Luke DeCock

May 28, 2014

DeCock: Sulaimon, like Duke, looking for fresh start after bitter ending

Rasheed Sulaimon’s up-and-down season was as baffling as it was frustrating, but Duke’s best returning player hopes this year’s newcomers will be a better fit for his game.

Rasheed Sulaimon was back on Duke’s campus Wednesday, serving as a counselor at the K Academy fantasy camp. Since the school year ended, he has been in Houston, working out with John Lucas and thinking about last season.

As much of the latter as the former, if not more.

“When I came home, I did a little bit of reflecting, and now it’s time to make adjustments,” Sulaimon said. “I know what I need to work on, and I’m doing that right now with the trainers I’m working with back at home. Also, it’s good to get away, see family, see familiar faces, get that reassurance, knowing that you have people back home pulling for you.”

The difficult end to Duke’s basketball season followed a difficult beginning for Sulaimon, who went from Duke’s best returning player to a near-afterthought in the space of a summer. His trials and tribulations have been exhaustively documented, from his inability to find a role amid the arrival of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to Mike Krzyzewski’s tough-love handling.

By the time Duke’s season ended, Sulaimon had carved out a place for himself – he was the Blue Devils’ best player in the stunning loss to Mercer – but it was too late for him and too late for Duke.

“If Rasheed played the whole year the way he played the second half – he had a good year, but he’s capable of having an outstanding year,” Krzyzewski said. “If he does that at the beginning, he has an outstanding year, so it’s not like he isn’t capable of doing that.”

So Sulaimon left campus thinking about what went wrong as a sophomore and what he could do differently as a junior, especially as one of very few upperclassmen on a very young roster, especially as Duke’s best returning player for a second straight season.

In that respect, Sulaimon mirrors his coach, who talked again Wednesday about using the Mercer loss as a catalyst for a full re-evaluation of Duke’s entire program. Krzyzewski once again promised changes in both strategy and tactics without outlining specifics, but it’s clear he has done a lot of thinking about the future of Duke’s program.

One aside – “We’re almost always going to be young, so what does that mean? And what can you do with young and talented and a sprinkling of veterans?” Krzyzewski mused – spoke volumes to the changing mentality within the program. And while Duke’s pursuit of one-and-done players hasn’t gone well so far, with Kyrie Irving’s injury the obvious caveat, the Blue Devils will try it again this fall with power forward Jahil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones.

If last year’s newcomers seemed to crowd Sulaimon out of the picture, with both Parker and Hood comfortable playing similar perimeter games to Sulaimon, this year’s lineup appears to offer Sulaimon a better fit. Instead of one of several perimeter threats, he’ll be the main perimeter threat on a team that also has a legitimate big man and an attacking point guard.

While it should work better, Sulaimon, still scarred by last season’s experience, isn’t prepared to take it for granted.

“Those guys haven’t stepped on campus yet,” Sulaimon said. “But that’s going to be the challenge, as soon as they step onto campus, we have to start trying to build our chemistry. You can have as much talent as you want in college basketball, but if you don’t have that mesh or that good balance with everybody, you can lose in the first round.”

Sulaimon knows that all too well now. It’s a fresh start for Duke, but it’s also a fresh start for Sulaimon, each with everything to prove going forward.

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