Sulaimon responds to new playing time opportunities

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 11:39 AM

With each game over the last two weeks, Duke has distanced itself from an alarmingly slow start to the ACC basketball season.

Over the next week, even more serious tests await the No. 18 Blue Devils.

A three-game winning streak that has vaulted the Blue Devils above .500 in the ACC will be on the line when Duke plays Florida State Saturday, Jan. 25 (noon, ESPN) at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The last two wins of Duke’s winning streak were lopsided decisions over N.C. State and Miami, who are a combined 4-8 in ACC play. The Blue Devils (15-4, 4-2 in ACC) will face tougher teams beginning today with Florida State (13-5, 4-2).

Games at No. 20 Pittsburgh (17-2, 5-1) on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN) and No. 2 Syracuse (18-0, 5-0) the following Saturday (6:30 p.m., ESPN) are up next.

The Blue Devils’ play of late has them in a better position to face the ACC’s top teams. Duke’s winning streak puts memories of a 1-2 start in ACC play, which included losses at Notre Dame and Clemson, further in the past.

ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke, who will work the Blue Devil game today, was confident Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would turn things around.

“Their growth and evolution isn’t surprising with Mike as coach,” Burke said.

Duke held second-half leads in the losses to Clemson and Notre Dame only to see them disappear. Krzyzewski altered the playing rotations since then, inserting freshman guard Matt Jones into the starting lineup with forwards Amile Jefferson, Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and guard Quinn Cook.

That’s allowed sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon to play with a second five that routinely enters within the first 10 minutes of the game. That group includes forwards Marshall Plumlee and Josh Hairston with guards Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton.

Sulaimon actually has played more minutes than Jones over the last three games while averaging 14.1 points and four assists.

Burke called it a masterful move that’s improved Duke’s overall play.

“Rasheed Sulaimon and his ability to carve out a niche and contribute in a big way was crucial to their long-term success,” Burke said. “When that second unit comes in, he has to be the focal point. He doesn’t have to blend his game around Jabari and Rodney. Later in the game, when he is on the court with them, he feels good about himself. It’s a simple switch but a profound change in mentality and I think that’s a good thing.”

Hood and Parker have continued to provide Duke consistent points and rebounds. Parker, even after a mild slump, continues to lead Duke in scoring (18.9 points per game) while Hood is contributing 17.6 points per game.

Parker scored 17 points and contributed 15 rebounds in Wednesday night’s 67-46 win at Miami, Duke’s first true road win of the season.

That all-around performance is a sign of Parker’s growth as his freshman year progresses.

“You are going to keep seeing more things from him,” Krzyzewski said. “So much is expected of him. But he’s not trained yet to do all these things and he doesn’t have the experience.”

Having worked Duke games earlier this season, Burke sees Parker making positive adjustments with more aggressive play.

“Over the last few games, Jabari Parker has been less willing to settle for jumpers,” Burke said. “He’s capable of making NBA 3s. He’s too physically gifted to settle and too capable of creating easier shots for himself.”

Over Duke’s last two games, Parker has averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds a game. Like his team, Parker is making progress toward being his best, Krzyzewski said.

“He’s a long way from dominating,” Krzyzewski said following the Miami game. “He’s in the process of getting better. He played really well. He played well our last game (against N.C. State). He played well tonight (against Miami). That level of consistency, he’s got to show that. The potential is there to be a really good player.”