DURHAM, N.C. -- No one is going to be able to replace Ryan Kelly. With his experience, height, and ability to draw tall defenders away from the basket by hitting 3-pointers, the senior -- out indefinitely with a right foot injury -- is just too distinctive a player in Duke’s game plan.
But getting a couple of memorable performances from a couple of Blue Devils freshmen? That helps.
Rookie wing Rasheed Sulaimon's career-high 25 points and freshman forward Amile Jefferson's aggressive 11-point, nine-rebound outing in Duke’s 84-64 win against Maryland on Saturday didn’t erase the memories of the Devils’ embarrassing 27-point meltdown at Miami this week. (Nothing will.) But it did add hope that the team -- which will surely drop from No. 1 in the rankings Monday -- is pushing things in the right direction.
“I think it’s our first step to becoming who we’re going to be now,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team is 2-2 with Kelly sidelined. “We’re obviously a different team without Ryan, and we have to play like we won’t have him. I think we will have him at some time, but we have to figure out who we are without him.”
Saturday, at least, they were a sharpshooting (52.4 percent overall, 50 percent from 3-point land), sharing (18 assists) and careful (four turnovers, all in the first half) squad that leaned on Sulaimon for scoring and on Jefferson (starting his second straight game in place of Kelly) to help out against Maryland’s bigger, wider front line.
“I think we’re starting to find our chemistry,” Sulaimon said.
In the early moments of the game, the 6-foot-4 guard -- who began Saturday in a shooting slump, having made only 15 of his 43 shots in ACC play -- didn’t look as if he was en route to a special afternoon. He got pulled early after Maryland’s Dez Wells scored his team’s first seven points, earning Sulaimon an earful from Duke’s coaches about his defense.
“And he did something that I think is so terrific,” Krzyzewski said. “He said, ‘I got you, Coach. I’ll do better.’ So he embraced responsibility.”
Indeed, not only did Sulaimon focus in on defense when he checked back in but he scored 13 in a row -- pushing a 14-13 lead to 27-18. He was 5-for-5 from 3-point land in the first half, and he made another before he finally missed. And when the Blue Devils went cold for a stint in the second half, Sulaimon followed a lay-up with a 3-pointer to revive the offense again.
“I know that a lot of attention is going to be on Seth [Curry] and Mason [Plumlee]; especially with Ryan being out, the attention is going to be more on those two,” Sulaimon said. “Just doing my job as a teammate, I know that I have to be ready to take them, and make them.”
His roommate Jefferson, meanwhile, stood out because of his aggressiveness and consistency. At times early in the season, the 6-8 195-pounder admits he felt a bit lost. And more recently, he has struggled to find a groove because of foul trouble.
But the more he’s been called on to contribute (a necessity, with Kelly out), he said, the more comfortable he has grown. That showed in myriad plays Saturday, including his three-point play attempt at the end of the first half (he missed the free throw but still gave Duke a 43-35 advantage).
“It’s about getting your legs under you ... you’ve got the feel of the game now,” said Jefferson, who was 3-for-8 overall and 5-for-9 from the free throw line. “Being out there, I understand where I need to be, so I’m not in position to foul. Now I just have to be more in the position to take charges, get blocks, so I can stay on the floor even longer.”
Duke’s players, and coach, stressed that this team is a work in progress. Without Kelly, Plumlee (19 points, seven rebounds) is still getting used to dealing with more double-teams. Curry (13 points, 5-for-14 shooting) still can’t practice every day because of his shin injury. Everyone is still adjusting.
But Plumlee said Saturday “no doubt” was the team’s best performance since Kelly was sidelined, thanks in part to the freshmen. And that’s a positive step, especially after the Miami embarrassment.
“We’re a new team, we’re finding our identity,” Jefferson said. “And when Ryan gets back, we’re going to be even better.”