Rasheed Sulaimon has known for years that he wanted to play college basketball for Duke. Amile Jefferson made a last-minute decision to commit to the Blue Devils after head coach Mike Krzyzewski became a late entry into his recruiting process. Sulaimon is a soft-spoken 6-foot-4 Texan with excellent size for a guard. Jefferson is a vocal 6-foot-8 forward from Philadelphia who will need to continue adding muscle to compete at the collegiate level.
And yet, as the pair of freshmen join the Duke roster this season, it is their similarities that could prove critical to re-orienting a team that disappointed last year.
Both attended prestigious, academically demanding high schools and excelled in the classroom. Jefferson carried a 3.4 GPA at Friends Central High School in Philadelphia, and Sulaimon earned National Honor Society recognition for his 3.6 GPA at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston.
Both drew praise from their high school coaches for being “grounded” even as talented young players around the country spend increasing amounts of time absorbing their own hype.
“From a high school standpoint for a player [he’s had] all the success you could have,” said Josh Polykoff, who coached Jefferson at Friends Central before accepting an assistant coaching position this season at Pennsylvania. “He’s won state championships, league championships, All-American. He was the big man on campus in high school at Friends Central. Yet he still is unbelievably grounded, unbelievably humble, just a good kid.”
Wayne Jones, who coached Sulaimon at Strake Jesuit, gave an eerily similar description of his former pupil.
“In today’s culture, the better you are a basketball player, the more standoffish you are, but that’s not what [Sulaimon] is,” Jones said. “We consider him to be an ‘old-school’ individual. He’s grounded. He works extremely hard. He’s a ‘yes sir, no sir, yes coach, no coach’ type of individual.”
Those sorts of qualities are needed for a Duke program that struggled last year to find leadership and cohesion. Even though Jefferson and Sulaimon are rookies, they will have an immediate impact in the locker room.
“Sometimes I’ll be outside on the perimeter, or sometimes I’ll be playing down low inside, but one thing I’ll always be doing is playing hard,” Jefferson said. “I think that’s not going to change no matter what coach asks me to do.”
Their skill sets will also prepare them to contribute on the court right away. As Seth Curry has struggled through injuries in the preseason, Sulaimon has stepped up to take his place among the starting five in practice. He stole headlines in the team’s first preseason game with 18 points in the first half against Western Washington.
One of the smartest players in his class and one of the most prepared to transition to the college game, Sulaimon brings a readiness to contribute on both ends of the floor. Ranked as the No. 12 recruit in the class of 2012 by ESPN, he has the ball skills to penetrate and shooting range out to the 3-point line. And he has the quickness and length to match up with smaller guards or taller forwards on defense.
“[He is] probably the most cerebral basketball player that I’ve ever coached,” Jones said. “Not only will he know where he goes, but he’s going to know where everyone else goes, and he’s going to know everything that the defense is going to do, and every counter that can be done to that.”
Sulaimon informed Jones after transferring to Strake Jesuit that his ultimate goal was to attend Duke. Sulaimon could not resist Krzyzewski’s offer once the head coach visited Houston.
“A lot of coaches... just tell you what you want to hear. But one thing I really appreciated from him is he told me he liked me as a player but he went straight to the things I could improve on,” Sulaimon said. “I knew no matter if I’m playing great or if I’m playing bad, he’s going to tell me the truth.”
Jefferson ranked just below Sulaimon on many expert lists, typically appearing in the low-20s with his length and feel for the game. He possesses superior ball skills to most forwards but will need to add bulk to play inside and improve his shooting on the perimeter.
“He’s just unbelievably skilled,” Polykoff said. “He’s 6-foot-9, very long and wiry, although I know he’s gained some muscle since he’s been at Duke. He can handle the ball, he can finish at the rim with both hands, he can move his feet. All the stuff you don’t really see from a 6-9 player, he can do.”
Both Sulaimon and Jefferson come from big families—each has five siblings including four sisters—and have been heavily influenced by their parents. Now they will join a different sort of family in Durham, and they are excited to do so.
“I have been working for my whole life for this, and just to have the opportunity to wear this jersey and to represent so many fans out there across America and to represent the history of Duke basketball and to represent the greatest coach in college basketball, it’s just such a tremendous honor and a blessing,” Sulaimon said.