Of all the Dallas Mavericks players currently inside the NBA bubble at Disney World, Antonius Cleveland may be the most unsung. He isn’t a household name like Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, and even Josh Reaves, who is also on a two-way contract like Cleveland, gets more shine thanks to a fanatical following that began at Summer League last year.
Regardless of recognition, Cleveland has kept himself ready as he’s bounced around the NBA and the G League. Now in Orlando, he’s keeping the same approach to the game that he’s always taken. His goal was to be ready and physically fit.
“I just wanted to make sure I was in the best shape,” Cleveland said. “I wanted to be in better shape than other people. I kind of just didn’t really take days off even when all this craziness happened. I probably took a week off and after that I just wanted to stay active. I figured if I could just stay in shape, everything will take care of itself. I think it’s safe to say I did that.”
This is technically Cleveland’s second stint with the Mavericks. He signed a couple of 10-day contracts with Dallas in November 2017 and appeared in 13 games before being waived in December. After a successful run with Dallas’ Summer League team in Las Vegas last summer, the Mavericks signed him to a two-way contract in late July.
As two-way players do, Cleveland spent much of the season in Frisco with the Texas Legends. He appeared in 36 games with the Mavericks’ G League affiliate, averaging 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists while shooting 49.4 percent overall and 29.5 percent from deep.
In the bubble, it’s his three-point shooting that Cleveland is working to improve most during practice. He’s been working extensively with Mavericks shooting coach Peter Patton. The strides he’s making have caught the eye of his head coach.
“He’s shooting the ball better. I’m really impressed with that,” Rick Carlisle said. “Peter Patton has done a great job with him with his simplified technique, getting his confidence really going.”
Even as Carlisle sings his praises—he says Cleveland is “an elite driver of the basketball” and “plays very young” in terms of his energy level—there’s no guarantees that Cleveland, who is 26, will crack the rotation when the NBA season resumes, even with some players out with injury. He only played in six games with the Mavs this season for a total of 22 minutes.
The life and struggles of a journeyman player in the league are something that Carlisle can appreciate. Much like Cleveland, he bounced around the NBA and didn’t know if or when he’d have his name called to enter a game. It’s endeared him to Cleveland’s resolve.
“When I was a player in this league, I was fighting for my job really every single day,” Carlisle said. “Training camps were my Super Bowls. I’m well aware of it, I’m very familiar with it. I love his concentration and I love his commitment.”
Now, Cleveland has a chance to show what he can provide for the Mavericks as they gear up for the restart. If everything aligns for him, Orlando might present the best opportunity in his short time in the NBA for Cleveland to make a name for himself. But he knows that won’t happen if he doesn’t work for it.
“I really didn’t think this would be my whole career,” Cleveland said. “I didn’t go to a big school, first person to go to the NBA from my college. So, I think my work ethic is what I kind of just lean on and just keep working, just keep working until everything just falls in place.”