible asset for Fisher in shell drill throughout training camp and practices (shell drill is a defensive positioning drill that stresses the importance of help defense and teaches players habits and rotations that they must learn for game situations).

Beginning his collegiate career at Sullivan Community College, Early won Division III NJCAA Player of the Year both years he was there. Wichita State, after head coach Gregg Marshall recruited him, learned quickly that Early was to be an integral part of their program.

After a quality junior year, Early made a leap in his final college season. Early’s shooting percentage improved across the board. His 3-point percentage, particularly, showed significant improvement from the prior year, rising from 32 percent to 37 percent.

Early averaged 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds on 46 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from 3-point territory in four NBA Summer League contests.


The Knicks starting five in this configuration would be Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Early, Anthony and Samuel Dalembert. All of these pieces fit together extraordinarily well.

Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal recently noted that the Knicks edged opponents by 7.8 points per 100 plays over the last two years with Anthony at power forward and Tyson Chandler at center. The reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs had a 8.1 points differential  per 100 plays last year.

Contrarily, the Knicks only outscored the opposition by 1.2 points per 100 plays when Anthony played small forward next to either Stoudemire or Bargnani at power forward, per the Wall Street Journal.

Although Chandler was traded to Dallas by Knicks’ president Phil Jackson, the aforementioned stat demonstrates that the Knicks are at their best with Anthony at power forward. Early’s emergence allows him to play there.

Dalembert has made a living on rebounding and being a defensive anchor. Obviously, however, he’s not the same caliber of player that Chandler is.

Even so, it is the second unit that makes this a no-brainer.

Shane Larkin, Tim Hardaway, Iman Shumpert, Stoudemire and Jason Smith is a lineup filled with speed and athleticism. Veteran Pablo Prigioni can add invaluable intangibles without being taxed by heavy minutes as he has been forced to play in recent years.

Those who watched the Knicks closely last year realize that Shumpert and Hardaway played their best when they were on the floor together. Both are young, athletic and high energy players that excel in transition.

Though Shumpert struggled to finish at the rim last year, some of that could be attributable to his knee problems. One more season removed from his catastrophic ACL and MCL tear in the playoffs against Miami should help him gain more of that bounce back that he had when he first entered the league. He remains the Knicks’ premiere perimeter defender.

Hardaway was eye-opening in his introduction to New York and should only ameliorate his game with time. He is a pure shooter, runs the floor with anyone and can finish. Defensively, he was a nightmare and desperately needs to improve. He could also use more prudence in his shot selection.

Noticeably bigger during his stint in this year’s Summer League, Hardaway hit the weight room in the offseason and should be able to make progress on the defensive end.

Shane Larkin, MLB Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin’s son, was a much ballyhooed prospect in the 2013 Draft from Miami. Although he broke his ankle and didn’t make an impact in 2013-14, he still has promise as a speedy point guard in the league.

Recently signed big man Jason Smith can potentially enter a timeshare at center with Dalembert and vie for crunch time minutes. On a one-year contract, Smith will look to prove he has recovered from his own knee injury that truncated his 2013-14 season.

Brother of “The Greek Freak,” Thanasis Antetokounmpo was born to play with this bench. He is a clone of Giannis with his body type and attributes. While, Thannasis may not possess the offensive upside of his older brother, he is a dynamo in the open floor and could catch plenty of lobs from the likes of Larkin, Hardaway and Shumpert. He also has the potential to be a lockdown defender, which are in short supply.

According to a New York Post report, the Knicks intend to stash Antetokounmpo in Europe for a year. Antetokounmpo’s raw Summer League showing (he averaged 3 points per game and 4.8 fouls) probably didn’t do much to alter those plans.

Amar’e Stoudemire has many critics. Yes, we know he’s making a fortune. When you look at him on the court though, he can still contribute. While it may not be an All-NBA team contribution, Stoudemire can still score and can help if his minutes are closely monitored. That will be new head coach Derek Fisher’s responsibility.

Despite all logic and statistical evidence, the Knicks' preference will likely be to showcase Bargnani and his expiring contract. As a result, he will probably start at power forward with Anthony at the "3".

Phil Jackson may want to deal Bargnani out of town now, but it will cost him a prized young asset to do so. Since Bargnani's contract only has a year left, stunting Early's growth for a failed acquisition is irresponsible.
As you can see, starting Early at small forward could be the key to a captivating 2014-15 season for the Knicks.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Tony. Really solid article. Couldn't believe he fell so far. I thought he would have been a perfect pick by the Thunder. Hopefully the Knicks take advantage of having him.

Anthony said...

Thanks, Jay. I appreciate it.

Arun Bhattacharya said...

Sounds like Early is going to be a solid player. I can't wait to see him go against the Junior Mafia (Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr.)

Anthony said...

Check out post #129 on this Wichita State message board: Thanks to our Wichita State readers throughout the country for the support. Go Shockers.