It was a whirlwind 24-hour cycle for new Maverick Antonius Cleveland, a period that began with inking his first NBA contract and ended with him defending Andrew Wiggins during a meaningful stretch of a game.
Cleveland, 23, signed with the Mavs on Friday afternoon and took the floor that night, checking into the game for the final possession of the third quarter to defend Wiggins, who took the inbound pass and ended up losing the ball before getting a chance to shoot it, thanks in part to Cleveland’s pressure.
The rookie came a long way geographically to get to Dallas — joining the NBA squad via a two-way contract from the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors — but in basketball terms he came even further: The 6-foot-6 Cleveland stood at just 5-foot-8 as a junior in high school. He grew six inches by the end of his senior year but had to spend a year at prep school to hone his skills before settling in (and continuing to grow) at Southeast Missouri State, where he spent four years playing college ball in the Ohio Valley Conference. Now he’s in the NBA.
“It’s more of a humbling experience,” he said. “Everything feels so surreal right now. Everything’s just setting in. But I’m definitely thankful for the Mavericks organization for believing in me and bringing me in.”
Cleveland broke his finger at the end of his senior season so he was unable to participate in the Portsmouth Invitational, a camp mostly for upperclassmen and mid-major standouts to make their case for the NBA in front of scouts from across the league. But his 6-foot-11 wingspan and soaring vertical — he doesn’t know exactly how high he can jump, because when he tried to measure it he cleared the rack — caught the eye of the Golden State Warriors, who invited him to camp before waiving and sending him to the G League affiliate. Before that, he played for the Trail Blazers in the summer league.
With Santa Cruz, Cleveland averaged 14.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.3 steals in six games off the bench. Combined with his athleticism, those numbers were certain to catch the eye of NBA execs. Cleveland was aware he was establishing himself, but was surprised his call-up came so soon.
“I felt as if I was playing pretty well down in Santa Cruz, but definitely not this early,” he said. “I didn’t expect anything this early but I knew if I kept it up, good things would come.”
If he was surprised to even make an NBA team, it had to be jaw-dropping when he found out he’d be playing the same day he signed. Cleveland admitted he was starstruck when he met Dirk Nowitzki for the first time, but otherwise he got right to work with the Mavs coaching staff to learn as much of the playbook as possible. Before and after his pregame media session, he was watching film of the Mavs offense to cram as much knowledge as possible into his mind as quickly as possible.
Dallas doesn’t necessarily need Cleveland’s offense, though, at least not right now. With Dorian Finney-Smith out “a while,” per Rick Carlisle, the Mavs desperately needed a longer player who could defend opposing 3s and 4s. That’s where the rook can contribute right away. Any offense is a bonus at this point.
“I’m trying to learn as much of the playbook as I can, but on the defensive end I feel like that’s where I want to contribute and help,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball as well. The coaches have been preaching to me on my first day that it’s just basketball, at the end of the day.”
Cleveland will likely get into the game again tonight, and this test will be even tougher than checking Wiggins. The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably the front-runner for the MVP right now, and there’s a pretty good chance that Cleveland will have to defend him. His first 24 hours in the league might prove to be easier than Day 2, but Cleveland will be up for the challenge all the same.