DURHAM — Dukes seniors carry the team, make no mistake of that. But for the Blue Devils to keep getting better and realize their potential, they need their youngest players to continue to grow.
In weeks between the first and second game against N.C. State, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson have done just that. Their progress was apparent in Dukes 98-85 win against the Wolfpack Thursday night.
Guys have stepped up, Quinn Cook said when asked about what has changed since the Jan. 12 loss in Raleigh. We wanted to kind of show how weve grown since then.
Sulaimon began his career at Duke on a high note, drawing a starting assignment in the season opener and posting solid numbers against top teams such as Louisville and Ohio State. Around Christmas, though, he hit a wall, couldnt find his shot and the rest of his game suffered. This slump reached its climax at N.C. State, when Sulaimon went 0 of 10 from the field with four points and two fouls and no other appearances on the stat sheet. He didnt start in Dukes next game, and thats the only time thats happened this year.
This time against the Wolfpack, Sulaimon opened with a hard drive to the basket, which swished through despite a foul from Richard Howell. Sulaimon made the free throw, and, in eight seconds, had already topped his scoring mark from the first game.
Coach called a set, and it was just the flow of the game, Sulaimon said. He told me to look for my drives, and just to be aggressive, and on that first play, I saw Scott kind of leaning toward the pick so I used my instincts and I trusted coach and I drove baseline and it just so happened that it worked out.
With defenses keyed in on Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, Sulaimon has the space to shine. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field and added two assists and five defensive rebounds.
Jeffersons growth has arguably been the most crucial development for Duke since Ryan Kelly injured his right ankle in the Jan. 8 Clemson game. N.C. State was the first matchup for the Kelly-less Blue Devils, and, up to that point, Jefferson averaged 5.3 minutes per game in ACC play.
In Raleigh, Jefferson played well when he was on the floor. Foul trouble limited him to 12 minutes, and C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell dominated the frontcourt.
Thursday night, Jefferson, in his fifth career start, played 25 minutes and was whistled three times. He did all the coaching staff asked of him: bring energy, set screens, rebound and play defense.
Just getting comfortable on the court, Jefferson said when asked what has changed. They have really talented players, and sometimes you can get caught holding or caught up on screens and really tick-tack fouls. I even got a couple in the second half. But being more poised and mature as a player, you get better at things like that.
Jefferson went 2 of 3 from the field, with one basket coming off an offensive rebound. He also added five rebounds and a block.
Since Josh Hairston was sidelined with an infection in his right arm which required surgery earlier in the week Dukes already thin frontcourt was squeezed even tighter. Jefferson was able to stay on the floor, and redshirt freshman Alex Murphy added 12 minutes of playing time.
We have confident guys, Jefferson said. Every player on our team, whether they play 10 minutes or two minutes, they can contribute.
And as long as contributions from Jefferson and Sulaimon keep coming, Duke will be just fine.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley