The most significant development for Duke during Thursday night's 80-63 victory over UCLA wasn't star freshman Jabari Parker's 23-point, 10-rebound masterpiece or Quinn Cook and Rodney Hood performing well in supporting roles.
None of that was as important as Rasheed Sulaimon emerging from Mike Krzyzewski's dog house and showing glimpses of the player the Blue Devils need him to become.
Hailed as an NBA prospect entering this season after starting every game as a freshman, Sulaimon got off to a stunningly poor start in November, shooting only 34.7 percent from the floor and playing lackadaisical defense at times. Krzyzewski first removed him from the starting lineup and eventually sent an even stronger message by sitting the promising sophomore for the entire game against Michigan on Dec. 3 and all but five minutes against Gardner Webb Dec. 16.
Sulaimon didn't start against UCLA, but he played heavy minutes off the bench and was on the floor for much of Duke's game-changing 16-4 second-half run and for the closing minutes when the Blue Devils (9-2) were trying to put the Bruins (9-2) away. His eight points on 3 of 9 shooting won't leave anyone awestruck, but he played the role Duke needs him to fill, knocking down two threes, grabbing six rebounds, dishing out four assists and playing active defense.
The biggest play Sulaimon made was a confident left-wing 3-pointer off a nice feed from Quinn Cook to extend Duke's lead to 11 with 2:03 remaining. Sulaimon grinned from ear to ear after knocking down that shot, emotionally hugged and high-fived his teammates after the final buzzer and apparently was still beaming in the postgame locker room.
Contributions from Sulaimon are encouraging because Duke cannot reach its potential as a Final Four contender without him.
Andre Dawkins is a better outside shooter and Tyler Thornton brings defense and energy, but Sulaimon is by far the most complete of Duke's shooting guards thanks to his size, athleticism and ability to create off the dribble. If he's willing to embrace the role, Sulaimon has the potential to be Duke's best perimeter defender, an area the Blue Devils badly need to improve since they have no rim protector.
Part of Sulaimon's struggles early in the season probably stem from the fact that he simply doesn't fit as well with this year's roster as he did a year ago. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood now provide the slashing ability from the wing that Sulaimon delivered last season, and the Blue Devils need elite shooters and tough defenders around them more than they need another wing who can attack the rim.
If Sulaimon can accept a complimentary role on offense, knock down spot-up threes when they're available and channel most of his energy into his defense, he can be a huge asset for Duke going forward.
Thursday's performance was a huge step toward that goal.
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