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Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM | July 13, 2005
One of the names on the Seattle SuperSonics summer camp roster doesn't belong. Summer league is a time for developing youngsters and aspiring NBA players, and amongst this group, point guard Mateen Cleaves is an anomaly. With five years and 1,633 minutes of NBA experience, Cleaves dwarfs the combined NBA experience of his summer teammates (four years and 256 minutes).

"We had roll call and they were asking everyone's birthdays," said Cleaves. "There were a lot of '82s, born in '85, around there. It's going to be different, but it's a lot of fun. It's a big challenge to come in with a lot of these younger guys, but I'm up to the challenge."

"It's a big challenge to come in with a lot of these younger guys, but I'm up to the challenge."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
Here, Cleaves' experience and noted leadership ability makes him particularly valuable. During practices this week at The Furtado Center, he has directed traffic from the point, making sure his younger teammates know the plays and are in the right position. His unselfish play also helps his teammates develop.

"I like the way Mateen and Aaron Miles run it from the point," said Jack Sikma, who is coaching the Sonics summer-league team. "I thought they helped conduct a really solid practice where they understand the bigger picture."

Director of Player Personnel Dave Pendergraft, who put together the roster for the Sonics summer team, went even further in his praise of the point guards in camp.

"I think we hit the jackpot on that," said Pendergraft. "We got two guys who know how to play. They take some pressure off the coaches - they know how to run the offense. Those two guys are godsends. They're helping us as much as anything we have going on right now."

Cleaves understands his responsibility and is happy to fill that role.

"That's what I've been doing my whole life," he said. "Even in practice last year or in the few games I played, I don't care if I'm out there with Ray (Allen) or a guy that's trying to make the team, I'm vocal - that's what I do. If I don't do that, I'm no good. I've got to be vocal and kind of direct things. It's natural for me - I've been doing it my whole life."

Cleaves knows that the Sonics aren't looking to see what he can do during summer-league games, and it's more important he help his teammates show off their skills, particularly youngster Robert Swift.

"I'm just going to try to run the team, try to get Swift going this summer," said Cleaves, "try to get him down low, get him more aggressive and other than that, take shots when I get them, but pretty much just run the team."

A year ago, when Cleaves played for the Sonics summer-league squad as a backup to Luke Ridnour, moving into the starting lineup when Ridnour was injured, he was fighting to get back into the league after playing only four NBA games in 2003-04 and spending the bulk of the year in the NBDL. After being waived by the Sonics in training camp, Cleaves was re-signed on Nov. 5 and spent the remainder of the season with the Sonics, playing in 14 games. Like many of the younger players who join him on this year's summer-league team, Cleaves sees opportunity because of the Sonics' large group of free agents.

"I think there's going to be a few positions open," he said. "It's definitely an opportunity. I think I have a good opportunity myself, so I'm up here trying to stay in their face, going to work hard, continue to learn the offense a little better so when I come into veteran camp I can know even more. But there is some opportunity for guys. My advice for guys is to come in here and work hard and leave it all on the floor."

As a player who has had to fight for - and earn - his spot on the roster before, Cleaves has more advice that his younger teammates would do well to follow.

"Just come in and do what you do best," explained Cleaves. "If you're a rebounder, rebound. If you're a shooter, shoot. If you defend, defend. Don't come in and try to show them anything extra you've been working on. Try to find your niche to come in your league. That's the kind of thing I do that I try to tell these younger guys. You're not coming in to take a lot of shots with Ray Allen and Rashard (Lewis) and those guys here. Try to find a niche, try to do something extra where you can catch a coach's eye and get in training camp and try to make the team."