Duke’s season thus far has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. The undefeated start, the Ryan Kelly injury, the Jabari Parker signing, blowout wins and a historic blowout loss has produced a multitude of storylines.
Yet through all the ups and downs, freshman Rasheed Sulaimon has been a key player for the Blue Devils. The promising young guard has started all but one game, averages nearly 30 minutes of playing time and is Duke’s third leading scorer (via GoDuke).
Though his role on the team has changed since the injury to Kelly, Sulaimon has been dependable in terms of effort and energy and has evidenced his vast potential.
As integral as Sulaimon is, his development as a player will deeply impact Duke’s success this season. Therefore, it’s worth taking a closer look at some of his strengths and weaknesses.
One of the biggest positives from Sulaimon’s recent return to good shooting form has been his versatility.
Though he’s shown flashes of an ability to penetrate, for much of the season Sulaimon seemed rooted in the role of spot-up three-point shooter. While he’s capable of knocking down threes, Sulaimon is at his best when he uses that outside threat to open up a dribble-drive option.
His ability to create shots inside the three-point arch was on full display against Florida State. Four of Sulaimon’s six made shots were twos. On multiple occasions, Sulaimon passed up contested, low-percentage three-point shots in favor of driving to the elbow for a pull-up jumper.
The addition of that mid-range shot to his arsenal makes Sulaimon, and Duke, much more dynamic on offense.
Sulaimon’s 40 percent shooting from three forces defenders to come out to pressure him on the perimeter. Therefore, the opportunity to drive past overly aggressive perimeter defenders is available.
When Duke struggles from outside, the team needs players capable of creating higher percentage shots. If Sulaimon’s pull-up jumper from the elbow goes down consistently, then he could be the kind of complete player than would allow Duke to weather tough three-point stretches relatively unfazed.
In all, Rasheed Sulaimon’s potential to create points from every area of the court means that, as he continues to develop, he can grow into an unstoppable and invaluable offensive player.
Currently Sulaimon is shooting 40.5 percent from three and 42.2 percent overall (via ESPN). While those are quality contributions for a freshman, his shooting statistics would be even better were it not for a dreadful slump spread over five games.
From the Santa Clara game to the loss at NC State, Sulaimon struggled mightily. In those five games he shot 2-of-8, 1-of-6, 5-of-11, 1-of-5 and 0-of-10. During that slump, Sulaimon made only two three-pointers on a total of 12 attempts (game log via ESPN).
The worst part of Sulaimon’s poor shooting was that it affected the other aspects of his game. His defense suffered and he started forcing bad shots on offense.
It would be unfair to expect a freshman to be a rock steady performer from the get-go. Sulaimon’s streaking shooting can be explained away by his inexperience and time needed to adjust to the college game.
However, with Ryan Kelly out indefinantly, Duke needs to cobble together enough scoring to make up for Kelly’s absence.
For the most part, Sulaimon has shown himself to be a reliable scorer. The freshman guard has finished with single digit points only seven times out of Duke’s 21 games. Still, with Kelly hurt, Duke needs Sulaimon to step up in terms of stretching defenses with his perimeter shooting.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a young player, but Sulaimon must learn to avoid shooting slumps and find ways to get Duke points even when his outside shot isn’t finding its mark.
Coming into the season, Sulaimon’s shooting prowess was anticipated. What came as a pleasant surprise was how smart a passer he has turned out to be.
As of right now, Rasheed Sulaimon is Duke’s third leading assist man. His average of 2.1 assists per game is only slightly behind backup point guard Tyler Thornton’s average. That’s impressive given that Thornton doesn’t have much offense and so is looking to pass nearly every time he is on the ball.
Sulaimon, meanwhile, has struck a nice balance between looking for a shot and a pass. Even with all his scoring ability, he remains an unselfish player. Whether he’s swinging the ball around the perimeter or penetrating in a little and feeding the post, Sulaimon has a knack for putting teammates in a position to score.
In Duke’s most recent game, against Florida State, Sulaimon tallied three assists. Beyond that, he showed a willingness to feed the ball into post players, something that Duke has a bad habit of not doing enough.
Sulaimon’s passing ability is further evidence of his high basketball IQ. As he develops into a more complete player, capable of driving or shooting and scoring with consistency, Sulaimon has the skills to be a player through which the entire offense can be run.
Whether he’s scoring or creating opportunities for others, Sulaimon is certainly a player poised to be a central part of Duke’s offense.
To a degree, this is a nitpicking critique of Sulaimon’s game. But the young guard does have a tendency to dribble into trouble.
While Sulaimon had great success against Florida State by driving to the elbow for a pull-up jumper, he doesn’t often demonstrate an ability to get all the way to the rim. When Sulaimon does try to drive to the basket, he has a habit of simply penetrating into backlog of bodies.
Either way, Sulaimon too infrequently finds himself at the rim for an easy bucket. Part of that is the construction of the offense and his role on the team.
But even on the perimeter, Sulaimon doesn’t display a ton of enthusiasm in terms of handling the ball.
To a certain extent, that’s fine. After all, Quinn Cook has emerged as a highly capable point guard. Still, it would be beneficial if Sulaimon, like Curry, could not only run off screens for spot-up shots, but also slice in for a layup once in a while.
Everyone remembers last season when Curry, a shooting guard, was forced to play at the point. Curry handled those duties admirably. Going forward, it would be useful, in terms of lineup options, if Sulaimon could handle spot duties as a point guard.
Ultimately, Sulaimon needs to develop an ability to drive all the way to the rim. Right now he has the outside shot and the medium range pull-up. If he can add layup-producing penetration to his game, then Sulaimon will truly be a complete offensive player.
Rasheed Sulaimon is good on defense and that should be expected of him. Duke lists him at 6’4”, but his length and athleticism allow him to play much bigger than that.
As a perimeter defender, his long arms produce a hefty wingspan and his lateral movement has good pace. The result is that guards, even quick ones, find it hard to get around Sulaimon. When he’s forced into the post by bigger opponents, Sulaimon is strong and athletic enough to hold his own.
Sulaimon matches his intelligence on the offensive end with an excellent understanding of defensive principles. His switches and plays help defense well and has quick hands when the opportunity for a steal arises.
Ideally Sulaimon will add weight as his career at Duke progresses. Added muscle would afford the freshman guard the ability to bang inside against small forwards a little more effectively.
Even still, the somewhat slightly built Sulaimon rebounds well enough on the defensive end.
On a Duke team prone to lapses in defensive concentration, Sulaimon is a strong and reliable performer. He isn’t as aggressive as some, but as a result he’s rarely out of position.
In recent history, Duke has struggled to contain wing players. Sulaimon’s defensive strength solves that problem quite effectively in that he can tackle a bigger small forward or stay in front of a silky shooting guard.
In a way, this weakness says more about the strengths of Rasheed Sulaimon. The complaint here is that, given how good he is in so many areas, Sulaimon ought to more aggressively insert himself into games.
Following the loss to NC State, Sulaimon made a huge impact on the next three games. Against Georgia Tech, Miami and Maryland, he found open shots from various spots on the floor and drew fouls off penetration (game log via ESPN).
Coming off those three games, however, Sulaimon was mostly absent from the Wake Forest clash. In a game where Duke needed scoring from someone other than Mason Plumlee or Seth Curry, Sulaimon managed only four shots and three free-throw attempts.
If Quinn Cook isn't scoring, then Sulaimon is really the only Blue Devil beyond Curry or Plumlee capable of scoring in bunches. Even when Quinn Cook emerges as a third scoring option for Duke, Sulaimon's shooting remains essential in terms of stretching the defense.
Therefore, it’s imperative that Sulaimon use his versatility and develop more parts of his game in order to serve as a dependable scoring threat.
Sulaimon’s intelligence is such that he can be trusted to not force himself into the offense. What he needs to do, however, is be more assertive in terms of how he can impact the offensive sets.
Whether it’s a three-pointer, a drive or a good pass—all positive aspects of his game—Sulaimon can be even more of a contributor than he already is.
For Duke to make a title run, Sulaimon will have to realize the dizzying heights of his vast potential.