Bill Hass on the ACC: Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon Blends Seamlessly With Veterans
Feb. 27, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - What some people might see as a load of responsibility, Rasheed Sulaimon of Duke sees as no big deal.
"I feel my role right now is very simple," said the 6-foot-4 freshman. "As a young player I'm just there to bring a lot of energy, play as hard as I can and be a supporting cast to those great players (around me). I do whatever I can on the defensive side, making plays when I can, shooting shots when I'm open and trying to create plays on the offensive side."
That's it? No taking tickets at the gate or working in a concessions stand?
All kidding aside, Sulaimon has fit seamlessly into Duke's schemes on offense and defense. He has become an integral part of a Blue Devils team that is 11-3 in the ACC, 24-3 overall and ranked No. 3 in the country.
"We're really pleased with Rasheed," said coach Mike Krzyzewski. "He's had a great year for any player, but as a freshman, it's been terrific."
Sulaimon's biggest value is probably on defense. He gives the Blue Devils their tallest defender on the perimeter, something last year's team didn't have.
"He's a key guy for us because he's got to be a really good defender," Krzyzewski said. "He gets matchups that are tough matchups and has done well."
Not that his offense is lacking. Sulaimon has been a steady scorer, hitting double figures in 19 of Duke's 27 games. He's averaging 12.4 points overall, 13 points in ACC games, 14 points in the dozen games that forward Ryan Kelly has missed with an injury, and 18.2 points in his last four games.
Sulaimon provides the Blue Devils with another outside shooter to complement Seth Curry and Quinn Cook. In ACC games he's hitting 46.3 percent of his shots and 44.6 percent of his 3-point attempts. If teams choose to double-team Curry outside or Mason Plumlee inside, Sulaimon can make them pay.
"It's my job to take the shots when they're needed and to shoot them with confidence," he said. "If I do that to the best of my ability, I can make the defense play honest. Then Mason and Seth can play one-on-one matchups and it's going to be very hard for the opposing team to stop those guys."
The Blue Devils have a tough road game Thursday night at Virginia, which hasn't lost an ACC game at home this season. Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said Sulaimon, similar to Virginia's Joe Harris, is a complete player.
"I think he's a terrific defender (with) his lateral quickness and length," Bennett said. "He's long, quick, shoots the three well and uses a lot of dimensions of his game and seems to play very, very efficient for a freshman."
Against Boston College on Sunday, Sulaimon scored a career-high 27 points.
"He seems a lot more mature than a freshman," said Eagles coach Steve Donahue. "He understands the game. He makes plays that he should (and) there're other plays that he doesn't try to make. I think that's the best thing about him. He's really confident and secure, yet he's not trying stuff he can't do."
Growing up in Houston, Sulaimon was always a fan of Duke's basketball program. When he visited the Durham campus, there was no doubt where he was going to play college basketball.
"When I visited it just felt like the right fit," he said. "The coaching staff had a great deal of confidence in me but they also told me what I needed to work on. That showed me this was a place where I could learn, I could grow, I could become a better player and a better man."
Sulaimon joined a team with talented veterans and established scorers. He figured out the best way to earn playing time and progressed so quickly he earned a spot in the starting lineup right away.
"Duke's tradition is all about defense, from the guards to the bigs," he said. "I knew coming in there were a lot of scorers who were already established here. I knew the easiest way for me to make the court would be to give a lot of energy, starting on the defensive side."
So what makes Sulaimon such a good defender, especially out in space where it's not easy to guard great scorers?
"Well, he's an outstanding athlete to begin with," Krzyzewski said. "He has long arms. He has a body that can get into a defensive stance better than most people. He's made that way. But he has exceptional quickness."
Sulaimon said he doesn't look at defense as a one-on-one matchup.
"It all starts with trusting the other four guys out there playing with me," he explained. "One of the mottos that we have on this team is that not one player will be guarding another player, but our team will be guarding that player.
"It's me having trust that if I do get beat they will bail me out even in some emergencies. I just have to play solid defense on my assignment and trust that my teammates will have my back."
One of the things that has helped Sulaimon develop offensively, oddly enough, has been an ankle injury that limits Curry's practice time. Krzyzewski pointed out that, although he would prefer Curry practicing, the situation has enabled Sulaimon to take a more dominant role.
"A lot of the time I'm taking (Curry's) spot, running plays and things like that in practice," Sulaimon said. "So I'm getting reps that I normally wouldn't get in a game.
"At the same time, it's building my confidence in practice. His role is to be very aggressive, so in practice my role is to become more aggressive. I think it's helping me a great deal in translating to the court."
Athleticism is a big part of Sulaimon's ability. He's the fifth of six children and everyone in his family (one brother and four sisters) is athletic, particularly in volleyball. It started with their parents - Sulaimon's father played soccer growing up in Nigeria and his mother was a sprinter in Jamaica.
"I inherited a great deal of athleticism," he said. "My dad played soccer so he has a lot of coordination and foot quickness, and my mom the same. I think I inherited a lot of quickness and athletic ability from them, and a competitive nature. My family is really competitive, whether we're playing one-on-one or checkers."
Sulaimon's dad watched almost all his high school games and has seen him play several times at Duke. His mother visited for the first time last weekend.
"It was great motivation for me to have my mom in the stands," he said about his 27-point effort.
With four games remaining - at Virginia, then Miami and Virginia Tech at home, finishing at North Carolina - the Blue Devils are in preparation mode for the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
"We've been getting back to the basics and really working on our defense," Sulaimon said. "We all know that offense wins games but defense wins championships. I think defense will be a key in our preparation for March.
"Our coaches have done a tremendous job keeping us focused on the task at hand. We're preparing for the NCAA Tournament right now and part of our preparation is to treat each game as if we're in the tournament.
"You can't look ahead; you have to focus on the game right in front of you. After you take care of business you can focus on the next task."
So far this season, Sulaimon has responded to whatever the next task has been - as a defender, as a practice player and, in Kelly's absence, as a scorer.
"I'm really proud of him," Krzyzewski said. "I knew he'd be good, but he's turned out (even better) from necessity."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.