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Time to find out if Hawks’ gamble on Cleveland pays off

The Hawks took a gamble on Antonius Cleveland. 

Now it’s time to see if it paid off.

Cleveland signed two 10-day contracts with the Hawks late last season even though he could not play while recovering from surgery on his left ankle. Following the expiration of the second 10-day contract, the Hawks signed the guard to a non-guaranteed multi-year contract. At the time, the Hawks thought of Cleveland as a long-term project with much work to do this summer.

The fruits of that labor is about to be made known.

Cleveland returned from injury to play in four games with the Hawks at the end of last season. He is currently playing with the Hawks on their summer league team in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

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Cleveland declared himself 100 percent healthy.

“It’s all been good just knowing that my body healed the way everybody said it would,” Cleveland said. “I’m just trying to work on getting better. Working on my body was one thing with therapy all last year and now I’m getting back to the basketball aspect of things.

“Rehab was hard. It’s one of the hardest things I had to do. Getting my strength back in my entire left leg was tough. Enduring through that lets me know that I’ll be ready to bounce back even stronger for next season.”

Cleveland has appeared in all five summer league games between the two events. He has totaled 37 points, on 17 of 38 shooting, and 19 rebounds. He had eight points and five rebounds in a loss to the Knicks in the opening game of the Las Vegas Summer League Saturday that featured several strong drives to the basket. That’s something the Hawks want to see.

“He was aggressive,” said Hawks assistant Chris Jent, who is leading the team in Las Vegas, after the Knicks game. “He was catching it on the perimeter and was very decisive, playing downhill and into the paint. That’s what he’s got to do. He’s had a couple shooting opportunities for him that didn’t go down, especially in Utah. He has to continue to shoot those. But his aggressiveness on the catch and his defense was great.”

Cleveland played 17 NBA games last season after going undrafted out of Southeast Missouri State. He played 13 games with the Mavericks on a two-way contract before the injury in December.

At 6-foot-6, the Hawks threw another challenge at Cleveland in Las Vegas. Against the Knicks he played extended minutes at power forward. The Hawks have shown a desire to play small at times, pushing the pace on the opposition and creating space and opportunity for first-round draft pick Trae Young at point guard.

“I played a little 4 in college just because of my height and knowing that I can defend the 4,” Cleveland said. “It wasn’t a shock to me but anything to keep me on the floor, I will do. If I have to play a little 4, I just have to get ready to guard those bigger, stronger power forwards. I’m cool with anything.”

That includes the future for Cleveland and the Hawks. Jaylen Morris and Cleveland have non-guaranteed contracts, the only two on a roster that currently stands at 14.

“Being ready for anything that happens,” Cleveland said of the summer and season to come. “Whether it works out or not, I’m going to pick everything up, try it again and keep fighting. My comfort level is high. I ready for anything my future holds.”

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