On Tuesday, Leonard Hamilton and company were given news they’d been anticipating for quite a while, as years of building a relationship with Matthew Cleveland paid off in the form of a commitment. Obviously anytime you can bring in a consensus top 25 player, that’s a good thing.
But what exactly makes the young man from Alpharetta, Georgia so special? And how exactly will he be used at Florida State? I try to answer these questions and more, with an assist from our resident film guru, Kevin Little.
Let’s hit the easy stuff right out of the gate. If you’ve watched any FSU basketball game in the last 15 years, you’ve probably noticed that the guys in garnet and gold are typically longer than most of the guys wearing the other jerseys. This is not by accident. If you’re going to play for Coach Hamilton, chances are you have pretty good positional length and Cleveland certainly checks this box.
Not only is Cleveland 6’6, he possesses the prototypical length to be an NBA wing. We don’t have exact measurements yet, but I’m guessing his wingspan is in the 6’8 to 6’10 range. As we’ve seen time and time again in Tallahassee, this length enables guys to guard multiple positions on defense while having the ability to shoot over the top of smaller opponents on offense. You can see a couple examples of this below.
Notice how in both of the following clips Cleveland recognizes his physical size advantage over a smaller defender and instead of attempting to bully his way to the rim he simply rises up for an easy, clean look. This is reminiscent of recent Seminoles like Dwayne Bacon, Trent Forrest, and Devin Vassell and demonstrates not only a comfort level with hitting the 16 footer, but also an awareness of the mismatches his length provides:
Speaking of shooting, let’s head there next. Cleveland does not possess the pure, natural stroke from three that someone like Malik Beasley, or even Vassell has. However, even at 17 he already looks far more comfortable from the perimeter than recent ‘Noles like Terance Mann or Forrest did for most or all of their career in Tallahassee. Cleveland gathers his deep shots from his waist, which causes it to take slightly longer than ideal for him to get into his release. However, the release itself is quick, compact, and fluid—meaning this is a repeatable motion that can be effective off the bounce or the catch. And while he doesn’t have quite the high-point release that Vassell utilized, it’s still high enough that when combined with his 6’6 frame he’s not at risk of having many shots blocked.
It’s also worth noting that all three clips below were taken from his sophomore year and his perimeter shooting was a main focal point of his development this past season. His high school coach at Pace recently reported that he shot over 45% from three on the season. This would seem to be backed up by a few stirring summer performances this month where he looked like arguably the best guard in America, including back to back 32 point performances at a loaded “The Opening” event (he’s 35 in black).
Cleveland possesses a few key traits that make him a fantastic slasher (this is his biggest strength on offense at this point in his development). He’s strong, he’s a capable ball handler, and he’s an explosive finisher. While the clips below make it clear that at this point he prefers to drive to his right, they also demonstrate an ability to finish at the rim in a variety of ways. He’s strong enough to finish through contact, he can throw it down with authority, he has great body control to get acrobatic if needed, and he can finish with both his left and his right hand. The hesitation move at the top of the key in the third clip below is particularly impressive for a guy of his size, and the more he develops as a shooter, the more effective a move like that will be at freezing a defender in his tracks.
Similar to his shooting improvements, note in the youtube link above how he attacks the baseline going left to throw it down with authority. Cleveland is clearly a guy who self-reflects and then gets in the gym to improve his weaker areas:
Some players are raw athletes who lack a feel for the game. This is not the case with Cleveland. Highlight clips don’t often show defense, but when you watch game tapes you see a kid who has a natural feel for the game on offense and defense. He doesn’t typically force the issue on offense when a play isn’t there and he utilizes lateral quickness and anticipation to jump passing lanes and cut off drives on defense.
His stats back it up, as he recently put forth a 32 point, 7 rebound, 4 block performance at The Opening.
How will FSU use him?
We have written extensively at Tomahawk Nation about Hamilton’s pivot to a system that eschews the traditional “PG, SG, SF, PF, C” lineup in favor of a bunch of hybrids who can do it all. This has even given rise to the name “Big Guard U,” as the difference between Seminoles’ guards and wings becomes less and less (consider 6’8 freshman lead guard Scottie Barnes).
Cleveland fits this mold to a “T” and his “position” will be more dependent on who else is on the court at the time than whichever letter is next to his name on the roster. This makes it imperative that we consider not only Cleveland’s skills, but those of another blue chip recruit who is joining him in the 2021 class: Bryce McGowens.
As we detailed back in February when he committed, McGowens is a—stop me if you’ve heard this before—long and athletic guard who, at 6’6 is capable of defending multiple positions, bringing the ball up the court, and shooting right over the top of smaller opponents. The idea of McGowens and Cleveland on the perimeter together should be quite pleasing to ‘Nole fans, but downright scary to the rest of the ACC. Add in guys like Sardaar Calhoun and Anthony Polite, both of whom would be seniors in 2021-22 and both of whom are 6’5, and well, Big Guard U feels pretty appropriate.
So where does Cleveland fit in? At this stage in their development McGowens appears to be a bit more of a playmaker and capable passer, while Cleveland is a tad stronger and the better slasher. Neither guy is Klay Thompson from three, but both flash the ability to be an above average shooter from deep, at least in college (this is where bringing in a sniper like James White could really complete the trifecta, but I digress...). Defensively, both appear a step slower than someone like Forrest or Michael Snaer, but they are at least as quick laterally as Patrick Williams.
Given McGowens’ strength as a playmaker, I’d imagine that he plays more of the “lead guard” role, while Cleveland slots more into the off-guard/wing hybrid role that guys like Mann and Dwayne Bacon have filled recently. Defensively, I see both guys capable of switching at will and guarding anyone 1-4, though Cleveland’s strength might even allow him to defend a small ball 5.
All that said, McGowens and Cleveland are both known for their work ethic and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if both arrive in Tallahassee 12 months from now with the skill set to be interchangeable parts, which again, is a frightening possibility for the rest of the league.