DURHAM — The Rasheed Sulaimon point guard experiment started in earnest when he was hardly playing at all.
It was during the December stretch when he didn’t play against Michigan and played only five minutes against Gardner-Webb that he started working on his point guard skills with the second team. He tried it out at the end of a few blowout non-conference games, and then he ran the Duke offense early in the Syracuse game. The experiment continued Tuesday night in No. 11 Duke’s 83-63 win against Wake Forest in which Sulaimon registered 19 points (on 60 percent shooting) and a team-high five assists in 37 minutes.
“They say everything happens for a reason, so I guess it is,” Sulaimon said. “I just try to continue to work hard, and they say that good things come to those who work hard. I guess that’s what’s happening now.”
Sulaimon continued his recent trend of driving aggressively, and making baskets and drawing fouls in the paint. He also assumed his role of guarding on the ball – his height (6-foot-4) puts him in the best position, out of any of the Duke guards, to play that part, according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Coach just has a lot of confidence in me making plays,” Sulaimon said. “He wants me to utilize my talents. I can really get into the lane and create for myself and others. That’s what I’ve been doing of late. He just put me in a lot of pick-and-rolls and a lot of open situations where I can drive and attack and just read the defense and make a play.”
It’s not as if Sulaimon doesn’t have help at the point position – he himself said, “It’s easier for me when I have a guy like Tyler Thornton or Rodney Hood that can help bring the ball up as well.” Thornton, who started in the backcourt with Sulaimon, also registered five assists and was a nuisance on defense, forcing three steals. One pass Thornton broke up resulted in a demonstrative low-five from Krzyzewski, as the two slapped hands at waist level.
Quinn Cook, who struggled in Saturday’s loss at Syracuse (going 2-for-12 from the field) was out of the starting lineup for just the second time this year, but second time in three games. Cook played six first-half minutes and finished with seven points (2-for-6 shooting, all from 3), along with two assists and two turnovers in 18 minutes.
“We’ve been winning, so I really haven’t been focusing on my individual thing, my individual efforts,” he said.
For the first 13 minutes, Wake Forest, without injured starting shooting guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, played Duke to a draw. Then the Deacons went more than seven minutes without a field goal, as the No. 11 Blue Devils went on an 20-3 run during the stretch. Rodney Hood went on a personal 8-0 run, forcing a timeout from Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik (Hood drilled another 3 after a Wake turnover coming out of the huddle).
“We just lost our poise there for a few minutes,” Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “You just can’t do that.”
The effects of Miller-McIntyre’s absence were apparent early: 11 first-half Wake Forest turnovers resulted in 15 points for Duke.
In the end, the result was what was expected from Duke (18-5, 7-3). As a team, the Blue Devils shot 50.9 percent from the floor and went 12-for-26 (46.2 percent) from 3-point range against the league’s second-best 3-point defense. The Blue Devils posted the most 3s against the Deacons since their season opener, when they gave up 14 to Colgate.
Jabari Parker led Duke with 21 points (on 8-for-10 shooting) with a team-high eight rebounds as well. Andre Dawkins also scored in double figures with 17 points, shooting 4-for-7 from 3-point range.
While the Deacons lost their eighth straight to Duke (Bzdelik has never beat the Blue Devils in his four years), the Blue Devils continued their trajectory of improvement. They appear to be peaking at the right time, playing their best basketball of the year of late.
“Right now, it’s time to go,” Sulaimon said. “It’s close to March, we’ve got eight more regular season games left, and I’m all in.”