Duke

Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon adapts to specialist role

Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) drives on Fairfield guard Steve Johnston (23) in the first half of play. Duke defeated Fairfield 109-59 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC Saturday, November 15, 2014.
Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) drives on Fairfield guard Steve Johnston (23) in the first half of play. Duke defeated Fairfield 109-59 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC Saturday, November 15, 2014. cliddy@newsobserver.com

After earning a spot on the ACC All-Freshman team, Rasheed Sulaimon had this to say before the start of his sophomore campaign in 2013:

“One of the main keys to this team is sacrifice,” Sulaimon said of the Jabari Parker- and Rodney Hood-led squad. “If Coach says those two guys are the main guys, then, for me, I just have to do whatever it takes with my talents to help the team win. It’s not necessarily taking a back seat to those guys, it’s just using my talents with those guys.”

That didn’t go as well as planned. But compare that to what Sulaimon, now a junior, said at the beginning of this season:

“Being a part of a team is going to require some sort of sacrifice,” he said. “For the betterment of the team, everybody is going to have to sacrifice something. Some more than others.”

Clearly, the message is the same, but maybe it will sink in better for Sulaimon this year. If coach Mike Krzyzewski’s words are an accurate indicator, it already has.

Sulaimon was limited to 12 minutes in Duke’s 81-71 win against Michigan State due to an illness that had him vomiting at halftime, but Krzyzewski, unprompted, still had positive things to say about him after the game. Sulaimon will be healthy this weekend for Duke’s two games in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y. – the Blue Devils play Temple Friday at 9:30 p.m. and then either Stanford or UNLV on Saturday.

“That was a huge loss for us,” Krzyzewski said of Sulaimon’s absence. “A big guard, I thought he could defend (Denzel) Valentine tonight.”

As a freshman, Sulaimon was Duke’s best option to create his own shot, and he did that fairly well, averaging 11.6 points per game. Last year, his role changed – it was preferred that Parker and Hood provide the bulk of the offense – and Sulaimon struggled to find consistent playing time.

This year, there is no mystery what role he is supposed to fill. After Duke’s 109-59 win over Fairfield, during which Sulaimon played 18 minutes and didn’t attempt a shot, Krzyzewski went out of his way to praise him.

“Rasheed really had a huge impact on the game,” Krzyzewski said. “His ball pressure and passing – he had four assists and no turnovers, but a number of his passes, in hockey, he would have gotten about eight or nine assists today.

“He’s making a very big positive impact on the game, and he’s doing it in a way that no one on our team can do it exactly like him. In other words, he puts the best pressure on the ball. He is 6-foot-4, and, when he is doing it, it really takes the point guard’s vision away, and they have a hard time getting by him. Our defense gets picked up. And when he brings it down on the break, he has got a little bit more of a jerky-jerky motion. It’s not just straight. He can get by. And when he is getting by to score, a lot of times he’d get knocked on his butt or whatever, and that wouldn’t be the play. Now when he’s getting by people, he is making the play, the play that the team needs.”

In other words, Sulaimon’s ideal role for Duke is as a defensive specialist, primarily, and a passing guard on the other end of the floor. With the exception of Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor, all of the other Blue Devils will be some sort of specialist, filling a specific role while the freshmen trio shines. The sooner they can accept that, the more successful their seasons – and Duke’s season – will be.

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