On the night of Thursday, June 22, hundreds of basketball players who declared for the National Basketball Association were waiting or hoping to hear their names called.
This was the night of the 2017 NBA Draft, and only 60 of those players’ names were called.
One of the players who did not have his name run across the television screen was former Southeast Missouri State men’s basketball player Antonius Cleveland.
“Realistically speaking I had a feeling I wouldn’t get drafted just because I felt like if I wasn’t going to get drafted — I would’ve known that day,” Cleveland said. “My agent would’ve given me a call — I just felt like my name coming across the screen wouldn’t have been the first time I got word that it was going to happen.”
Despite that, Cleveland’s agent gave him the news on draft day that there were four teams who were interested in having Antonius play for them in the upcoming NBA Summer League.
After not hearing his name called like many others, this was the thing Cleveland had on his mind when he went to sleep that night.
The news Cleveland received the next morning is what he and his mother, Shonda Bowie, had been waiting for ever since she first put a basketball in his hands at age four.
“When I woke up [my agent] was like, ‘You’re going to Portland — you’re going to play on Portland’s Las Vegas Summer League team,’” Cleveland said. “He finished by telling me to start preparing for it.”
Signing with the Portland Trail Blazers’ Summer League team is a culmination of all the work Cleveland has put in the gym and on basketball courts across the nation, first starting when he played in the Amateur Athletic Union at eight years old.
Cleveland’s mother even coached some of the AAU teams he played on growing up, which helped him develop his own passion for the game. This allowed him to learn from his biggest fan and a former Division-I athlete herself.
“[My mom has] just kept me involved with the game of basketball throughout my life growing up, and I just instantly fell in love with it,” Cleveland said. “She also played at a Division-I school — she went to Jackson State in the [Southwestern Athletic Conference], so she was a basketball player, too.
“My own passion took over from there because basketball was all I knew at a certain point in my life. I just stuck with it and fell in love with it.”
Cleveland, now standing tall at 6-foot-6, was only 5-foot-8 his sophomore year of high school where he played as a substitute for Overton in Memphis.
Following that season, he grew substantially in the summer to 6-foot-2, and that is when he decided to transfer to Germantown High School where he started and averaged 12.5 points a game.
For his senior season, Cleveland attended Faith Baptist Christian Academy thanks to his mother, who was paying out of her own pocket for him to go there.
Cleveland averaged 18 points per game at Faith Baptist, and drew his first college offer from his now alma mater, Southeast.
“I was getting other offers when I was in prep school,” Cleveland said. “I told my mom when I got my first offer that I was going to shut it down because I was in prep school, and it was a boarding school so my mom was paying out of pocket.
“SEMO was the first school that offered me, but I had a lot of [offers]. If I would’ve just stayed the course I would’ve picked up more offers, but SEMO was the first offer, and I shut it down, and I came home that minute.”
Cleveland also drew interest from Appalachian State, Florida International, Georgia State, Hofstra and South Florida during his senior year.
One of the main reasons why Cleveland decided to attend Southeast was because of former head coach Dickey Nutt, who was fired following Antonius’ sophomore year.
Hearing this news, Cleveland was at a standstill on whether or not to remain at Southeast or transfer to another program as people close to him were telling him to do.
When Cleveland went to his mother for advice, she told him to make the best possible decision and to at least give new and current head coach Rick Ray a try.
“When I met Coach Ray I just trusted him — he did things different,” Cleveland said. “He was way more strict — he held me accountable, so I just trusted him. I prayed about making the right decision to stay there, but the whole time I knew that I had game and you can’t deny that.”
Another component that helped Cleveland in his decision making was that Coach Ray assured him he was going to be “the guy” at Southeast.
Cleveland started in a combined 51 games his first two seasons before Coach Ray’s arrival.
In those two years, though, there were upperclassmen who were the focal points of Southeast’s offense like former Redhawk Jarekious Bradley.
In his first season under Coach Ray, Cleveland averaged a team-high 15.2 points per game, but held a field-goal percentage of .437 and a 3-point percentage of .174.
Cleveland’s jump shot is something he wanted to work on, especially his 3-pointer, heading into his final season at Southeast.
“Year after year the game just started to become easier, and I just realized the only person that really could stop me was myself,” Cleveland said. “That’s why I just wanted to get in the gym after my junior year and just really improve on my 3-ball.
“I always knew I could play with anybody — I’ve got a lot of confidence in my game. I’ve always felt like I was really talented and just a step above a lot of people.”
Cleveland improved his percentages his senior year to .543 from the field and .384 from beyond the arc. He also averaged a career-high 16.6 points per game while helping lead the Redhawks to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament Quarterfinals.
Cleveland was named first team All-OVC following the season, and in May he signed his agent to begin his path to the NBA.
Before starting the process, Cleveland stayed at Southeast to finish his degree so he could keep the promise he made to his mother, teammates and Coach Ray.
Known for his dunking abilities thanks to being featured on ESPN SportsCenter’s “Crazy College Dunks” segment in 2015, helped Cleveland earn a spot in the 2017 College Slam Dunk Championships in March.
An outcome from this contest brought Cleveland the most challenging aspect in his process of becoming an NBA player.
Never breaking any bone in his body before, Cleveland ended up breaking his finger at the Slam Dunk Championship, which forced him to have surgery as well as wear a cast for over a month.
“I’ve never really broke anything in my life — never ever had to have surgery, but I had to for the first time in my life at the wrong time. I was in a cast for like five, almost six weeks throughout April just right around the wrong time.”
This caused Cleveland to decline his invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, which is where the top 64 seniors showcase their skills in a 12-game tournament while being watched by scouts, general managers and representatives from each NBA team.
“The hardest thing throughout this process mentally was trying to wrap my head around the fact I suffered an injury around the wrong time,” Cleveland said. “I just told myself things happen for a reason, and that when I got back I would work extremely harder than what I had to because of my injury.”
Cleveland did just that and worked out for eight NBA teams including the Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland and Utah Jazz.
“I can say out of all my workouts Portland was my best one, and I think they liked the fact that my athleticism stands out,” Cleveland said. “I feel like that’s always a plus, and they liked the way I defended and just my [overall] game. I take what the defense gives me, and I like to shoot that mid-range jump shot.”
Cleveland said it has not dawned on him yet that he will be playing basketball in an NBA jersey, but he does some times think about how far he has come.
“I just try to not get complacent — I just know that I made the Summer League team,” Cleveland said. “Next is getting a deal to get a multi-million dollar contract — that’s next on my list. I’m trying not to just live in the moment, but take it one day a time and just know that there’s a bigger goal ahead for myself.”
The NBA Las Vegas Summer League starts this Friday, and Cleveland will see action in his first NBA contest against Utah at 5 p.m. central standard time Saturday on ESPNU.