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Sulaimon Elevates His Game As Duke Rolls Over, Through Deacs

Blue Devils unveiled a remarkable upgrade Tuesday night in Cameron.

Wake's Devin Thomas and Jeff Bzdelik contemplate what Duke did to Wake Forest in Cameron this time.
Wake's Devin Thomas and Jeff Bzdelik contemplate what Duke did to Wake Forest in Cameron this time.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Remember that kid Duke brought in last year? By the name of Rasheed Sulaimon? Remember how he deferred, how he was reluctant to assert himself? And remember how he started this season slow, his conditioning questioned, on the bench? Remember him? Got it?

Okay, now forget it, because that guy is gone.

In his place is a basketball hit man, a guy who can control the game from the perimeter, who can take out opponents on defense and dominate them on offense, a guy who can hit threes or drive, who's tall enough at 6-5 to challenge bigger players inside.

A guy whose ballhandling has improved dramatically, who can leave guys grasping at thin air and fans oohing and ahhing, who plays with controlled ferocity now. You don't have to worry about him not stepping up; now you have to worry more about reining him in.

What we saw from Sulaimon on Tuesday night was spectacular. It's not that he hit every shot or stole every ball.

It was the intensity, the fearlessness, the willingness to grab the game by the throat.

Sulaimon, in other words, is emerging not just a really fine player but as a leader as well.

Sulaimon ended up with 19 points on 6-10 shooting and some absolutely ferocious defense.

And it's not like the Deacs made it easy. For the first 10 minutes, Wake Forest was a great team. The Deacs hung with Duke - more than that.

It was a tremendous stretch which hinted at Wake's considerable potential.

Still, the score was tied at 28-28 with 5:38 left in the first half, and with 2:37 left, Duke was up by 10.

Duke was up 13 at the half and the route was on.

It didn't get much better for Wake in the second as Duke stayed hot from three point range (the Devils shot 12-26 for 46.2%) and kept turning the Deacs over. Wake finished with 19 and looked disoriented and at times bewildered.

Still, keep in mind that the Deacs went without Codi Miller-McIntyre, a potent offensive weapon out with an ankle injury, and is a still-young team with some holes.

With all that going against them, they hung in. Would the turnovers have been minimized with Miller-McIntyre playing? Almost certainly. Shooting - not that bad at 48% - would have been better too. As we told you last year after watching them in Cameron, the Deacs are not that far away from being able to compete with just about anyone. That day is much closer now.

But. There's usually a but, and certainly usually one in Cameron Indoor Stadium as well.

Duke just caught fire. Sulaimon set the tone early, but he wasn't the only one. Tyler Thornton was diving on the floor. Rodney Hood drew charged. Parker kept attacking. And the threes kept falling.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

Sometimes there's not much you can do but assess the damage, catalogue it and move along.

Though Duke hammered Wake again - the Deacs haven't won in Durham since Tim Duncan roamed the middle for Dave Odom, and Duncan is getting close to 40 - it's not because they're a bad team. They're not. It's just that Duke was better and on this occasion far better.

It's at the point now where Duke is hard to prepare for because you can't really know who's going to step up. It could be Sulaimon. Could be Jabari Parker (nice game there too as Parker finished with 21 points and eight boards) or Hood or Amile "Ticket" Jefferson, who has really come on lately.

We like that nickname but someone on Twitter suggested "An"Amile, and that's good too.

Whatever. The guy deserves a nickname.

But back on topic: you can't know who's after you with this bunch. Andre Dawkins can still shoot lights out, but his conditioning is superb, and he's much more than a shootist now. He's a player, and he has a chance to play at a higher level, which was questionable earlier in his career, obviously due partly to his well-documented depression. It may be in the NBA or it may be in Europe, but a guy with his athleticism and that gorgeous shot is going to play somewhere.

Marshall Plumlee, in case you hadn't noticed, is getting in earlier and earlier and having an impact which is somewhat similar to that of Brian Zoubek. He's big, strong, with a bit of a nasty disposition, and he's going to go after blocked shots and rebounds. He's getting harder and harder to get around. Remember he lost almost two years to foot injuries. He's coming around.

Josh Hairston is what he has always been, just better: a guy who's willing to do the dirty work, who defends with passion and who's reliable. He's never going to be a big scorer or rebounder, but he influences the game. He got six minutes and Wake's Devin Thomas knew when he was in. So did Tyler Cavanaugh.

Matt Jones came in and played some tremendous D and showed some spirited aggressiveness. About the only down part was the play of Quinn Cook, who was clearly pressing early and forcing the action rather than just being in the flow.

When basketball is beautiful, at least for one team (it's always better when two teams hit a high level, like Duke and Syracuse did this past weekend, but we digress), it's a bit like blitzkrieg, or at least as the winners came to define it: you just flow over and around people and obstacles. You run, you pass, and when you run back, you still attack (and unlike the real thing, everyone goes home and sleeps in his own bed).

That's what Duke was like Tuesday night, and as good as the group was, the highlights were the brilliant, audacious attacks by Sulaimon.

Whether he was defending ferociously or probing the defense, losing the defender with brilliant ballhandling, driving, passing or pulling up for threes, unless we miss our guess, this game introduced a player we've not seen before. We honestly had no idea his potential extended as far as what he showed us in this game. A complete game from Rasheed Sulaimon is about as good as you're going to see anywhere. We were lucky to witness it and we hope to see more.