Benson, Cleaves, Hite: From D-League To NBA Training Camp
East Rutherford, N.J., October 9, 2007 - Rod Benson, Robert Hite, and Mateen Cleaves are just three of the 85 former D-League players scattered throughout the NBA trying to earn their place on a team. All three took different paths to arriving at camp with the Nets, but they all feel that their common background of playing in the D-League during the 2006-07 season helped them get to where they are today.
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Benson split time between the Austin Toros and the Dakota Wizards last year in his first professional season. A 6-10 forward from California, Benson averaged 8.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while helping the Wizards win a D-League Championship (Benson scored 12 points with seven rebounds in Dakota's Championship Game victory). He feels that the D-League helped him get used to the pace and rules of the pro game before he was ready for the NBA level of play. After he completed a workout with assistant coach and NBA veteran Bill Cartwright, Benson talked about how his D-League experience has been beneficial.
"Mainly it's an NBA style of basketball and the level of competition is pretty hard," said Benson about his year in the D-League. "For me being a rookie it helped me transition a little smoother into a place like this when I have already learned the rules and become used to this speed of play."
Hite, who made the Miami Heat out of training camp last year before moving on to finish the season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, made the most of his time in the D-League. The 6-2 guard from Miami averaged 14.5 points for the Skyforce before appearing with both the Nets and the Heat in NBA Summer Leagues. Hite also agreed that the D-League is succeeding in helping players get better.
"Definitely, you can really concentrate on basketball," said Hite. "I got a lot more comfortable with my game, my ball-handling, my shot, so it turned out to be a really good experience for me."
Cleaves is a veteran player with several years of professional basketball under his belt, but the still echoes the same thoughts of younger players like Benson and Hite that the D-League is a great place for players to work on their game in hope of reaching the next level. The former All-American from Michigan State is battling to earn a roster spot after a successful 2006-07 season with the D-League's Bakersfield Jam, where he played for coach Jim Harrick. He posted excellent numbers in the D-League last season, averaging 16.5 points and 9.0 assists per contest. Cleaves has played in a total of 167 NBA games over six seasons during his career.
"I think it does help you improve, you probably have a little more freedom than what you have up here. When I was down there, I was just playing free and not worrying about too much," said Cleaves. "You can't make too many mistakes up here, but in the D-League you are kind of the top dog, so it's no worries, you're just playing. He (Harrick) was a good coach, he just kind of let me do what I do best, which is run a team. He just wanted me to do what I do best and run a team everyday. I think that being with Jim Harrick helped me out a lot."
All three players spoke about the level of play in the NBA compared to the D-League, and how it is not as far apart as one might think. Many players in the D-League are there to work on that one wrinkle in their game that needs improvement, or improve their basketball IQ, before they can perform on an NBA level.
"There's not that big a difference, a lot of D-League guys have played in the NBA, so there is definitely a lot of talent," said Hite. "You have to bring it every day. Some teams were more stacked than others because of the NBA assignments, but I had a good time."
"There's a reason why guys are here, and there's a reason why guys are in the D-League," added Benson. "Everyone in the D-League has something they have to work on, but up here guys have a more refined game, so if you are looking to exploit someone's weakness it's a lot harder to do it up here."
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Players in the D-League also have to resist the tempation to focus on their own performance ahead of the team in an effort to impress the NBA scouts.
"From my experience those guys aren't the most succesful guys, said Benson. "The Dakota Wizards in the D-League, only one or two guys averaged double-figures in points, which was an indicator of our unselfishness. Most our team is in camp or signed somewhere, so it illustrates that it's just a matter of me working my way up and I done it the same way the whole time, just playing unselfishly."
As a savvy veteran, Cleaves feels that he has a better understanding of what NBA teams are looking for when it comes to signing players from the D-League.
"Down there you might feel that you have to go out and score 40 points every night, but I've been around so I know that isn't the case," said Cleaves. "The key at the D-League level is going out and playing the game the right way, because NBA teams are looking for someone to play a role. It's also a challenge if you have already played in the NBA, because guys really come at you, which I got a kick out of."
With the first preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers a few days away, the trio of D-League veterans will get their first chance to prove themselves to the Nets in a game situation for the first time. Each player is cautiously optimistic about their performance so far.
"I think I've been doing very well, I've been shooting the ball well and getting after it on defense," said Hite. "I'm just trying to come and work hard every day, and I think it's been good so far. Right now I'm just focused on being with the Nets and getting better every day."
"I've been doing ok. A guy like me, even though I came from the D-League, I'm still making a transition," said Benson. "There is a lot more to know mentally and physically, so I am just trying to get more comfortable in the offense so I can really play my game. I think that each day I'm getting a little better at it."
As a veteran of the training camp process and the battle to earn a roster spot, Cleaves took a pragmatic apporach to his training camp experience. He is ready to go out and play hard and let the chips fall where they may. He was the last member of the Nets to leave the practice floor after putting in some extra work on his shooting.
"It's early, but I dont want to comment too much because I've been in situations where I thought I was playing well, and the coaches didn't agree," said Cleaves. "The opposite has also happened where I didn't think I was playing well and the coaches thought I was having a good camp. You never know, I'm just focusing on these preseason games and trying to go out and show that I belong in the league. Hopefully it's here, because I have a good feel for the guys and if I go out and play hard things will take care of itself. Just go out and do what you do, if it's good enough that's great, if not then you have to move on."