Posted Mar 5, 2014 12:18 PM
A month after Cleanthony Early showed up on the Wichita State campus in the summer of 2012, the coaches who recruited him wondered if he was the same player they had watched dominate a junior college showcase camp and the same one who had been recruited by numerous power conference programs.
Suffice it to say, Early had been less than impressive in individual workouts.
"I remember leaving practice one day, and asking [WSU assistant Chris Jans], 'Did we get the wrong guy?' " said assistant coach Greg Heiar, who first brought Early to the attention of his boss, Gregg Marshall, and was on the hook if the newcomer turned out to be a bust. "It was overwhelming for Cle, like it is for a lot of JUCO transfers. Defense, checking out, good shot/bad shot, post up, using your ball-handling efficiently ... All those little things he was never held accountable for."
Jans remembers that conversation with Heiar.
"I was thinking, 'Oh my God,' " Jans said. "The kid didn't have a clue. You could say we were a little bit worried."
As it turned out, their concern was premature. Early came around.
"From June 7 to Aug. 1 , no one on our team made more improvement than Cle did," Jans said. "He really grasped everything, wanted to be coached, and was smart enough to know he needed it. He wants to be a player."
Early, 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, turned out to be everything the WSU coaches thought he could be, the final piece of a team that advanced to the 2013 Final Four and looks even better this season. At 31-0, the Shockers are the first team in NCAA history to win at least 30 games in the regular season, the first since Saint Joseph's in 2003-04 to finish the regular season undefeated and bidding to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish the season undefeated.
Could the Shockers win the national championship? Few have been bold enough to make that prediction. But few have discounted the possibility. Regardless of how the Shockers finish their memorable season, Early -- the team leader in scoring and rebounding -- has made himself a player worthy of NBA Draft consideration. Scouts would like to see him to handle the ball better and become a more consistent defender. But he has some assets every team covets.
"They really like his ability to make shots at his size," WSU assistant Steve Forbes said. "He's a two guard at 6-8. We're playing him at the four, but in the league he's a guard. If he's on a team where a player demands a double team, if he's playing with LeBron and he's in the opposite corner and they've got to double team LeBron and he swings it out past the 3-point line, Cle's gonna knock that down."
As for Early's deficiencies, Heiar has seen enough to know that Early will go to work on them.
"He's going to get better at handling the ball, and become a better passer and defender, because he's got the right attitude to work hard," Heiar said. "He's not going to get caught up in, 'Hey, I'm making money now.' Whoever takes a chance on him, he's going to work hard."
Basketball set its hooks into Early when he was 8 or 9 years old. At that age, he would defy his mother by staying out past his curfew playing in pickup games with older players."I wouldn't leave until I'd win a couple of games and feel good about myself," Early said. "I was supposed to be home at a certain time. There were even times I wasn't even supposed to be outside before I did my homework. But I stayed out there. I loved basketball. And I loved to win."
And for those occasions when his mother was able to corral him and keep him indoors, Early had a contingency plan.
"I'd cut holes in shoe boxes," Early said. "I'd ball up my socks and try to make shots. I remember several times, saying stuff like, 'If I make this, I'm going to the NBA.' Funny how things play out."
Early was good enough to play Division I basketball out of high school, but the native New Yorker was forced by academic issues to attend a prep school in North Carolina. He remembers emailing Division I basketball coaches, asking for a chance to walk on and prove himself. There were no takers.
Early wound up at a Division III junior college, Sullivan, in his home state. After earning D-III Player of the Year honors for two straight seasons in 2011-12, his stock rose considerably. Early was recruited by Alabama, Baylor, Missouri, Tennessee and many others. But Heiar, the former head coach at Chipola (Fla.) Junior College, found out about Early through some old contacts and stayed on him.
After Heiar took Marshall to see Early at the Mullens JUCO Showcase, Marshall made a quick decision.
"After the first game, coach said, 'I want that one,' " Heiar said. "But he was looking at me like, 'There's no way we can get him.' "
But fate, and bad weather, intervened. Early's official visit to Wichita State in the fall of 2011 came during Hurricane Irene, which devastated the Eastern seaboard and grounded flights, trapping Early in Wichita and giving him more time to evaluate the program.
"Everybody can sugarcoat things in two days," Early said. "But you can't for four days. I got to talk to a lot of the players, and they all believed that we could really do something special here. I realized that these were guys like me -- willing to put aside their own egos for the good of the team."
In part because of his extra evaluation time and in part because he was loyal to Heiar -- the first coach from an upper-tier program that showed serious interest -- Early signed with Wichita State. And everything he believed he and his teammates could accomplish, and then some, has come to pass.
It took Early a while to adjust to Division I competition and Marshall's coaching style, but he did.
"Sometimes you have to unlearn some things that hinder you from growing," Early said.
Wichita State, and Early, still have a chapter or two to write in an amazing storybook of a season. Once that work is completed, Early will find out whether all those balled up socks he tossed into shoeboxes really were predictors of NBA success.
"I'm just so appreciative and grateful to even be in the conversation of the Draft," Early said. "And I won't stop working, and believing I can be something special. What you're not doing, the other guy is. I've always tried to remember that."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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