Cleveland to play in NBA Summer League with Portland Trail Blazers
Former Southeast Missouri State men’s basketball guard Antonius Cleveland will play with the Portland Trail Blazers as an undrafted free agent in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas from July 7 through 17.
Cleveland had been talking to the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets before deciding to join the Trailblazers.
He led the Redhawks with 16.6 points per game, was named First-Team All-Ohio Valley Conference following his senior season at Southeast and won a fan vote to enter the State Farm College Slam Dunk Championship in March.
One of the biggest improvements in Cleveland’s development offensively was his jump shot. After shooting just 17.4 percent from three-point range during his junior campaign, Cleveland shot 38.4 percent in his final season as a Redhawk.
“I’ve put a lot of work into it, but I wouldn’t say it’s totally paid off just yet, there’s a big adjustment between the college game and NBA,” Cleveland said. “It paid off at the college level as far as my senior year, but there’s more work to put in.”
The offense at Southeast ran through Cleveland, but the Memphis, Tennessee native proved to be more than just a scorer.
With the Redhawks fighting for a top-two seed in the OVC, Cleveland dished out a season-high seven assists during the Redhawks’ 82-69 victory over Murray State, while shooting 6-of-8 from the field and blocking two shots. Cleveland said versatile, team-oriented performances like that are what scouts and team officals will be looking for from him in the summer league.
“[Taking smart shots] is extremely important for a guy like me,” Cleveland said. “Teams aren’t expecting me to come out and be like Kobe Bryant. I need to show I can play a team game, be unselfish, do it on the defensive end and take good shots because I think when you do that, it speaks more about you than, say, just showing teams I can get things done on my own offensively. No one’s gonna get mad at you for stealing too many balls or blocking shots.”
Cleveland’s effort and defensive ability were on display throughout his final season at Southeast, as he led the Redhawks with 4.3 defensive rebounds per game, 1.4 steals per game and 0.9 blocks per game.
Former NBA center and current NBA TV draft analyst Brendan Haywood identified basketball IQ and a willingness to learn as the most important attributes for players in the summer league, because players have to earn the trust of the coaching staff in a short period of time.
“You have to pick up those plays very quickly. In the regular NBA season you’re looking at an entire training camp to pick up plays,” Haywood said. “When you’re playing summer league, you have three or four days and you have to know these plays like the back of your hand if you’re gonna have an impact. Coaches are seeing who can play, who can think on the fly, who can take information in a short amount of time and apply it to the basketball court.”
Haywood’s broadcast partner, former NBA coach Sam Mitchell, looks for players to know their own strengths when they came into the league, while being able to improve in other areas.
“I think for the players that go out and try to score 30, if that’s who you are, then that’s what you go do,” Mitchell said. "But if that’s not who you are, go out and show the things that got you [noticed], and also show them you have the ability to learn and get better.”
Haywood said while nothing is certain for undrafted players moving forward, the summer league gives them an excellent opportunity to showcase their abilities to NBA coaches and executives, even those from teams other than their own.
“The whole thing with the summer league is you want to put your best performances on tape,” Haywood said. “He might not make Portland, but if he pops on film and makes a lot of plays, he’ll make somebody’s team because people want athletes, they want people who can play, people who can think on the fly. If he does those things, somebody will give him a chance.”
Cleveland will join former Gonzaga center John Collins and Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan, along with other undrafted free agents on Portland’s summer league team.
The Trailblazers open their summer league season against the Utah Jazz on Saturday, July 8, on ESPNU.