Published January 29, 2013
DURHAM, N.C. – Two freshmen seem to be figuring things out at the right time for No. 5 Duke.
Guard Rasheed Sulaimon has rediscovered his shooting touch after a brief slump. And now that he's a starter, forward Amile Jefferson is doing all the little things that have been asked of him.
With the rookie tandem contributing more, the new-look Blue Devils (17-2, 4-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) hope they can keep moving forward in Ryan Kelly's indefinite, injury-related absence that Sulaimon says "changed everyone's game."
Sulaimon is replacing Kelly's perimeter shooting and in the process, giving opponents someone else to worry about besides big man Mason Plumlee and guard Seth Curry. Sulaimon is coming off a season-best 25-point performance against Maryland in which he tied the school's freshman record with six 3-pointers.
In the four full games since Kelly was hurt, Jefferson's playing time increased from roughly 9 minutes per game to 22. His scoring average has more than tripled to 10 points per game and his rebounding average has jumped from 1.9 to 7.
"The coaches just told me to be patient — don't overthink things," Jefferson said Tuesday. "Just come out there and play hard. If you make a mistake, play through it. They know I'm a young guy, I'm a freshman, and their message was just, 'Bring energy.'"
Now the challenge for both freshmen is to keep that going Wednesday night during their next test, a visit to Wake Forest to play a team they beat by 18 points earlier this month. The Demon Deacons haven't lost an ACC home game this season while Duke is 0-2 in true road games.
Wake Forest had become Kelly's personal punching bag over the years. Four of his five career 20-point games have come against the Demon Deacons, including a 22-point day in the 80-62 romp 3½ weeks ago at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But when Kelly went down with an unspecified right foot injury in the Blue Devils' next game against Clemson, they had to reinvent themselves — and that created more opportunities for the freshmen.
"The team had a whole new identity when we lost Ryan," Jefferson said. "Losing him, you almost have to change to continue to have the same sort of success that we had when he was here."
The 6-foot-11 Kelly created problems for opponents because of his touch from the 3-point line — where he was shooting 52 percent. That forced power forwards to come out to the perimeter to defend him, cleared out the paint and left more space for Plumlee to post up and guards Quinn Cook and Sulaimon to drive.
With Kelly out, opponents can clog the lane with their big men because replacements Jefferson and Josh Hairston haven't shown they can shoot from the outside.
To counter that, the Blue Devils have placed more of a premium on setting screens, pounding the offensive glass harder and kicking those rebounds out to Curry and Sulaimon for 3s — all things Jefferson can do well.
"With (Kelly) being out, it kind of contracted the defense a little bit more and we have to rely on each other that much more just to score — screens, cutting hard, always making the right play," Sulaimon said. "I think we're finally starting to adjust to that, and we're scoring together, and I think that's just going to make us a deadly team."
Duke struggled to settle into its new identity in road losses at North Carolina State and Miami, but turned a corner last time out in the Maryland rout behind the two freshmen.
Sulaimon, who went 7 of 32 during a rough four-game stretch that included an 0-for-10 showing in the N.C. State loss, simply shot himself out of it. He hit four 3s in an early 1-minute, 45-second span and tied the school record for freshmen set by Trajan Langdon in 1995 and most recently matched last year by Austin Rivers.
"It was all mental," Sulaimon said. "I worked out a lot and in practice, my shots would go in, and in the game, it would be something different. It was just a mind thing and the easiest way to get out of it is just to continue to work out."
For Jefferson, his production increased at a much higher rate than his minutes did.
He has reached double figures in either points or rebounds in all four games since Kelly went down, and filled up his stat line in 24 minutes against the Terps with 11 points, nine rebounds, and three blocked shots while getting to the free-throw line nine times. He's expected to make his third straight start against the Demon Deacons.
"The more I've been able to get on the floor, the more comfortable I've been," Jefferson said. "And having the opportunity to play more has just helped me progress at a faster rate."