Coach K says Sulaimon as good as any freshman in nation

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 30, 2012 

— Entering the game against Ohio State, freshman Rasheed Sulaimon had taken the second-most shots of any Duke player.

But he took just two in the first half. And neither went in.

“He was a little down on himself,” Ryan Kelly said. “Obviously, when you’re a freshman, it’s even harder to get out of that hole, even if it’s a little hole.

“I just told him, ‘You’re a heck of a player. You’ve shown it all year against great teams, so go show it in the second half.’ And he did.”

Sulaimon went 7-of-10 in the second half, scoring 17 points. His contribution was a key part of No. 2 Duke’s 73-68 win over No. 4 Ohio State.

“For a freshmen, I thought he got knocked back,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “At halftime, he responded. He had 17 points in the second half and gave us a verve. He gave us a real verve.”

Sulaimon did, indeed, show vigor and spirit, or enthusiasm, in the second half. And he’s shown that all year. Sulaimon took Seth Curry’s spot in the starting lineup during the preseason, when Curry’s right shin kept him off the court completely. But when Curry was ready to return, Sulaimon didn’t leave the lineup. Duke opted to sacrifice a few inches (the 6-foot-8 Alex Murphy went to the bench while 6-foot-4 Sulaimon stayed) and instead kept Sulaimon’s offensive and defensive verve on the floor.

Through seven games, Sulaimon is averaging 12.7 points per game, third-most on the team behind Curry and Mason Plumlee. At this point in the year, Sulaimon’s scoring pace is actually not far from where another Duke freshman – Austin Rivers – was at the same time last season (14.4 points per game).

Sulaimon does more than just score, though, and, personality-wise, is nothing like Rivers. Sulaimon’s 4.3 rebounds per game also rank third on the team, as do his six total steals. And he has the ability to impact the game defensively with his reach in ways that aren’t quantifiable.

“Rasheed is really as good of freshman as there is in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “This kid is playing well.”

And Wednesday night, Sulaimon showed he can respond quickly after not meeting the high standard he has set. Kelly wasn’t the only one who talked to him at halftime--Krzyzewski did, too.

The message: be more aggressive.

“In the first half especially, I was very passive,” Sulaimon said. “In the second half, I just wanted to look more for my shot. My teammates gave me great passes, set great screens to set me up, and I was very fortunate that some of those shots did fall in the second half.”

Part of Sulaimon’s surge resulted from tweaks to Duke’s offense. Throughout the first half, Duke struggled to generate any open looks. In the second half, the team set fewer ball screens and instead tried to push the pace and open space to drive. As a result, Sulaimon found more space to shoot on the elbows.

Sulaimon connected for his first basket within two minutes of the second half’s opening. His jump shot was an immediate response to Ohio State taking a 10-point lead at 33-23, the largest Buckeyes’ advantage of the night. From there, his shots started to fall, and he ended his night with Duke’s last field goal, an emphatic, one-handed dunk to put Duke up 66-58 with 1:04 remaining in the game.

“I don’t know if a kid is going to respond,” Krzyzewski said of his halftime challenge to Sulaimon. “For a freshman to respond that way is superb. It just doesn’t happen very often.

“This kid at halftime said, ’you’re right, I’ve got to do something,’ and he was sensational.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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