CLEVELAND

Banks County's Carl Cleveland averaged 24.5 points and 12.8 rebounds as a high school senior, collecting a host of accolades. He now has his sights set on his freshman year of college basketball at Young Harris. 

It’s a daily routine for Carl Cleveland that dates back to middle school: 1,000 shots a day in the gym, conditioning, weightlifting. Repeat.

“It takes about three hours,” the Banks County star basketball player said.

Those hours have proven to be time well spent.

Cleveland produced one of the most storied basketball careers in Banks County history, logging over 2,000 points and pulling down over 1,000 boards in four years for the Leopards. The year-end accolades came pouring in for Cleveland after wrapping up his senior season. He was recognized as the Region 8-AA Player of the Year, the MainStreet Newspapers’ Co-Player of the Year and as a Class AA all-state selection.

More importantly, he fulfilled a long-held goal. Cleveland will play college basketball at Division II Young Harris this year, having signed with the Mountain Lions in December.

“Picking up the commitment to Young Harris — that’s all I’ve always wanted to do is play at the next level, so I was satisfied with that,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland’s cherished workout sessions have been put on the back burner for about the past month and a half as the 6-foot-6 forward underwent ankle surgery at the end of the season. He said his ankle feels better than it has in three years, but he’s also been sidelined in his preparation for Young Harris. He’ll soon begin rehab.

As Cleveland works his way back to health, the Mountain Lions will be getting a player who averaged 24.5 points and 12.8 boards per game as a senior, despite playing on the bad ankle. Cleveland scored over 30 points in a game eight times this past season.

Cleveland said the competitor in him wouldn’t let him sit out, but he certainly missed being healthy the past three years. One couldn’t help but wonder what Cleveland’s gaudy career totals would have looked like had he been full speed all four years of high school.

“Yeah, I do (wonder),” Cleveland said. “But I’m just thankful for the numbers I did put up.”

Numbers aside, Cleveland was able to experience a deep state tournament run before leaving high school. The Leopards reached the state quarterfinals this past winter, the first trip to the Elite Eight for the program since 1995.

He had hoped to leave high school with a state championship ring, however.

“But I am glad I got to play with all the different guys I did in my four years,” Cleveland said. “I don’t really regret anything.”

Cleveland’s fondest high school basketball memory came way back as a freshman in 2016-17 when the Leopards broke a long region tournament drought. His memories of the 8-AA finals win over Monticello remain vivd.

“That was the first (region championship) in Banks County for basketball for like 25 years,” Cleveland said. “I still remember the game, at home against Monticello. It was packed that night.”

Cleveland also remembers the tutelage of players like Kahmal Wiley that year and the initiation to high school basketball of sorts that he received as a result.

“Kamal, (me) coming in as a freshman, he was a senior, he used to beat up on me a lot,” he said. “He helped me through, and they really just showed me how to play the game really. So, it was fun.”

Wiley wasn’t the only person in the Banks County program to show Cleveland some tough love. His father, Mike, coached him all through his four-year Leopard career.

“There were some tough moments, definitely at practice and stuff, but I’m glad I got to,” Cleveland said. “It’s definitely something that a coach’s son or a daughter really looks forward to.”

Cleveland was asked to elaborate on those tough moments.

“Oh, he used to kick me out of practice a bunch,” Cleveland said. “Me and him used to get into it a bunch, him pushing me hard and disagreeing on some stuff. But it was all worth it.”

He’ll play for a coach now, Jeremy Currier, at Young Harris, who was a major factor in Cleveland choosing the Mountain Lions.

The Young Harris staff initially thought that Cleveland had signed with North Georgia. Not willing to let him slip away, those coaches quickly deployed to a Banks County practice one day. And Cleveland was sold.

“He (Currier) just said all the right things and offered me that one day after seeing me in practice,” Cleveland said. “So, he really made me believe that he believed in me and what I could become, so I committed to them.”

The vibe he gets from Young Harris isn’t unlike the one he experienced for four years at Banks County — a fan base of tight-knit, passionate fans every night.

“I feel like Young Harris was as close as I could get to Banks County, and that’s what I wanted,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland’s transition to college will see him playing a new position: shooting guard. He said he feels good about the move, but must improve his ball handling and speed to adjust to the change. He’ll be asked to handle the ball against smaller, quicker guards.

“I think the speed at the college level is the one thing that standout from high school,” Cleveland said.

What college athletics might look like next year is uncertain given the spread of COVID-19 and its ripple effect, but Cleveland is hopeful things will proceed as planned for his freshman year at Young Harris.

“I think everything will still go about the same time,” Cleveland said, noting a August move-in date to Young Harris, “ … and still have everything on a regular schedule.”

In his time away from the basketball court, Cleveland said he’s been soaking up he latest installments of ESPN’s The Last Dance, which documents Michael Jordan’s final season with the Bulls. Cleveland is a big fan of Kevin Durant, as well as James Harden, as far as contemporary players go, and tries to model his game after Durant.

“Just a stretch shooter,” Cleveland said of Durant. “I think he was the most dominant player in the league for a few years.”

Meanwhile, Cleveland has the rest of his own basketball career to write, and he hopes for big things at Young Harris.

“I see myself going there for four years, and not leaving,” he said. “I really love the culture of coach Currier and them have put in up there.”

And as he moves on to college basketball, the player who puts up 1,000 shots a day said he’ll take his Banks County grit with him.

“Everyone works hard at Banks County,” Cleveland said. “Guys here are always wanting to get in the gym and everything. It’s like a family here. So, I hope to just keep that with me and go to Young Harris.”

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