Rasheed Sulaimon: A Defensive Dynamo?


Duke basketball’s defensive struggles have been well documented. Over the past 2 seasons, the team has ranked 27th (last season) and 70th (!). From 2005 through 2011, Duke’s defense has ranked 1st, 13th, 5th, 9th, 20th, and 4th. Notice anything different? The most common explanation for Duke’s defensive struggles has been a team-wide lack of quickness and length on the perimeter.

Since Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler’s graduations, Duke has played mostly 3 guard lineups, leaving the squad small and slow-footed. Although Seth Curry more than made up for his defensive limitations with superb 3 point shooting, he certainly didn’t keep many opponent guards out of the lane, giving up 1.02 points per possession over his junior and senior seasons. Quinn Cook made definite strides in his sophomore season,improving defensively from 1.03 PPP to 0.98 PPP, but nobody would confuse him with Aaron Craft. Austin Rivers… well I’d rather not say.

Entering the 2012-13 season, Duke hoped that freshman Rasheed Sulaimon would abate the squad’s defensive struggles. At times, Sulaimon thrived on both ends of the court, especially during the first two months of the season. When Ryan Kelly left the lineup at the beginning of the ACC season, Duke fans wondered why Sulaimon wasn’t doing more to pick up the slack. His offensive struggles were hardly unpredictable. Freshmen are freshmen and they tend to struggle to like freshmen do, whether they are basketball players or normal students. More surprising were his struggles on defense. His impact on Duke’s team defense seemed like a given through December, especially when compared to Austin River’s 1.04 PPP. (There I said it.).

For the season, Sulaimon gave up 1.00 PPP. Although 1 point per possession is not exactly bad, it’s not what you would expect from the guy who was going to fix Duke’s problems on the perimeter. Nor is it what you would expect from a player whom draft analysts think has the potential to be a future 1st round pick in the NBA draft, mainly on the strength of his athleticism and defensive prowess. By comparison, Aaron Craft, widely considered the best perimeter defender in the country, allowed 0.92 PPP. Admittedly, comparing the freshman Sulaimon to the junior Craft is unfair (although Craft was at 0.92 PPP as a freshman). Sulaimon will almost certainly improve as his sophomore year approaches. By all accounts, he was a standout performer on the gold medal winning U19 National Team. I am confident that Sulaimon will be pushing 0.95 PPP on defense by the time he leaves. If he improves to that point by next season, he won’t be in Durham for very long.

I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when I looked up Sulaimon’s defensive rating and saw what it was. I don’t recall thinking that Cook (0.98 PPP) was a better defender than Sulaimon (1.00 PPP). Although I was skeptical that Sulaimon was as proficient on defense as everyone seemed to think, even now I’m not completely sure what to make of that number. Defensive value is much more difficult to measure than offensive value is, and even when measured, the defensive rating is not as reliable. It takes total team defensive efficiency and portions it out based on an individual player’s number of “stops” (whatever that means). It also struggles to take into account how a player is matched up against the opposing team. If Sulaimon guarded the opposing team’s best player, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Cook was rated better than Sulaimon.

Taking everything into account, Sulaimon’s defense was good if not slightly disappointing. His offensive performance likely covered up his struggles on defensive. If Duke is to make the Final 4 this coming season, Sulaimon’s defense will have to match his early reputation.