NEW YORK — Rasheed Sulaimon knew it was ultimately up to him to pull out of his early-season funk. Until he started showing flashes of his old self in practices, the tough love would continue.
Sulaimon had gone from an all-ACC freshman who had started 33 of Dukes 36 games last season to the fourth option at shooting guard, behind Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins and Matt Jones. He didnt play at all in the win over Michigan on Dec. 3 and recorded just five minutes against Gardner-Webb Monday. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sulaimon had shown up to school out of shape, and everything had spiraled from there.
Until Thursday night, that is. Sulaimon was still the fourth shooting guard to enter the game, but coaches put him in during critical situations at the end of both halves. Sulaimon rewarded their vote of confidence with a strong, well-rounded performance, scoring eight points (shooting 2-of-4 from behind the arc), grabbing five rebounds and recording four assists in No. 8 Dukes 80-63 win over UCLA.
It just feels like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulders, he said afterward. I just have to thank the coaches and my teammates; they helped me through the ups and downs and never lost faith in me. It was up to me to get it back going, and I think you kind of saw that today. Every time I made a big play or a mediocre play, the excitement. It was easy for me to play hard for those guys who always have my back.
One of the most visible signs of excitement came with two minutes to go in the game, with Duke protecting an eight-point lead against the Bruins, who are capable of scoring points in a hurry. Sulaimon came up and set a screen for Rodney Hood, and then he handed the ball off to Quinn Cook after it had come his way. Cook took the ball and started to dribble into the defense, drawing a few defenders toward him. Thats when he dished back out to Sulaimon, who was standing beyond the 3-point line, and he buried a shot from the left elbow. That was effectively the dagger, and the celebration began with Cook and Hood embracing Sulaimon and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski jumping off the bench and throwing a fist-pump into the Madison Square Garden air.
I was so happy he hit that big shot, Krzyzewski said. He has been practicing well the last two weeks, and it paid off.
Sulaimon said the 12-day break in between the Michigan and the Gardner-Webb games was the best thing that could have happened to him. It allowed him to refocus, to show his teammates his value in practice by bringing energy and defense.
He had been pressing in past games, he said, trying too hard to make something positive happen.
Its just a mental thing, he said. To be honest, I probably wasnt as mentally tough as I should have been. Once I got that out of the way and stopped thinking about, Woe (is) me, I just focused on what can I do to help this team win.
Before his renaissance in practice, there werent many pats on the back. It was more tough love, which Thornton displayed after the Michigan game when he said of Sulaimon, As a man, he has to step up and accept what he needs to do.
They just expect a lot out of me, Sulaimon said of teammates and coaches. Thats just our whole program, we dont allow any weaknesses, and they expect excellence. I wasnt giving that at first, and they definitely got on me for that. When I started making the turn in practices, then they started jumping on the bandwagon and tried to get my confidence back.
Every single person has always had my back. Whether its getting on me when something is going wrong or picking me up when Im down, nobody has ever turned against me or anything like that. Im very thankful and grateful to be in this situation where I have a team like that.
The Blue Devils excitement about Sulaimons slump-busting performance was evident, too spontaneous to have been choreographed for show. If Sulaimon is able to build off of this performance hell have to carry it through the Christmas break he can be the asset many envisioned he would be before the season.
He keeps the defense honest, so they cant just sit on Jabari (Parker) and Rodney, Cook said. Thats what me and Rasheed have to do, take the pressure off those two guys. He brings a lot to our team.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley