Matthew Cleveland's Change in Role Has Led to the Best Basketball of His Career
Matthew Cleveland went from being an offensive focal point to periphery option, and his overall impact has never been more impressive.
The causal relationship between comparison and expectation is a hell of a pitfall in sports. High expectations lead to lofty comparisons while inaccurate comparisons lead to irresponsible expectations. Every year we see players fall victim to this, through no fault of their own, simply because of the team they play on, their body dimensions, or any other ridiculous reason. While many prospects struggle to overcome the inaccurate frameworks that onlookers construct for them, Matthew Cleveland is seemingly dismantling them this season. Cleveland is playing like a legitimate candidate for the 2024 NBA Draft not because he’s expanded his game, but because he’s simplified it.
Coming out of high school, Cleveland was a four-star recruit who ranked 30th for ESPN and 22nd for RSCI as he joined Florida State. The fit between Cleveland, a 6’7” 208-pound forward with ball skills, and Florida State seemed like a dream come true—especially since the year prior Florida State thrived with one-and-done freshman Scottie Barnes. Therein lies the issue. Simply by being able to dribble, pass, and defend with size at Florida State, people immediately started questioning if this was the next Scottie Barnes.
The basketball world’s infatuation with point forwards has, and will continue to, miscast hundreds of players, and immediately set them up for failure. Being a primary initiator has an obscenely high threshold. It’s like those jobs that don’t hire anyone who had lower than a 3.8 GPA in college. Just because you don’t hit that mark doesn’t mean you’re useless. At no point had Cleveland played like Barnes, and yet he immediately drew those comparisons simply because of the school he signed with. Those same people who irresponsibly set those expectations for Cleveland were also the first to label him a failure because he didn’t meet their irresponsible and misplaced expectations. The Barnes comparisons never made sense to me, but I admittedly have never been a huge Cleveland fan. That is, until this year.
After transferring to Miami, Cleveland is finally playing his game. He isn’t being thrust into a primary creation role or relied on to be an offensive hub. Instead, he’s playing a role that suits his skill set, amplifies the play of his teammates, and puts him in a position to succeed. The point forward and on-ball scoring stuff looked like it was never going to be a viable route for Cleveland. However, he’s done a tremendous job of taking those experiences and utilizing his skills to thrive as an off-ball wing.
I keep throwing around the term point forward, and I’m sure it’s induced at least a few eye rolls. It’s a pretty ambiguous term, especially when we talk about a system that’s been as egalitarian as Florida State’s. Cleveland was never used as a heliocentric creator by any means, but we can gauge his shift from being more of a point forward to an off-ball wing by looking at a few metrics.
First, we can look at Cleveland’s usage rate over his three seasons. It isn’t a perfect indicator, but it does show us how frequently he was involved in the final play of a possession. In his two seasons at Florida State, Cleveland had usage rates of 24.3 (freshman) and 23.5 (sophomore). This season, Cleveland’s usage rate is 18. Despite this simplification in his responsibilities, Cleveland’s impact hasn’t been diminished; it’s actually improved.
Since last season, his points per game have jumped from 13.8 to 14.7 despite his shot attempts falling from 11.8 to 8.7. Those of you who are starting to connect the dots may be thinking that his efficiency must’ve skyrocketed: you’d be right. Cleveland’s effective field goal rate is up to 70.5 from 47.5, his True Shooting Percentage is up to 71.1 from 50.9, his offensive rating is up to 134.5 from 96.9 (this is a team stat, but Cleveland’s impact is still noteworthy), and his assist rate is nearly the same as it’s down to 10.5 from 11.1. The sample size for this year is still much smaller than the full season’s worth of work from previous years, but Cleveland is really lending credence to the platitude that less is more.
The second metric we can look at is play type frequency. Per Synergy, Cleveland’s three most frequent play types have been (in varying orders) transition, spot-ups, and cuts in all three years of college. What we want to look at, though, is the change in possessions where he dominated the ball, primarily the pick-and-roll. As a freshman, Cleveland ran the pick-and-roll 17.3% of the time and ranked in the 34th percentile in points per possession (PPP). As a sophomore, his frequency dropped to 11.3% of possessions, and his efficiency plummeted to the 25th percentile. This season, Cleveland hasn’t run a single pick-and-roll. Coincidently, Cleveland also ranks in the 96th percentile on overall PPP, whereas in the previous two seasons, he was in the 48th and 49th percentiles with nearly 0.4 PPP less than this season. I’ll let you determine the levels of causation there.
The third metric we’ll look at is Cleveland’s jump shot details between shooting off the catch and off the dribble. As a freshman, Cleveland took 71.8% of his jumpers off the dribble, which ranked in the 95th percentile in frequency. Unfortunately, he ranked in just the 13th percentile in PPP and shot 25.3%. When he shot off the catch (only 24.5% of the time), Cleveland ranked in the seventh percentile and shot 18.5%. It wasn’t a good shooting year. As a sophomore, Cleveland’s numbers improved, but there was still a heavy reliance on the pull-up jumper, as 56.1% of his shots came in this realm. Cleveland’s PPP on pull-ups rose to the 42nd percentile as he shot 36.8%. This season, only 35.7% of Cleveland’s shots are pull-ups, and he ranks in the 86th percentile in PPP while shooting 50%. As Cleveland has simplified his shot selection, his efficiency and effectiveness have done nothing but improve.
When we look at his numbers off the catch, we see a similar trend. Over his last three seasons, Cleveland’s catch-and-shoot frequency has risen from 24.5% to 38.1% to 64.3%. Additionally, his efficiency has followed suit as his effective field goal rate in these situations has climbed from 27.8% to 54.2% to 58.3%. Again, chalking this up to an early-season small sample size isn’t unreasonable. However, we saw his numbers trending in this direction while at Florida State. Sure, some of his overall efficiencies will come down as he inevitably faces a cold streak. That doesn’t mean that what we’re seeing now is entirely fiction.
Even though Cleveland is thriving in his new role as an off-ball wing, that doesn’t mean that his time spent on the ball was a waste. In fact, it was likely a major boon to his development and the player we’re seeing now. Cleveland survived those trials and now is combining his already established off-ball tools with his on-ball skill set to further amplify his play.
Cleveland has always been a competent and frequent cutter, but this season he’s fully taking advantage of Miami’s more favorable spacing. When Cleveland cuts, he is scoring 1.667 PPP (93rd percentile). Here, we can see Georgia playing zone while Cleveland is on the left wing. As Nijel Pack makes the entry pass to Norchad Omier, all five defenders are ball watching and the two on Cleveland’s side have forgotten about him entirely. The defender on the block is forced to step to Omier, and Cleveland eagerly pounces on the cutting lane. Cleveland receives the bounce pass and does a tremendous job of adjusting his body to finish through the contact on the reverse.
Again, Cleveland eagerly capitalizes on the gravity that his teammates attract. As Pack drives baseline, Cleveland sees that his defender’s back is turned and that his instinct will be to retreat to the corner. Instead of standing still, Cleveland gives Pack an easier passing option by cutting. This move takes Cleveland’s defender out of the play and allows Cleveland to properly attack the rim and finish through contact.
Cleveland’s floor awareness has also helped him generate quality shots off the catch. Here, Cleveland does a good job of collapsing the defense before kicking out to Kyshawn George (a name to keep an eye on). As George attacks the closeout, Cleveland quickly relocates and fills the space that George just vacated. George makes the simple read, and Cleveland knocks down the open three.
This time, Cleveland showcases his experience generating midrange pull-ups but now in an off-ball role. As Pack attacks the lane, he forces the defensive rotations that free up Cleveland on the opposite wing. Cleveland uses a standard shot fake, which sends the defender flying, and confidently rises up for a jumper in the midrange.
There isn’t anything overly complicated about that clip. However, as an off-ball wing, you have to have a counter to when you get run off the line. Those who can’t do anything other than shoot are quickly exposed and struggle to make the next level. Having that versatility to attack different areas of the floor in different ways is essential. Cleveland’s ability to effortlessly generate shot attempts like we just saw is great, but when we add in his passing his off-ball threat continues to grow.
Here, Cleveland is set up in the corner. As the ball swings to him, he yet again uses a pretty standard shot fake to get the defender to bite. Cleveland decisively attacks the lane and is now in a two vs one situation attacking the rim. The lone rim protector is forced to step to the ball and leave his man under the rim. Cleveland avoids the contact, makes the dump off pass, and sets up the easy score.
We’ve established that Cleveland won’t be an on-ball creator at the next level, but his passing ability elevates his versatility to a place that other off-ball wings can’t get to. Whether he’s attacking out of motion, collapsing the defense on a drive, or trying to exploit a mismatch in the post, Cleveland has the passing vision and capabilities that allow him to consistently find open teammates.
Aside from the improved and simplified offensive versatility, Cleveland also offers some promising defensive competencies. First of all, his size and strength allow him to be highly versatile and switchable. He has experience defending across the positional spectrum, and he could be a beneficial tool off the bench for many teams. There have been some inconsistencies with Cleveland’s defense this season where he’s gotten caught ball-watching or gives up drives because he’s not in a defensive stance. However, most of his defensive possessions are composed of physical play, active hands, quick feet, and strong shot contests. Cleveland likely won’t be an All-Defensive caliber wing, but his ability to generate turnovers, defend most players, and regularly get strong contests will be a welcome addition to a rotation.
The 2024 NBA Draft is flush with uncertainties and red flags. While Cleveland’s past college career has also fit that mold, this year has been different. Taking a step back in responsibilities isn’t always a bad thing. It allows evaluators to see what the player will look like in a more complementary role, something that nearly every player gets demoted to once they hit the league. Cleveland doesn’t have the upside that some players in this class do, but he’s showing this year that he’s far more ready-made than we may have expected.