As I was thinking about possible explanations for Rasheed Sulaimon's early season struggles, I was able to think of three possible explanations. The first explanation was he is just in a slump. Sulaimon had rough patches at times last year but was able to fight through them to play well as a whole. The second explanation, he just is not a great fit with the rest of Duke's roster. He is a talented scorer but his scoring style does not appear to mesh well with Duke's other scorers. Finally, he is not as talented as he showed last year. Sulaimon may have over performed last season and we may have come into the season with unrealistic expectations for him. In reality, it is likely a combination of the three but his role the rest of the year will depend on which one is most evident.
I, and I assume all Duke fans, hope that Sulaimon's struggles are just a bad stretch. After Duke's win over Gardner-Webb, Sulaimon and Coach K both said it was a slump. While this could be the case, I am not completely sold this is the only problem.
Over Duke's last eight games, Sulaimon has scored just 24 points, including a DNP against Michigan. He has not scored double digits in those last eight games either, his last double digit game being 13 points in Duke's loss to Kansas. Sulaimon was not incredibly consistent last season, but had just 14 single digit games in the 36 games for Duke. He did have a four game stretch last season of single digits, but they were bookended by 27 and 16 point games. While Sulaimon was not consistent last year, this potential slump goes well beyond any struggles he had last season.
While Sulaimon is getting fewer shots than last season, the biggest reason for his decrease in points is his poor shooting percentage. Over those last eight games, Sulaimon has shot just .200 and has made just one three pointer. This could point to Sulaimon taking more difficult shots, but a player with his talent will likely shoot a better percentage over a longer period of time.
In the end, a slump has to play some role in Sulaimon's current struggles. I do not think it is the sole reason, but Sulaimon will likely shoot better than .200 the rest of the season. His shooting percentage will increase but this long drought is concerning. Sulaimon will be able to play better than he has been, but it is questionable how much better.
It is tough to call a player with Sulaimon's talent a bad fit, but it may help explain his struggles. Sulaimon is a player that thrives with the ball in his hands, but he has not had as many opportunities this year. Duke's offense is run through a combination of Quinn Cook, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, who combine to use over 60% of Duke's possessions. It is hard to argue with the results of their offense as well, as the three have an average offensive rating of 127.8.
With Duke already having three dominant scorers who need the ball to score, it is difficult to see where Rasheed Sulaimon fits in. Those three players are as good, if not better, at creating shots for themselves and others than Sulaimon. With their consistent attacking of the rim, what it appears Duke needs at the shooting guard is a floor spacer and shooter. Unfortunately, this is not Sulaimon's game.
Sulaimon may not succeed in this role, but Tyler Thornton, Matt Jones and Andre Dawkins have proven they can fill this role. All three are content to spacing the floor and are hitting threes this season at a 44% clip. This is huge for Duke's creators, as it allows them to score or kick out to the open and capable shooters.
While I believe Sulaimon does have a spot in this offense, it may not be as large as it once appeared. For what Duke needs at the shooting guard spot, Duke's other options appear to fill the role better. Sulaimon can overcome this difficulty, but Duke definitely has options if he continues to struggle. I believe the biggest key to Sulaimon's success will be finding his place in this offense, as he has been unable to do so thus far.
Rasheed Sulaimon obviously has a lot of talent, but last year's season may have been an aberration. It appeared as if all the pieces fell into place for Sulaimon last year. Two great pick and roll partners, guaranteed minutes, great leaders, and the ability to hide after bad performances. There is no hiding Sulaimon's talent, but maybe last year was when he shined the brightest.
A big part of Sulaimon's success last year was using the pick and rolls with Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. This was extremely effective, as the defense was usually more scared of the screener than the ball handler. This allowed Sulaimon to get easy drives and have easy passes to his bigs. He does not have this luxury this year and will have to find other ways to score.
Sulaimon also benefitted from great senior leaders. Curry, Plumlee and Kelly were able to get the best out of Sulaimon, knowing they needed him. Sulaimon was able to easily shake off subpar performances with these seniors as well, as they could up their play and could hide his bad games. Regardless of his performances, Duke was so reliant on Sulaimon that he was guaranteed to play significant minutes every game.
Last year, everything fell right into place for Sulaimon to succeed. His talent was shown, but things will not always be that perfect. Without many of the perks Sulaimon had last season, he will need to succeed the hard way.
In the end, I believe Sulaimon will not repeat the success he had last season but will carve out a valuable role for himself with this team. Sulaimon is too valuable to sit on the bench and he will find a way to make an impact. He may not be exactly what Duke needs from a shooting guard this season but he is too talented not to play. He may not start for Duke, but I expect him to have a large impact on this team before the season ends. The key to his return will be hard work and a slight change of expectations. With Rasheed Sulaimon's talent and dedication, I am confident he will be able to succeed.