Rasheed Sulaimon’s Freshman year at Duke was full of incredible promise and potential. As a first-year starter surrounded by plenty of Senior leadership, he could play his game without thinking too much. By bringing nonstop energy, he raised the level around him. After the season, he participated for the gold medal winning United States FIBA U19 World Championship team, and there were high expectations heading into his Sophomore season. Sulaimon, who has battled asthma his entire life, unfortunately basked in his success and allowed himself to relax his training schedule, which severely set him back. Even he admitted “When I’m not disciplined every day, a day or two or not exercising, I can get in terrible shape.” When the season started, he struggled to find a meaningful role, as possessions many times featured Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood holding the ball for long periods of time, only to create shots for themselves. The year hit a low point in December, when Coach Mike Krzyzewski sat him for an entire game against Michigan. Rather than hang his head, though, Rasheed came back strong, starting with a mid-January game against Virginia and continuing on to be one of the few bright spots in Duke’s 1st round loss to Mercer in the NCAA Tournament.
The season as a whole could hardly be called a success for Sulaimon, yet I found myself constantly watching him on the court as well as off, even checking websites for possible video interviews and quotes. It took me a while to truly understand what intrigued me so much about the young man, but it hit me during the offseason; I can relate to Rasheed Sulaimon. And after figuring that out, I now find myself rooting for him even more.
I have Attention Deficit Disorder. ADD is not a condition that can be considered rare these days, mostly because it is hard for doctors to medically disagree with what many claim as symptoms. Parents can attribute any struggle their child has in school or socially to “They must have ADD! They need pills!” But what my body and mind was telling me was real. Up until about a year ago, I always knew deep inside that it had, was, and would continue negatively affecting my entire life until I received the necessary treatment. But I remained stubborn, considering it something I could shrug off with enough determination. I had managed the condition for many years, and didn’t want to seem weak. But since I started taking medication for ADD, it is truly like experiencing many things for the first time. I had trouble looking people in the eyes during a conversation for more than a few seconds to truly comprehend what they were saying. When looking into their eyes for longer, I would zone out. If speaking at length, my mind would continuously advance farther and farther ahead of the words coming out of my mouth, and eventually I would be a disjointed mess, so I learned how to get to the immediate point of whatever I was saying rather than embarrass myself. I would experience negative effects as well when competing in sports. I had a manic work ethic, which allowed me to hold my ground against most in any sport, but it’s tough to remain mentally strong when my thoughts were ranging from all of the different possibilities of the play, to what I ate for dinner last night, or even to a girl I might be interested in at the time. I also have a tendency to overthink, which can hurt an athlete during a game. I saved myself by mastering the art of anticipation. I studied which tendencies and body movements could lead to certain results, and I became able to react to plays seconds before they even started. This allowed me to think about what I was going to do, but not overthink how I was going to do it. I am in no way hinting that Rasheed Sulaimon has Attention Deficit Disorder. I am only saying that some things I have noticed about him are similar to what I have experienced. Some of them are also completely different. But they are relatable, which for me, is enough to identify with the young man.
Rasheed Sulaimon’s talent on the basketball court is undeniable. Yet Rasheed Sulaimon on the basketball court also sometimes looks like he’s just pounded about eight 5-Hour Energy Drinks at the same time. I have never seen a player as fluid as Rasheed constantly lose his balance, travel, or take off on the wrong foot. He mind sometimes seems to force his body into action before he is ready, and his coordination suffers. Physically, I can’t imagine being as talented as Rasheed, but mentally, I sometimes wonder about his thought process during the game. If I had to guess, I would say that he is missing a gray area in between overthinking and not thinking at all.
Off the court, the word that comes to mind when I think of Sheed is genuine. I have only seen one other athlete in my life come across the same way, and that man is Tim Tebow. Many things about Tebow are controversial, but one thing about him that is not is how genuine he seems. Too many times players come across as robots, always giving the politically correct quote. Sulaimon doesn’t seem to play that game with the media. First comes his eye contact. It caught me off guard at first, but I’m now used to Sheed looking the interviewer directly in the eyes for the full length of the question, and keeping eye contact as much as possible while answering. His answers are honest, direct, personal, and well thought-out. No matter if he thrived or played poorly, he will tell you exactly why. Watching him answer questions after a well-played game, I can sense his joy, not just for himself, but more for the team. And very few watching are more personally happy for Rasheed than me. After struggling during a game, though, the raw emotion coming from him is brutal to watch. Because he is only thinking about how his performance negatively affected the team. And very few watching are more personally hurt for Rasheed than myself.
Coach K always speaks of five players working together to form a fist, but college athletes are 18-22 year-old kids who can’t help but selfishly want to accumulate their own stats at times. Rasheed Sulaimon comes across to me as lacking the selfish gene. If he is anything like me, he will overthink situations countless times in his head, trying to figure out ways he can give more to others. And again, if similar to me, he might feel a desperate need to be liked, which can be all-consuming. On the basketball court, Sulaimon has probably been able to rely on his athleticism and hard work for much of his life, not having to adjust to playing a role. At Duke, more is mentally required of him, and the overload of information causes his fundamentals to suffer. But from what I’ve seen, over-analyzing situations as well as naturally deferring to others is a part of who Rasheed is. So what can he do to succeed this year?
Finding a role on Duke will be the most important factor for Sulaimon this season, and Coach K seems to have realized this fact. Calling Sheed Duke’s best on the ball defender (though arguments can be made for Matt Jones and Justise Winslow as well) he stated that Sulaimon should just concentrate on defense, and everything else will take care of itself. If he plays the type of defense that his ability allows, this will lead to confidence that can transfer to the offensive end of the court. The Duke Countdown to Craziness Blue-White Scrimmage seems to have foretold that Coach K and I are thinking on the same wavelength (could you have predicted anything else?). Duke began the scrimmage with Matt Jones as the starter. Jones is a ferocious defender, and has an offensive game full of upside if he’s truly re-worked his shot during the offseason. But he doesn’t need the ball at this point of his career to be effective. He can play defense and provide enough energy to help Duke without taking a single shot.
Rasheed, on the other hand, is too skilled an offensive player to provide his true impact only at the defense end. Sheed has abilities most would dream for, yet his mentality, as rare as it is to say for a player of his caliber, is not selfish enough. When on the court with a Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood type of player, he will stand aside and let them take the reins. And anyone who’s played basketball knows that in order to develop a rhythm, a player needs to be involved. If Sulaimon’s natural inclination is to stand aside and let others take over, he’ll lack the proper rhythm for success when his time comes. When I found myself in this situation, I ended up putting too much pressure on myself when I finally got the chance I felt like I’d been waiting for forever. Therefore, I would overthink the situation, and my fundamentals would fail. This season, Jahlil Okafor will be option number one at all times. This is a fact that cannot be disputed. And Tyus Jones will have the ball in his hands the majority of the time to create for himself and others. So how does Sulaimon get involved right away, so that he doesn’t become frustrated? Easy. He is now Duke’s 2014-2015 6th man. Most 6th men in basketball provide energy and are usually considered instant offense. Sheed can do this, but more importantly, he can come in with the 2nd team and immediately and aggressively control the offense. This will allow him to already be in the flow and rhythm of the game when the 1st team comes back in.
Next for Sheed should be watching more film. I have no clue how much film he’s watched before, but if I was him, I’d watch more this year than all of my previous combined. It’s not just about watching film, though. It’s about watching it correctly. He needs to study opponents to be able to have a head start on their movements & tendencies and know what they will be thinking in different situations. His anticipation needs to get to the point where he’ll know where his opponent is going even before they know. He needs to understand Duke’s offensive sets like the back of his hand, including where each of his teammates will be at all times. To put it simply, Sulaimon needs to be able to mentally think his way though the game on film before ever stepping on the court. Once on the court, all of the percentages and situations will already be broken down in his head. He can think about what type or play Duke needs and the ways he can contribute, but not how he will be able to complete the play. Because the “how” in Sheed’s game will hopefully be taken care of in film session. Again, the less he thinks during the play, the better. The key will be not letting his mind interfere with his natural skills and instincts.
If Sulaimon can do this, his preparedness once on the court will allow things to come naturally and he can just play basketball. And if Sheed just plays basketball and doesn’t worry about the other aspects of the game which can hold him back, there is no doubt in my mind he will be the player on Duke who determines team success more than any other. As the 6th man, he can immediately come with an aggressive mindset that will continue onward. Though he will start with the 2nd team, in my opinion he will stay on the court for the majority of the rest of the game. I would actually say that if Duke succeeds this year, there is a high chance that Sulaimon leads the team in minutes per game. Even during his tough Sophomore year, he improved his three point shot, which will be a key for Duke with Okafor providing more of an inside-out game than in past years. His penetration will provide spacing for Duke, and he has shown in his first two years that he can run the team at Point Guard when necessary, setting up teammates for shots. Surrounded by more players who can defensively hound the opposition on the ball than the last two years, his own defense will be more impactful. If he gambles against his man and loses, Jahlil Okafor will be backing him up at the rim, which is a damn good worst case scenario.
If the potential in Sheed’s game truly comes to fruition, his Junior year will be comparable to a recent Duke player who also found out what he was made of when the chips were down. After a positive Freshman year at Duke for Nolan Smith, he lost his mentor (and good friend of his late father Derek) Johnny Dawkins to a head coaching job at Stanford. He decided to stay at Duke rather than transfer to Stanford, but his Sophomore year was filled with inconsistency and injuries, and it would have been easy to cave in. Instead, Smith chose to reinvent himself, and the rest is history. Many fans remember him as someone who truly loved his school and went out of his way to represent Duke in the best he could on and off the court. Nolan was (and still is) a shining light, always wearing a smile from ear to ear, making most forget how frustrating his Sophomore year was for him.
I worried about Sulaimon during his Sophomore year, but he finished strong, and I heard nothing but positive news relating to his attitude and work ethic soon after it ended. He seems to truly understand what is expected of him at Duke. There will be no shortcuts or no escape routes, and I believe he now embraces this. So I started announcing my prediction that he was in for a Nolan Smith Junior-year breakout season soon after Duke’s 1st round loss to Mercer. I spent a tremendous about of time spreading my prediction around Twitter, maybe because I believed what I was saying, but also because I desperately want to see him succeed like Nolan. Nolan Smith represented Duke in such a positive way, truly loving every aspect about the institution on and off the court, and I see the same in Sheed. And I’m happy to notice that many who I took long periods of time to convince of my Nolan Smith Junior year theory are now spreading it across the internet with a sense of belief. (It would be nice if they didn’t act like the words are their own, but such is the life of Twitter).
I have asked Duke fans why they choose certain players as their favorites. Most fans choose based on concrete facts, like skill level and role for the team, as well as how long a player stays at Duke. Others have commented that they choose based on a player’s emotions on the court, enthusiasm for Duke, or even a physical attraction to the player. My appreciation for Rasheed is based on different factors. I wouldn’t dare say that I have the same personality and mindset, nor am I trying to judge or diagnose him. I also won’t pretend to truly know him even on a surface level. But I feel like I can relate to him, giving me a reason to root for him just as much off of the basketball court as on. And then there is the word that, like I mentioned previously, continuously come to mind when I think about Rasheed, which is genuine. He seems to be a genuine person, a deep thinker, and a man who wants to do well for others. Every single one of these attributes is incredibly impressive in life. On the basketball court, I am hoping he can manage his mind and fulfill my prediction of him being the player on Duke that will truly define the team’s success this season. He is now a Junior, and in two years, has been through the types of highs and lows that turn boys into men. I 100% believe he will thrive this season, and no one will be rooting harder for Rasheed Sulaimon than myself.
*Keep checking out Comarow’s Corner on this website to view my entire collection of posts! http://www.dukeblogger.com/category/comarowscorner/
*I’m leaning towards posting my analysis of the Duke Fan Psychology Poll around December, when there’s a lull in games and fans can compare the results against how they’ve been watching the first month of games.
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