Cleanthony Early's rookie season was filled with injuries, losses and limited game action. But Early expects things to be different in Year 2, and he's doing everything he can to make sure of it.

Early returned to the Knicks stronger and in better shape. His sole focus is making his mark on the defensive end. He's heard it enough from team president Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher.

"Phil, Derek, all of our coaching staff has made it public saying that defense is my calling card," Early said. "I have the length. I have the quickness, the hand-eye coordination. So it's up to me doing it.

"They think I have all of the pieces, all of the dots. I do, too. I just have to connect them. So it's pretty much all on me. I've got my teammates who give me confidence every single day. I come to work every single day. Eventually, it will show."

Early has taken those words from his bosses as a challenge.

"I love challenges," he said. "I didn't get to where I'm at today being scared of challenges."

Early's ability to contain players on the perimeter could determine whether he's in the regular rotation. It will be difficult, though, because the 6-8 Early, who appeared in 39 games as a rookie, has several veterans ahead of him in Carmelo Anthony, Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams.

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During the preseason, Early has been used with a younger, more athletic second unit that has featured rookie Jerian Grant and second-year player Langston Galloway in the backcourt. That group has been effective with its speed.

Early, who had knee and ankle injuries last season, has looked more comfortable with and without the ball. He scored 17 points in Saturday's loss to Charlotte and is 11-for-19 with 27 points in the last two games.

"I think Cleanthony has developed nicely," Fisher said. "I think the first part of it for him was getting to a point physically where he could perform night in and night out without breaking down. He's taking care of his body and he's doing well. He's attacking the basket. I think that's really the strength of his game, using his athleticism and size. If he makes some shots, that's great.

"I think this preseason, he's proven with minutes he can handle the responsibility. I think he'll be able to help us this year."

The injuries and stints in the D-League pushed Early to work on his body, his mind and his approach. He turned to yoga to help in those areas.

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"I'm in complete different shape physically, I would say mentally," Early said. "I've definitely gotten stronger. My lower body has gotten stronger. I've gotten more flexible. I've improved in areas I've needed to improve to become a better defender, stronger with the ball.

"Everything is coming together. You feel healthy, you feel good, everything starts to fall into place."