KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The book says he can’t go left.
The book says his shot is flat and has a hitch in it. The book says the dribble-drive game is weak. The book says he’s a tweener, not quick enough to be a perfect prototype NBA small forward, not beefy enough to be dominant in the post.
Of course, Cleanthony Early has read the book. Are you kidding? It’s been in his back pocket, all spring, as a reminder.
Keeps him grounded. Keeps him humble. Keeps him hungry. Keeps him #$@@-ed off.
"Everyone can say what they want, but at the end of the day, you’re right there with (the other prospects)," the former Wichita State standout tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "The way my attitude is, I’m very confident in my ability and feel that I can compete with every one of those guys at the end of the day, when you get that opportunity. It’s just a continued grind."
They might not get a star, a franchise-changer. But somebody Thursday night will get a grinder, a cat who’s going to outwork everybody else on the floor, three times over.
"That’s just me," says Early, who averaged 15.2 points in 75 games with the Shockers over the last two seasons. "That’s just my confidence. That’s the New York (in me)."
He can make it there. Actually, he can make it anywhere. DraftExpress.com’s NBA mock draft Tuesday afternoon slotted Early going at No. 33 to the Cavaliers; NBADraft.net had him off the board at No. 26 to the Heat.
The 6-foot-7 native of Middletown, N.Y., could be the first Shocker taken in the first round of the draft since Wichita legend Xavier McDaniel went No. 4 overall to Seattle in 1985. Early is expected to be the third player from a Kansas school taken in the first 30 picks, after former Jayhawk stars Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
"(You’ve) just got to enjoy the process," says Early, who has worked out for at least 12 teams over the last three weeks. "And you never know what’s going to happen, but you leave lasting impressions — and at least try to, when guys work out, and things like that. It’s all about being professional. It’s all mental, obviously."
In drafts and life, timing is everything. If anyone doubted Early’s next-level potential because he played at a mid-major, well, we give you Exhibit A: Kentucky. Early’s best game as a collegian was his last, in a third-round NCAA tourney tussle against the eighth-seeded Wildcats. Matched up against a team full of stars — including an expected lottery pick in forward Julius Randle — Early netted a game-best 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. The Shockers fell in a heartbreaker, 78-76, in what might have been the game of The Dance.
"Yeah, a lot of people talk about that game," Early says. "I just believe that it was me showing what I could do, and God had my back. I did what I needed to do and I opened up a couple people’s eyes."
More than a couple. As a junior transfer from Sullivan (N.Y.) County Community College, Early was a surprise catalyst of a team that rolled from a 9 seed to the 2013 Final Four. As a senior, he was the go-to scorer for a bunch that began the season 35-0 before falling to Kentucky, the eventual national runner-up.
At 6-7, 209 pounds, with a 6-10.75-inch wingspan and a 40-inch vertical, Early was used primarily as a power forward this past winter with the Shockers. But he projects as more of a stretch "3" in the NBA after making 37.5 percent of his 3-point attempts as a senior.
Early can run the break, pop out on the wing or finish at the rim. At 23 (his birthday was April 17), he’s on the older side of the rookie pool. He doesn’t possess the wingspan of, say, a Kawhi Leonard, nor the brutal physicality of a Kenneth Faried.
Dude’s got enough heart to light a 4-gallon water heater.
"Coming into Wichita State, coach (Gregg) Marshall made some comments and said some things and he actually predicted certain things and talked about certain things," Early says. "If you look back at the beginning of last year, team goals, personal goals, I’m pretty sure you’ll see (the NBA Draft) right up there. That’s the truth.
"I’ve always believed in myself, regardless of whether or not anyone believed, or saw who I was. (Marshall) saw my ability and he believed and he made some comments to me. And those comments (are) kind of coming true. That’s what I believe, and it’s a blessing to think about it."
So the spring has been about whittling away the doubts, sanding off the rough edges. Early spent much of the spring in Delray Beach, Fla., pounding away at the ELEVI8 Sports Institute, working on threes from the wing, a staple of drive-and-kick offenses. He’s been polishing up his ballhandling, to prove that he can create his own shot off the dribble — something he wasn’t asked to do much with the Shox — and break down defenders one on one. He’s been cleaning up the footwork on his defense, so he can stay on the floor in crunch time.
"You know what’s really holding me back?" Early asks. "Nothing. So I’m grinding."