Rasheed Sulaimon lost in a slump


DURHAM, N.C. -- Ricky Price knows the look.

He once was the look. He once lived the look.

He peeped that same lifeless facial expression, that same slumping posture, that same distant gaze in the eyes of sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon. So when Duke completed its win over Michigan in its biggest home game to date this season, he purposefully sought out the 6-foot-4 guard.

"Because I've been there," Price said. "I saw the look on his face."

Price entered the locker room and didn't veer left to Quinn Cook, who had just scored a season-high 24 points. He didn't glance right, where the team's leading scorers,  Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, share lockers beside each other.

He went straight to Sulaimon.

"Last year we saw Sheed have a great year, we saw him start as a freshman and really be an integral part of the team," Price said. "This year, however, is different. The mechanics of this team are different. So part of Sheed's struggles is thinking that he could come into this year with last year under his belt."

Price, who created and operates Game Ready Skills and Development in Charlotte, N.C., teaches the game to kids age 10-17. He doesn't hesitate to invoke his playing days. That includes Price recalling how quickly things turned during his senior season for the Blue Devils 15 years ago.

He was a 6-foot-6 forward for Duke from 1994-98 and essentially a three-year starter. He sat out the first semester of his final season due to academic probation. When he returned, he expected to be right back in the starting rotation. What he found was that freshman Shane Battier and sophomore Chris Carrawell had surpassed him in the lineup.

Price averaged just 7.9 minutes per game as a senior, far fewer than even his freshman campaign. But he learned a valuable lesson that he said Sulaimon should know.

"What's important about this story, and what I told Rasheed, is every year is different," Price said.

Sulaimon started 33 games and appeared in all 36 last season as a freshman. He was the face that represented Duke on regional covers of national magazine preview issues.

In games against Creighton and Michigan State in the NCAA tournament last season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Sulaimon for playing "complete games" and said he'd become an "outstanding player."

The expectation, and a very reasonable one, was that Sulaimon would naturally improve from averaging 11.6 points last season and compose a matchup nightmare with Parker and Hood. Aside from the first two games this season, that scenario just hasn't materialized.

"I've been struggling and whatnot," Sulaimon said. "Coach challenged me and I just have to step up to the challenge. It's something I can get out of, and I just feel like if I just stay confident and be mentally tough, I think I can get out of it."

Sulaimon's numbers are down from his freshman season. Instead of blossoming into the third scoring threat, he's slipped to averaging just 6.3 points and 2.2 rebounds per game. He's also shooting just 34.7 percent from the floor.

Toward the end of last season, he'd become the Blue Devils' best attacker. He could create his own shot off the dribble. He could get into the lane.

Well, now, that's also a strength of Parker, Hood and Cook, who are better at it than Sulaimon, so he's got to find another reason to merit playing time.

"Thing is, from year to year, you've got to make adjustments," senior Tyler Thornton said. "… I mean everybody has to make an adjustment. It's just taken a little longer for him to get used to that."

Sulaimon did not play one second against the Wolverines, getting the DNP -- coach's decision. There's no indication that he'll play big minutes Thursday night against UCLA in Madison Square Garden. Krzyzewski equated Sulaimon's struggles to a hitter going through a slump.

"It's kind of like in baseball, one of your really good hitters striking out all the time, can't get a hit," Krzyzewski said. "We just have to keep positive with him."

That's why Price approached him in the locker room. It's also why his current teammates have tried to rally around him.

Maybe not to win games immediately, but somewhere down the road, this season, the Blue Devils will need Sulaimon to come through for them.

"He's in a funk right now," Cook said. "He's trying his hardest to get out of it in practice, just trying his hardest. But he has a great attitude coming in every day. We're all in his corner. We're going to need him."

Sulaimon played just five minutes against Gardner-Webb. He's really been slowly fading into a slump after the Kansas game, despite making his only four starts of the season after the loss to the Jayhawks.

He's pressing right now to try and fit in, and it's not working.

In Monday's win over Gardner-Webb, Sulaimon's first shot with the clock winding down barely scraped the rim. His only other attempt came in the second half when he drove the lane with no openings and tried to throw the ball in.

"Honestly, right now I just feel like it's mental; I have to get out my own head," Sulaimon said. "I just feel like I'm thinking too much."

Krzyzewski said Sulaimon has maintained a good attitude even while watching guard Andre Dawkins and even freshman Matt Jones bypass him on the depth chart. Dawkins has made 7 of his last 11 3-point attempts, and Jones has gradually become a better defender than Sulaimon.

That explains how his playing time dropped from 22.5 minutes the first eight games to playing a combined five minutes in the last two. It's way past Krzyzewski trying to send a message; he's just going with the rotation that he feels will help Duke win.

Hood is confident that will include Sulaimon again.

"Everybody knows he can play, he knows he can play, it's just a matter of him doing it consistently on an every-day basis," Hood said. "... He's one of the best players on our team. We need him to come on and be who he is."

His teammates agree: That would be the best look of all for the Blue Devils.