Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early is making quite an impression in his first trip around the Missouri Valley.
Bradley coach Geno Ford called the 6-foot-8 junior a “high-level athlete and a special player” after watching him score 24 points against his team. After Early dropped 39 points on his team, Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said, “He reminds me so much of Kevin Durant with his personality, just a kid out there having the time of his life.”
Hinson didn't say Early's talents were up to par with Durant's, but Evansville coach Marty Simmons compared the Shocker star to a player with whom Creighton fans are familiar.
“Our coaching staff compares him to Doug,” Simmons said. “They both run the floor extremely well and they can score inside and they can score outside.”
“Doug” is Creighton All-American Doug McDermott, who will square off against Early and the Shockers when the Bluejays visit Koch Arena in Wichita on Saturday.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott also sees some similarities in his son's game and Early's.
“Certainly in the versatility they both possess and the ability to step outside and score,” Greg McDermott said. “Early can score in a lot of different ways. He came make some off-balance shots off the dribble, he's crafty in the post and he gets out and runs in transition.”
Early is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers have improved dramatically since the start of Valley play.
In the Shockers' six conference games, Early is averaging 20.3 points while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 51.7 percent from beyond the arc.
“He's had some huge games for them in conference play,” Greg McDermott said.
Early's scoring average in league play ranks behind Doug McDermott (25.8) and Evansville's Colt Ryan (22.3). His 3-point percentage puts him sixth, and his 15 3-point baskets are second behind the 18 of Creighton's Ethan Wragge.
“He's got such a sweet stroke,” Simmons said. “He shoots the ball extremely well.”
The Shockers knew they were getting an effective scorer when they signed Early, who twice earned junior college Division III player of the year honors while at Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College. Early averaged 20.4 points per game as a freshman and 24.2 points last season.
“A kid 6-8 with his skill and his athleticism is hard for us to come by,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “He has that good combination. He can shoot the ball, he can run the court and he can elevate.
“He enjoys playing, and he really wants to be a good player.”
Early was good from the start of the season for the Shockers, but his production really started to pick up when Wichita State lost forward Carl Hall to a broken thumb in mid-December. Hall, who returned to action in Wednesday night's win over Illinois State, was leading the Shockers in scoring and rebounding at the time of his injury.
“He certainly has emerged in the absence of Carl Hall,” Bradley's Ford said. “It wasn't like he wasn't playing well early, but without Carl Hall, he's stepped up and given them kind of a go-to guy when they're grinding.
“They know he's going to be the guy that comes up with a basket.”
Early acknowledges that while his scoring has picked up, his role hasn't changed.
“I'm a scorer,” he said. “I know with the offense that we have, scoring isn't even something I should focus on because I know it's something that's going to come whether it's me crashing the boards on offense and getting tip-ins or getting an open shot.
“I'm going to score.”
Marshall is encouraged in the growth he's seen from Early in two areas of the game.
The first is the attention Early is paying to defense and rebounding.
“He heard me early on, my pleas to defend and my pleas to rebound,” Marshall said. “It's noticeably better.”
Early also is starting to show greater discipline on the court.
“He still has a little juco in him,” Marshall said. “But he's getting better in that area, too.”
» Wichita State hiked its home-court winning streak to 17 with Wednesday's victory over Illinois State. The streak is tied for the eighth longest nationally.
» Creighton has won six straight true road games — two at the end of last season and four to start this season. The Bluejays have not won seven straight road contests since 1962.
» Creighton's 11-game winning streak is tied for fourth nationally.
» The Bluejays lead the nation in 3-point baskets per game and 3-point percentage. The only team to ever lead the nation in both statistical categories was Princeton in 1997-98.
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