Cleanthony Early: Phil Jackson 'picked me for a reason'

Forward Cleanthony Early of the Wichita State Shockers Forward Cleanthony Early of the Wichita State Shockers drives to the basket against the Missouri State Bears during the first half on March 1, 2014 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Peter Aiken

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Cleanthony Early has given great thought to his NBA future, and he believes he's in a no-lose situation with the Knicks even if Carmelo Anthony leaves in free agency.

Early would love to learn from Anthony. But the Knicks' second-round pick, a Bronx native, is excited to get to know the NBA game from Phil Jackson.

"If [Anthony] does come back, it's going to be awesome," Early said during a conference call Monday. "I'm going to be able to play with him, play under him and get to learn from him as much as possible. If he leaves, I still got Phil and the rest of the guys that are there. I'm pretty sure they want to be good and we got a lot of stepping up to do. It's going to be cool in both settings."

The Knicks may have gotten a steal when Early, a high-scoring 6-8 forward from Wichita State, fell to them at 34 in Thursday's draft. The Knicks acquired the pick the day before in a six-player trade with Dallas.

Early, 23, also comes to the Knicks with the proverbial chip on his shoulder because teams "overlooked" or "slept" on him. He said that, along with returning to New York and playing for "my city," is "double the motivation, maybe triple on my part."

It sounds as though having Jackson running things could push Early even further.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Early said he didn't grow up a Knicks fan but was a fan of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. So Early knows all about Jackson, who won 11 championships coaching those two greats.

"Phil Jackson is Phil Jackson," Early said. "It was just awesome to get to meet him and to have him know who I am and to believe in my abilities and my approach to the game, knowing Phil Jackson and the things he has done and the type of person that he is on top of everything else. It's honestly very special.

"I looked at it as a very valued experience that's come along because it's Phil Jackson. He picked me for a reason. Whatever that reason is, he sees something. I feel like I see it, too; I just feel like I got to continue to develop. It's Phil, man. I wouldn't rather be anywhere else doing that."

Early led the Shockers, averaging 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds as a senior. He said he can play both forward positions as well as some shooting guard if coach Derek Fisher wants. That versatility could prove valuable in the triangle offense.

"I think I can play basketball regardless," Early said. "Me being a learner, me being willing to listen and coachable, and my competitive nature, all of those things allow me to play basketball at a high level. The fact that Phil Jackson is there and Derek Fisher, I think I'll be perfectly fine."

Subscribe to Newsday’s sports newsletter for stories, photos and videos about your favorite New York teams plus national sports news and events.

You also may be interested in: