Duke's Sulaimon shifts focus, regains scoring touch

lkeeley@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2013 

— On a white board in the Duke locker room Thursday, there was one word, printed in all caps and underlined a few times for effect.

EMOTION.

It took until the second half of their 73-57 win over Georgia Tech for the Blue Devils to take that message to heart. But Rasheed Sulaimon, who finished with an efficient 15 points, had started to focus on that idea earlier in the week.

“This week in practice, I just got back to fundamentals, working hard and doing whatever my teammates needed me to do,” he said. “Coming into the game, I just wanted to bring energy, especially on the defensive side, and just try to give any spark I could.”

Thursday’s game marked the first time Sulaimon didn’t start. Only eight other freshman guards have started in the season opener during the Mike Krzyzewski era (all but Tommy Amaker and Jon Scheyer went on to play in the NBA), and, for the first 11 games, Sulaimon was a regular contributor on both ends of the floor.

But then, suddenly, he couldn’t find his shot, and he went in a 9-for-40 slump through the N.C. State game. Against the Wolfpack, Duke suffered its first loss, and Sulaimon suffered through his worst game: 0-for-10 from the field, with four points for the foul line, and no steals, rebounds or assists.

"Really since coming back from Christmas, he really hasn’t played that well in all aspects of the game," Krzyzewski said Monday when asked about Sulaimon’s shooting slump. “Sometimes, especially a younger player, if the ball is not going in, it can have an adverse effect on other aspects of your game, and that might be what’s happening with him.”

It’s not the first time Sulaimon had fallen into a funk. Ray Marshall, who coached Sulaimon at Houston Strake Jesuit High, has seen his star occasionally hit a wall.

“You’re talking about a kid that hardly ever got off the floor,” Marshall said. “And on top of that, part of the load he carries are the high expectations he has for himself in the classroom.”

At Duke, that load has been magnified, as Sulaimon averaged 29.6 minutes per game as a starter and also dealt with the academic adjustment all college freshmen make. But each time he hit a wall in high school, he’d work though it, Marshall said. He’d focus on his fundamentals, and it would all start to come back.

“If he hits that first or second shot, you’ll see him relax,” Marshall said before the Georgia Tech game. “It will be something simple, where he really didn’t have to press, and that’s when you’ll see him have that breakthrough and have a solid game. It won’t be anything flashy, but that will be the turnaround point for him again.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Sulaimon hit his first shot, a 3-pointer from the right corner, midway through the first half. Then he hit another corner 3 in the final minute of the half to cut Duke’s deficit to one.

He started the second half with an assists on Quinn Cook’s 3, which put Duke ahead for good, and his layup that led to a 3-point play and a two-handed dunk brought the emotional reaction Krzyzewski had wanted to see.

At the end of the game, Sulaimon was 5-for-8 from the floor for 15 points, and that went along with five rebounds and that assist.

“Rasheed had his best performance since Temple (Dec. 8),” Krzyzewski said. “For a lot of freshman it is tough to keep playing really well, but he had a month where he just wasn’t playing up to the level that he can play at, but (Thursday) he did.”

Sulaimon is his own worst critic, and his teammates have tried, as his high school coaches did, to get him to relax and cut himself a break. Recently, though, he picked up a new mindset, one that he says has helped.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself, but that’s the thing I need to change,” he said. “I need to not focus on myself and need to focus on helping the team.“

Sulaimon wasn’t going to be perfect. But less-than-perfect will work just fine.

“Anytime you get pulled out of the lineup, it’s not easy,” Mason Plumlee said, “but it’s all about how you come back.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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