Rasheed Sulaimon shines under glare of spotlights
An official visit to a Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium is one thing.
Being part of Countdown to Craziness or playing in a game against teams from lower-rated conferences is another.
But on Wednesday night, Rasheed Sulaimon experienced why he came to Duke for his college basketball career.
Ranked No. 2, the Blue Devils welcomed another top-5 team, No. 4 Ohio State, for a big-time college basketball game.
Cameron was full as usual. ESPN cameras were broadcasting nationwide. The crowd filled the gym and was loud during warm ups. When the Blue Devils made a big play, the noise reached ear-splitting levels.
But here was the problem for Sulaimon — he wasn’t part of the fun.
The 6-4 freshman guard from Houston took two shots in the first half, missing them both, and Duke trailed 31-23.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was pointed in his comments — Sulaimon was capable of more and the Blue Devils needed his help.
Sophomore point guard Quinn Cook knew what Sulaimon was experiencing.
“That was his first big, big game,” Cook said “It took him a half, but he got it going.”
That he did. Sulaimon made 7 of 10 second-half shots, scoring 17 points to key Duke’s 73-68 come-from-behind win that kept the Blue Devils (7-0) unbeaten.
“My teammates just had trust in me,” Sulaimon said. “Coach told me to step it up. I wanted to step it up for my teammates, and when he called my number I was just very aggressive to deliver, and I’m just fortunate that I could deliver. I just really wanted to attack, be aggressive, and look for my shot. I thought in the first half I was very passive.”
That passiveness pervaded Duke’s offense early. In the second half, Krzyzewski instructed the Blue Devils to forgo so many ball screens in hopes of opening up the court for Cook and Sulaimon to maneuver for shots.
As a result, Sulaimon’s shooting was part of a 58-percent shooting effort for the Blue Devils in the second half.
“We opened up areas to drive, and we got into things a little quicker in the second half,” Krzyzewski said.
Despite being a college newcomer, Sulaimon has rarely been passive this season. He’s averaging 12.7 points per game for Duke. Only seniors Mason Plumlee (19.9) and Seth Curry (15.1) are averaging more.
His contributions in all areas of the game have impressed Krzyzewski, who said Sulaimon is playing as well as any freshman in the country.
“For a freshman to respond that way is superb,” Krzyzewski. “It just doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes you lose the game, and you spend two days showing tape and you hope they respond the next game, but this kid at halftime said ‘you’re right, I have to do something’ and he was sensational.”
Sulaimon is also contributing 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. He’s made 41.2 percent of his 3-pointers, second on Duke only to Cook’s 45 percent.
Despite his good start, Sulaimon still was struggling mentally in the first half against Ohio State in his first big-time game at Cameron.
Senior forward Ryan Kelly could relate from his earlier days. He also had some words for Sulaimon, who turned them into action.
“He was a little down on himself, and obviously when you’re a freshman it’s even harder to get out of that hole, even if it’s a little hole, and to dig yourself out,” Kelly said. “I just told him, ‘You’re a heck of a player. You’ve shown it all year against great teams, so go show it in the second half.’ And he did.”