CARBONDALE - Jeff Early nearly disappeared into his defender on the fast break, but had just enough to finish the transition basket at SIU Arena earlier this summer.
Early, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound junior college transfer from Monroe (N.Y.) College that is expected to compete for starting minutes this season, looked like he was going to have go over the forward that stood between him and the basket. After two dribbles, the guard simply had to go around him at the rim. Just one more obstacle for the 23-year-old Glasgow, Va., native, who has already led a storied life before his first game as a Saluki.
"Born in Brooklyn, raised in Puerto Rico, coming to the United States not knowing any English," Early said. "Living in Maryland, juco in New York, parents live in Virginia, now in Southern Illinois. I feel like my life has just been an obstacle course, and that's just how I feel coming in here. It's just another obstacle that you just have to overcome. Go out there, have fun. Start getting the community back into Saluki basketball, and have fun with it."
Early and Monroe teammate T.J. Lindsay, who is expected to compete for the starting point guard spot this winter, enjoyed winning with the Mustangs last season. Early averaged 13.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game for the 31-5 squad that finished third at the NJCAA national tournament earlier this year. He was named the Region XV player of the year and a juco All-American. Originally a center in high school because of his toughness, Early changed his jump shot in order to play on the perimeter and learned how to score on the street courts of New York against guys like NBA guard Stephen Curry.
As one of nine newcomers this season, Early will be expected to give the Salukis some scoring punch at the guard spot and some older IQ on the floor. One of six upperclassmen on the squad, he already appears to have the defense SIU coach Chris Lowery covets. Lowery secured a verbal commitment from Early shortly after he got one from Lindsay, and compared the guard's game to another junior college player who made an impact in his first season.
"Sometimes Jeff does things like, in a way, like LaMar Owen did them," Lowery said. "Sometimes Lamar didn't look the prettiest, but the results were always extremely positive. Sometimes Jeff looks like he may fall down and then the next step he's dunking the basketball. He's just one of those players that gets stuff done and you ask yourself ‘How did he do that?' or ‘How did he even get that point to have success on that play?' He's just a natural athlete and that's probably the biggest thing that's his advantage."
On Twitter: @Todd_Hefferman