Cleanthony Early plays with a toughness that defines the unbeaten Wichita State Shockers.
by Leigh Klein / @leighalanklein
It is the mantra of former Wichita State head coach Gene Smithson and continued on by current Shockers head coach Gregg Marshall. Mental toughness and extra effort defines this Shockers team. It also defines one of their players, Cleanthony Early.
Through an unconventional recruitment, the death of a brother and a hurricane, Early landed in the Midwest as one of the leaders of his team and a player with NBA potential.
His basketball journey started in Middletown, NY, after his mother Sandra Glover opted to raise Cle away from New York City. It was his big brother Jamel who first introduced basketball to Cleanthony, and while there was some rec ball in the city, it was baseball that was his first passion. It wasn’t until the move to Middletown that he started to be more interested in basketball.
The development continued at Pine Bush (NY) High School where Early starred and averaged 20 points per game for the Bushmen as a senior. It was during that season that he turned the corner regarding his ability.
“I felt that I would have opportunities through basketball, I had a good senior season and a real good game against Newburgh Free Academy that took the state champion, Rice High School to the buzzer,” Early told SLAM.
Opportunities to play college basketball were hindered by his grades—by his senior year he was still in his evolution “from knucklehead to being a regular kid.”
It was his senior year, when Bobby Rahn, Burke Catholic assistant, first saw Cleanthony when the Eagles played at Pine Bush.
“It was within the first 15 seconds of the game and this long athletic kid gets a technical. People had told us about him, they called him ‘uncoachable’ but I saw it differently, he was so passionate, every play meant the world to him,” Rahn said.
“Later that year I was scouting and I met him up in Newburgh. He was there because the local Division III school, Mt. St. Mary’s of Newburgh, was one of the only schools showing him interest. I found him to be very personable, with a firm handshake and eye contact and offered him a spot with our AAU team, the BC Eagles. We have the Newburgh starting five, Cleanthony and some other local guys and we are playing down that June in New York City at the Rumble in the Bronx and Cleanthony, who had now grew to 6-6, 6-7, outplays two high-major post prospects as we lost in double overtime. His confidence grew from there.
“The next month we are in Springfield at a live tournament with college coaches circled around the Mass Mutual Center and he opens the game with energy, a thunderous one hand dunk, next possession—a block and then next trip down he hits a three-pointer. All the coaches start flipping the pages in the book and the look they had was, ‘Who’s that kid?’ I knew then, his dream of playing Division I was possible.”
One math credit short of qualifying, Cleanthony worked out for Division II programs Mercy and Dominican. Ultimately, looking to pursue his dream of playing Division I, Rahn introduced the idea of going to prep school.
Early and a fellow AAU teammate journeyed to Mt. Zion Christian Academy in Durham, NC, where he averaged 24 points per game.
“It seemed like a good idea, I was just thinking about working hard and improving, the school inspired me in a different way,” Early said. “It balanced me and connected me spiritually. It gave me guidance and affected my approach in a positive way.”
This spiritual foundation was needed to map through what happened next for Early and his family.
That summer, life would never be the same as his brother Jamel drowned in Schoharie Creek. Jamel was not only a big brother he also was a father figure; a man 14 years old with a family of his own.
“The loss of my brother propelled me to want to do more for my family. It motivated me. I kept working hard,” Early said. “I felt there was a lot on my shoulders both with basketball and as a person. It was time to stay focused and take advantage of my ability. I was now the man of the house and people were going to look at my example.”
Cleanthony was still in need of junior college and with many options, he decided what would be best is to stay close to home, enrolling in Sullivan County Junior College, a DIII junior college. Very few Division III junior college players get an opportunity to play NCAA Division I, nonetheless he had faith that it would happen.
“I learned from people who made mistakes and took the positives out of everything. Each year I got closer to my dream with the support of great people in my corner,” he said.
Former Sullivan County head coach Kevin DeVantier knew he had something special in Early.
“He has contagious passion and energy for the game. What separates him from the rest is his desire to compete and win every situation. It didn’t matter if it was a two-on-two drill, a rebounding drill in practice, he would refuse to let his team lose,” DeVantier said. “When others would tighten up, Cle would come through with a clutch block or basket. The bigger the game, the better he would play.”
The two-time NJCAA Division III Player of the Year had several of high-major offers including the likes of Baylor, San Diego State, Alabama, Missouri and Washington State. Fate would have him on a visit at Wichita State when Hurricane Irene struck New York and stranded him in Kansas for three additional days. After five days, he left convinced that Wichita State was the program for him.
“Last season, I had an early inkling that we can be something special from playing pickup before the season even started. [That feeling] continued to knock me in the face whenever we survived adversity…next man up,” Early said.
Final Four good? “We felt prepared for Pitt, people didn’t believe in us but we took pride to ‘Shock the World.’ All of the sudden we are in the Final Four, two more wins and we meet the President. It was bittersweet.”
The Shockers leader in scoring and rebounding, he prides himself in being able to defend bigger players. He models his game after Kawhi Leonard and prior to this year was named a pre-season Wooden Award top-50 selection.
Scouts worry about what position he would play on the next level. Can he create off the dribble? What about his left hand and his lower body strength? There is no question about his resolve.
“The NBA has crossed my mind but I’m patient,” Early said. “If I continue to get better, if I continue to grind, I have faith it will happen.”
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and is a popular guest on radio. He now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp where the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Patrick Ewing all learned and got better. He contributes now to SLAMonline and their coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft. Klein can be followed at @LeighAlanKlein.