NEW YORK—Rasheed Sulaimon said he’s never been attacked so hard.
With two minutes left against UCLA, Sulaimon drilled a 3-pointer to put Duke up by 11. He kept his right wrist arched forward—like a gooseneck as people often say—for seconds after the shot then jogged down court. His teammates mobbed him.
“I liked it,” Sulaimon said.
First Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook chased him down. Then Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson. But head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who called a timeout, wanted his team back in the huddle. Cook said Krzyzewski reminded the team that the game wasn’t yet over, despite the lead and small amount of time left.
Sulaimon’s teammates, though, couldn’t contain their excitement.
“Everybody knows what he was going through,” senior captain Tyler Thornton said. “But for one of your brothers to come out of that, to see the smile and excitement. It was just a great moment for our team.”
After Duke’s win against Gardner-Webb, Krzyzewski likened Sulaimon’s struggles to a really good hitter who goes through a slump and keeps striking out.
Sometimes it just takes one big hit to break out of a slump, like Sulaimon’s 3-pointer. The signs that he was ready came earlier in the game.
He made his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer assisted by Cook. His next two barely rimmed out. So what could have been an eight-point performance on 3-of-3 shooting in the first half was a mere three points. He was making the right choices.
That was recognized in the second half, when he was the first guard off the bench. In previous games, that had been Andre Dawkins or Matt Jones. Against Michigan, Sulaimon never came off the bench at all.
Then Sulaimon earned his first assist of the game, feeding Jabari Parker for a 3-pointer. A minute later, he earned his second dime, capping a 10-2 run. Zach LaVine had just blocked a fast-break layup attempt by Cook, and Sulaimon collected it. Instead of going up himself, he fed Parker for a big slam.
Parker returned the favor for Sulaimon’s next bucket, when the freshman launched it from under the UCLA hoop to a sprinting Sulaimon, who slammed it home. One possession before that, Sulaimon had had another jumper rim out, putting him at just 1-for-5—hardly what someone would call a breakout performance.
Then with two minutes left came Sulaimon’s 3-pointer, giving him eight points on the evening. In between, he was doing the little things, adding five rebounds and four assists in his 18 minutes of play.
“It was good to be back on the court fighting with my brothers again,” Sulaimon said.
After the game, Sulaimon sounded a little different too. He used words like confidence. Players and coaches had said he has been practicing well, it just hadn’t been translating to games.
“It’s just a mental thing. To be honest, I probably wasn’t as mentally tough as I should have been,” Sulaimon said.
As much as Sulaimon needed that one big shot to break out of his slump, the team needs it too.
This is the same player who started 33 of the team’s 36 games last season. He carried the team past Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. He led the Blue Devils past Creighton and to the Sweet 16.
“We need him to be at his best for us to be at our best,” Thornton said.
It’s been a long month or so for Sulaimon.
“The media put a lot of emphasis on when he didn’t play versus Michigan,” Thornton said.
That scrutiny is the blessing and curse of playing on a team with national championship aspirations. And unlike last year, there’s enough competition in the backcourt so if any player goes through a slump, there’s someone else capable of stepping in.
The DNP against the Wolverines wasn’t just a wake-up call to him but to the entire backcourt: There are only 200 minutes of playing time and every second has to be earned.
“With the talent we have that could be anyone, it just happened to be him that night,” Thornton said.