Cleanthony Early’s Next Step Should be Westchester Knicks


Early this week, New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher announced that he believes the starting lineup will be Jose Calderon, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez. It was highlighted by the prized rookie Porzingis at the power forward position, but Carmelo Anthony at the three is a road the Knicks traveled in the past, so I guess Fisher is going to do it again.

Anyway, the projected starting lineup creates an interesting shake for the bench. Rookie Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway can play either guard spot, Derrick Williams impressed in preseason, showing his ability to provide energy at either forward spot. The other two big men – Kyle O’Quinn and Kevin Seraphin will give the Knicks the offensive and defensive option to chain with Porzingis and Melo power forward lineups.

The odd man out? Knicks forward Cleanthony Early. With 10 credible players ahead of him, Early looks to be on the outside looking in on the rotation and instead of strapping him to end of the bench, I find him more valuable as an option for the Westchester Knicks to start the season.

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On Friday, the Knicks made work cleaning up the roster, waiving Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Travis Trice, Darion Atkins, DaJuan Summers and Wesley Saunders. The move was merely a precursor before sending them down to Westchester, in hopes of finding a future rotation player. I think Atkins and Saunders will be the two interesting players brought down. Atkins could be a decent defender, while Saunders is a good shooter who can also handle the ball well.

While not waiving him, the Knicks should send Early with that group down to the team’s minor league affiliate.

One can argue that Early should be in the rotation mix, solely because the Knicks lack larger wings on the roster. Galloway (Six-foot-two with a six-foot-ten wingspan) and Grant (six-foot-five, six-foot-seven wingspan) have size, but none of them are capable of defending larger wing players.

Early has some of that size. At six-foot-eight with a six-foot-ten wingspan, Early could serve as an option to attach on those larger wings. His lack of foot speed could hurt him in that degree, but I envision him as someone who can occasionally  defend larger wings and play some three and four on offense.

But we just haven’t seen it yet.

At Las Vegas Summer League, Early was a disaster, to say the least. He didn’t look effective as an offensive player and his defense was non-existent as he tried to look like a top three offensive option. His weaknesses – mainly his lack of three point shooting – shined through, and some wondered if Early was a bit of a lost cause and should be let go. You never take a summer league performance when it’s great, but a poor one is a cause for concern.

But his game rebounded during the preseason. Early looked good on the floor at various points, playing some small forward and even hit a couple threes during the run. In total, Early finished with 7.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists. He attacked the rim with some intensity and got a couple spot-up attempts to fall. Just on aesthetics, Early looked like an NBA guard and for a team in need of one, maybe two more wing players, Early provides them with an option.

With 10 players and Sasha Vujacic floating around as someone Fisher will eventually play this season, I think the best option here is allowing him to work on his game in Westchester.

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Early is familiar with Westchester, playing just three games for Westchester last season, averaging 20.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals for the Knicks. There were little gems in his game, but a longer stint, could help with some of the things that need to be fixed.

For Early to truly thrive, he needs to become better off the ball on offense. He needs to work on thriving as a cutter and as a catch-and-shoot player. In Westchester, he was fine at various offensive plays, including dominating the ball. However, with Carmelo Anthony currently on the roster, the best way to go for Early is to become someone who can offer production without dominating production. A three-point shot would certainly help that endeavor.

Above, you see Early doing some of the things Early should be working on. First cut is him cutting to the basket for an excellent finish. Early showed some ability as a cutter on the NBA level, registering a 1.26 PPP on cut plays and a free throw rate of 15.8%, via’s play type data. He has the size to be a force when he gets the ball in stride and at the very worst, garner some free throw attempts. And of course, this is all on a small sample. 

The second is him coming off a screen, catching the ball and throwing up a respectable jumper from the mid-range. In a small sample, Early shot 56% from the mid-range as a rookie, but finished with 0.67 PPP (points per possession) on shots off screen.

On the defensive side of the ball, I’m curious about what Early can do and where he fits. The profile suggests he can defend at the three, but I wouldn’t rule him out as someone who can defend smaller fours, as well as the perimeter from time to time. ESPN’s real plus-minus stat gave Early a -4.91 rating last season, 68th among 70 qualified small forwards.

But most of that was deducted from his poor offensive play as a rookie. Defensively, Early rated with a -0.35 defensive real plus-minus rating, 32nd among all small forwards. The Knicks were 5.1 points better defensively with Early on the floor, via, but that rose from a horrible 112.4 defensive efficiency mark to a still awful 107.4.

NBA Savant – the great website where I got the defensive shot chart above – didn’t illuminate Early to be a great solo defender either. From beyond the arc, Early allowed opponents to shoot 42.9 percent. At the rim, Early didn’t look like a potential rim protector, allowing 56.9 percent. The 41.2 percent allowed in the midrange looks decent, but the 41.6 percent (on 20 shots) wasn’t. There some intrigue with him as a defender. 

He has the tools to be a decent defensive option, but like everything, he needs time to get on the floor and improve his play. Westchester may result in a swing in his defensive numbers, possibly overrating him, but it also allows him to work on simple nuances of defense, like working off the ball, working on denying the ball from guards and defend various players of various sizes, showing his versatility.  

I don’t know if Early is an NBA player, and I don’t know how much time he has to prove that he is, at least with the Knicks. An impressive Westchester stint, combined with some moderate success on the NBA level as a reserve could keep Early in a New York Knicks  jersey past the 2015-16 season.

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