As the Knicks await the midnight commencement of free agency and the fate of Carmelo Anthony, the journey of rookie swingman Cleanthony Early has just begun.
Early, the team’s first pick of the 2014 NBA Draft at No. 34 overall is a nice blend of length (6-foot-8) and athleticsim that will fit into new head coach Derek Fisher’s system. Fisher, a former player under team president Phil Jackson, will likely install Jackson’s offense of choice, the Triangle, which makes Early’s selection a relative steal.
Early is a native of Middletown, New York who attended Pine Bush High School and Sullivan County Community College before starring at Wichita State, and said he cherishes being selected by his hometown team, and sees the chance to play in front of family and friends as a gift, not a curse.
“It’s a blessing to play for my city,” said Early, adding he’s coming into summer league and training camp a humbled rookie.
He also noted he’s aware his past and the path he took to get to the league is unique.
“I’m just another guy coming in with heck of a story to tell,” he said.
The athletic swingman led Wichita State to an undefeated regular season before falling to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournment. And although his team came up short, his season-long performance and highlight-reel dunks against Kentucky put everyone on notice.
“I believe in my abilities and my approach to the game. I think I can play basketball,” said Early. “Me being a learner, being a willing listener and coachable and having a competitive nature allows me to play at a high level. Phil picked me for a reason. And the fact that he knew me and knows my game helps that [confidence], because he’s on top of everything. … It’s honestly a very special feeling.”
Jackson certainly felt as if Early was the right choice once the Knicks were on the clock. He stressed the Shockers held opponents to just 59.9 points per game, which was ninth in the nation.
“We’ve talked about the condition this roster must be in and the defense that we’re going to require,” Jackson said. “We want to he more aggresive defensively.”
Jackson also added that getting a ready-made player on the roster at the bargain price of his rookie payment slot was important.
“We have many [financial] handcuffs with our salary cap being what it is,” said Jackson. “So, we know we need to add [quality] parts wherever and however we can.”
Early said he’s coming into the summer league with no expectations, with “working hard” being his only prerequisite. If nothing else, Early added, he’s already exceeding expectations, considering the path the 23-year-old has taken.
“The divine is working repeatedly in people’s lives,” Early said. “I like that I’m already feeling like I’m dreaming when I’m actually living it right now. … I feel like I can do whatever I want — fly even.”
The Knicks won’t ask the rookie to fly, but he’ll definitely be asked to help lift the franchise under the new regime.
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.