Duke freshman Sulaimon continues to soar

DURHAM, NC — Rasheed Sulaimon is making a push for ACC Rookie of the Year.

The 6-foot-4 Duke freshman has plenty of competition, but each time he steps up like he did in the Blue Devils’ 89-68 rout of Boston College on Sunday, Sulaimon inches closer to securing his place at the front of the line.

He finished with a career-high 27 points Sunday, hitting 10 of 15 field goal attempts, including 3-for-5 from beyond the arc. He scored in a variety of other ways, too, with runners, short jumpers, drives to the rim and from the free throw line. Sulaimon even had a conventional 3-point play late in the first half.

Sulaimon also got the job done defensively, slowing down BC’s Olivier Hanlan – another strong contender for the ACC’s top newcomer – not allowing the Eagles’ second-leading scorer  to find a groove while the game was still competitive. Hanlan finished shooting 5-13 from the field with four turnovers.

A native of Houston, Sulaimon’s growth in intangibles, notably communication, coupled with his heightened confidence has him playing better and more consistently than any other freshmen in the ACC. More important, from a Duke standpoint, is that he gives the Blue Devils (24-3, 11-3 ACC) a consistent commodity every night.

Moving forward, that will be vital for Duke’s ability to survive and advance in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.

“Rasheed will eventually be as good as anybody on the ball because he’s wide and he’s a really good athlete and he’s learning how to play that defense,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Some of that comes natural and he’s worked on it.

“It’s the off the ball stuff, and for any freshman to be alert when you’re not guarding the ball – I think he can get more steals when he’s off the ball because he’s so quick. He’s going to be a great defender. This kid’s got it.”

Offensively, Sulaimon has significantly raised his game since an awful performance in a loss at N.C. State on Jan. 12, which capped an eight-game period in which he reached double figures just three times.

On that day in Raleigh, Sulaimon finished with four points and was 0-for-10 from the field. The numbers since are a reason Duke is creeping back to where it was before senior forward Ryan Kelly was injured several days prior to falling to the Wolfpack.

In the last 11 games, including Sunday’s affair, Sulaimon is averaging 14.9 points per outing and shooting 51.9 percent from the field, including 48.9 percent from 3-point range. Sulaimon has even converted 87.9 percent from the free throw line.

Prior to this stretch, Sulaimon shot 38.6 percent from the field, including 35.6 percent from 3-point range, and 78.6 percent of his free throws, including three key ones with 17 seconds left to tie the game at Maryland on Feb. 16.

“I just had to take a self-check and have confidence in myself,” Sulaimon said. “Early on in the season, I was doing a lot of second-guessing, not wanting to make mistakes. Now, my teammates and the coaching staff have a great deal of confidence in me, and I always want to make them feel proud of me so I’m just trusting myself and playing my game.”

Among Sulaimon’s chief competition for rookie of the year are Hanlan, N.C. State’s T.J. Warren, Wake Forest’s Devin Thomas, and Georgia Tech’s Robert Carter, but none of them have been able to establish the consistency Sulaimon has, especially under the conditions that Duke plays.

And if Hanlan was neck-and-neck with him entering this contest, Sulaimon built a sizeable lead during the game.

But he’s not thinking about honors, though he doesn’t mind speaking about where he is mentally and with his confidence now as opposed to that 24-mile bus ride back from Raleigh six weeks ago.

“I think it’s a lot better than what it was,” he said.

And it should be.