From the first flick of his wrist on a jump shot that found the bottom of the net Thursday night, Rasheed Sulaimon showed he still had the talent that made him one of the ACC’s top freshmen a year ago.
For the first time in nearly a month, Sulaimon’s exile to the far reaches of No. 8 Duke’s playing rotation was over.
Now, the 6-4 sophomore guard craves more chances to show he can help Duke’s basketball team reach the pinnacle of its potential this season.
“It felt amazing,” Sulaimon said of his 18 minutes of play in Duke’s 80-63 win over UCLA at Madison Square Garden. “It was good to be back on the court fighting with my brothers.”
Sulaimon’s play had deteriorated to such an extent that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski chose not to play him on Dec. 3, when the Blue Devils topped Michigan 79-69 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That was the first time since he arrived at Duke last year that Sulaimon didn’t play in a game for the Blue Devils.
After a 13-day break from games for final exams, Duke returned to play on Monday and defeated Gardner-Webb 85-66. Sulaimon, a second-team all-ACC freshman team pick last season, played only five minutes.
But against UCLA, Sulaimon entered the game in the first half, drilled a 3-pointer and was soon brimming with confidence again.
Even his backcourt mate, junior point guard Quinn Cook, took notice.
“A lot of people have been coming to him — I’ve seen it on Instragram or Twitter — a lot of people saying `We need you,’” Cook said. “When he hit the first one he took, it was like he was back to his old self. It gave him some confidence and he played well.”
Suliamon scored eight points with five rebounds and four assists in his 18 minutes. Since he averaged 14.1 points last season, those numbers appear modest.
But they represent the beginning of the road back for Sulaimon, who said a lack of mental toughness led to his decreased minutes.
“To be honest, I probably wasn’t as mentally tough as I should have been,” Sulaimon said “Once I got that out of the way, I stopped thinking `Woe (is) me’ and I just focused on what I could do to help this team win. The break that we had 13 days before playing Gardner-Webb was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a time for me to refocus and show these guys that I’m there for them in practice with my energy and my defense and it kind of translated tonight in the game.”
Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel, a former player under Krzyzewski himself, said the coaching staff maintained confidence that Sulaimon could be a contributor this season.
“We all wore this jersey,” Capel said of he and fellow Duke assistant coaches Steve Wojciechowski, Nate James and Jon Scheyer. “All of us have been through what Rasheed has been going through. Because of that all of us are sensitive to it. We want to help him get through it.”
Everyone at Duke, from Krzyzewski to the assistants to the players, said Sulaimon maintained a good attitude through his struggles. Even while riding the bench, he was regularly the first player up to greet his teammates during timeouts.
“He’s practiced hard,” Capel said. “He’s done a good job. Every kid in our program goes through what I call a rough stretch. There are some things that can be very difficult being a Duke basketball players. It’s tough balancing things. Every player inevitably goes through it. The guys that become successful figure out how to fight through it.”
Sulaimon showed signs Thursday night that he’s done just that.
“They just expect a lot out of me,” Sulaimon said. “That’s the thing with our whole program. We don’t allow any weaknesses. We expect excellence. I wasn’t giving that at first. They definitely got on me for that. When I started playing better in practices they jumped on the bandwagon and gave me my confidence back.”
Sulaimon remained on the court for stretches of the second half that included the final five minutes. With 2:00 left, his 3-pointer in front of the Duke bench gave the Blue Devils a 74-63 lead.
The shot pretty much ended UCLA’s comeback hopes and Sulaimon was mobbed by his teammates during a timeout a few seconds later.
“He has been practicing well the last few weeks and it paid off,” Krzyzewski said. “I was so happy he hit that big shot to put us up 74-63 and to see his teammates so happy for him and to be supportive is really good.”
Sulaimon said that support has always been there, through thick and thin, and he appreciates it.
“Every person on our team has always had my back,” he said, “whether it’s getting on me when I’m doing bad or picking me up when I’m down. Nobody has ever turned against me. I’m thankful to be part of a team like that.”
Admittedly forcing things during his short stints of play over the last month, Sulaimon said he felt far more relaxed against UCLA. Now he knows he must continue this play to best help the Blue Devils (9-2).
Duke is consistently getting 40 or more points a game from the combination of 6-8 forwards Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Cook scored 14 against UCLA and now has scored in double figures for nine games in a row.
Sulaimon can play a big role in the Blue Devils becoming an even more complete team.
“He’s our best driver I feel like,” Cook said. “He gets into the lane and makes plays. He keeps the defense honest. They can’t just sit on Jabari and Rodney. That’s what me and Rasheed have to do — take the pressure off those two guys. He brings a lot to our team.”