Sulaimon's role continues to expand for Duke basketball
"Sometimes you play well and sometimes you go through a little bit of a lull," Sulaimon said. "I’m just playing with a lot of confidence right now, and right now it’s time to go."
The sophomore guard was a juggernaut for the Blue Devils Tuesday night, scoring 19 points to lead No. 11 Duke to an 83-63 win against Wake Forest—the perfect way to avenge an emotional loss to Syracuse Saturday night.
With Quinn Cook nicked up and struggling to produce, Krzyzewski opted for a starting backcourt of Sulaimon and senior Tyler Thornton. Sulaimon has played bits of point guard during the course of the season, but mostly in blowouts after Cook had been removed from the game for good.
Against the Orange, that all changed. Sulaimon was handed the keys to the offense, and he drove the Blue Devils through what has been the best college basketball game of the season to date.
“It kind of started at the time where I wasn’t really playing that much and I was on the second unit a lot," Sulaimon said. "I just started playing a lot more point guard for the second unit and I just started developing more confidence with the ball in my hands. I just kept working on it, and kept working hard at it in practice and Coach gave me a shot tonight.”
Before the Syracuse game, Sulaimon had been in another one of his ruts offensively. The guard shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor in the two games against Florida State and Pittsburgh, though he did manage to shoot a perfect 8-for-8 from the charity stripe. But against Syracuse Sulaimon carried the load, making big shot after big shot—most notably the 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
Against Wake Forest, Sulaimon was dynamic scoring the basketball, coming up clutch yet again when the Blue Devils needed him. Sulaimon was the only answer Duke had for Demon Deacon forward Devin Thomas in the opening minutes, as the Houston native scored five of the Blue Devils' first seven points. Sulaimon's fingerprints were also all over Duke's 18-1 run, when he assisted Rodney Hood on back-to-back jumpers and buried a triple of his own.
At times, Sulaimon looked unguardable.
“Rasheed’s a great player," graduate student Andre Dawkins said. "He’s one of the best attackers in the country really. Not many people can stay in front of him. He just needed to get his confidence back, get his aggressiveness back, and really just start attacking the basket. He’s been doing that the last few games and he’s been great and that’s a big help to our team."
It's not just the scoring that has made Sulaimon so effective of late—it's his distributing. In his last six games, Sulaimon has had a share of the team lead in assists five times, recording four dimes in the other contest. All signs point towards him becoming more and more of a point guard.
"It’s a lot easier," Dawkins said of doing his job with Sulaimon on the floor. "He’s attacking, you have to make a decision to help or stay with me. Decide between a layup at the rim for him or an open shot for me, and I don’t think other teams want either one of those. All I have to do is catch it and knock it down. He does all the hard work."
Put together two straight strong performances as a team for Duke and the fewest minutes in a game for Cook since Feb. 21 of last season in a 32-point blowout win against Virginia Tech, and the result may be more of Sulaimon running the show. With eight more regular season games on the docket, the Blue Devils are looking for more production from the point guard spot, and the man who watched from the bench for the entirety of the team's victory against Michigan earlier this season may be the answer.
“He’s very versatile," Dawkins said. "He has a great handle of the ball and he’s also good at finding guys. He has good court vision. Most of the time you don’t really have to yell his name—he knows where you are."
With another long travel game on tap when the team heads up to Boston College before a date with North Carolina at the Dean E. Smith Center next week, Sulaimon's point guard play has a couple of tough tests on the horizon. But the guard is doing all the right things to meet the challenge and continue to propel Duke forward.
“I just try to continue to work hard," Sulaimon said. "They say good things come to those who work hard, and I guess that’s what’s happening now.”