It’d be difficult to argue against the fact that Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are the most talented Blue Devils. Even though that duo leads Duke in scoring, neither of them is the player most critical to the level of success that Duke needs to contend for a title. That honor belongs to Rasheed Sulaimon.
For a couple of reasons, this notion may seem crazier than the Duke students who camped out for tickets in the midst of a polar vortex. First, Sulaimon isn’t even a starter. Second, Sulaimon is averaging 8.4 points per game, making him Duke’s fifth-leading scorer.
Nevertheless, Sulaimon is the linchpin of Duke’s offensive success.
Sulaimon started the season with a 20-point game against Davidson and followed that up with a 13-point effort in the loss to Kansas. After that, Sulaimon fell off the map.
He went nine straight games without scoring more than eight points. That stretch also included the matchup against Michigan, in which Sulaimon was a healthy scratch. It was obvious Sulaimon simply couldn’t figure out where he fit in with both Hood and Parker on the floor. Uncertain of how to help the team, Sulaimon seemed doomed to contributing next to nothing.
In late December, Sulaimon started to find his shooting stroke. Then, after the loss to Clemson—during which Sulaimon played just 12 minutes and had only two points—Coach Krzyzewski went to a five-in-five-out substitution regimen. This hockey-style player rotation positioned Sulaimon as the best player on the second squad of five guys.
Where he had previously struggled alongside the talented group of starters, among the group of substitutes, Sulaimon shone. He and Andre Dawkins were the only two scoring options of that second unit, and Sulaimon rose to the occasion. He had 21 against Virginia—including the game-clinching three-pointer—13 versus NC State and nine against Miami.
As Coach K continues to use a deep bench, Sulaimon remains a non-starter but he is the primary scoring option for the second unit. In fact, Sulaimon is essentially playing point guard when Cook is off the court. Going up against opponents’ substitutes or fatigued starters, the fresh Sulaimon is typically the best player on the court.
The upshot of Coach K’s rotation with Sulaimon on the second unit is that the legendary coach can be confident that his substitutes will at least maintain a lead or keep a game close if not expand the lead or overcome the deficit. And while Sulaimon’s second unit keeps the pressure on an opponent, the starters are allowed to rest. This eliminates the fatigue problem that played a part in Duke’s inability to hold double-digit leads against Notre Dame and Clemson.
Though he doesn’t start and spends much of the first half playing with other reserves, Coach K leaves Sulaimon in with the starters for long stretches of the second half. Ultimately, Sulaimon plays more minutes than Matt Jones even though Jones is nominally starting ahead of Sulaimon.
Having found his game rhythm during the first half, Sulaimon isn’t as gun-shy as he was at the start of the season when he’s playing with Parker and Hood in the second half. In fact, during crucial portions of games, it’s Sulaimon who has made big plays.
When he’s in with the starters, Sulaimon seeks to create offense. He does this by driving the lane, something he is incredibly adept at and something Duke frequently lapses out of doing. Sulaimon’s penetration forces defenses to switch. If the defense is late on these switches, space inside gets opened up for Parker. Watch the highlights of Jabari Parker’s dunks and you’ll see that many of them come off of drive-and-dishes from Sulaimon. More importantly for Duke, it gives the Blue Devils high-percentage inside scoring.
If the interior defense rotates well in reaction to Sulaimon’s drive, he sends the ball out to the corner, where one of Duke’s many sharp shooters can take a three or move the ball around the perimeter for a better look. And of course, Sulaimon is also capable of scoring on these dribble drives.
What’s most impressive about Sulaimon’s play of late is how often he makes the right decision on these drives. Whether it’s a pass inside, a pass outside or a shot, Sulaimon instigates a good offensive possession by making a smart decision.
Though Duke’s defense is certainly improving, the Blue Devils’ offensive prowess remains the team's biggest strength. By leading the second unit or coming on as a sub, Sulaimon allows the starters the necessary rest to maintain a high defensive effort and prevent fatigued legs from affecting jump shots. When he’s playing among the starters, Sulaimon’s ability to create offense opens up an inside scoring option or allows three-point shooters to spot up for kick-outs.
In this way, Sulaimon really is the keystone for Duke’s offense. If the Blue Devils are going to challenge for a fifth title, Duke’s offense will need to be among the best in the country, and Sulaimon’s off-the-bench role has things moving in that direction.