It has become almost conventional wisdom within the Duke community that Rasheed Sulaimon is a “better fit” for Duke than Austin Rivers. Obviously there is some disappointment from last year’s team that started off well, beat UNC in one of the greatest games of all time and then become one of only six teams to lose to a 15th seed in the NCAA tournament. A lot of the team’s shortcomings were blamed on Rivers. He seemed like a natural target since he was very highly recruited, the son of an NBA player and overall carried himself as a jerk. There was somewhat of a “over promise / under deliver” aspect that left a bitter taste with Rivers.
Before we get to Sulaimon, lets first look at this year’s Duke team. Nobody will argue this team is playing much better than last year, but if you needed any proof the top 5 returning players (Plumlee, Curry, Kelly, Cook and Thornton) all have better FG%s than last year. Mason Plumlee in particular has gone from a *curse word to possibly the best player in the country. Because of the entire team’s improvement this team has gone undefeated through the nation’s toughest schedule.
*I would often yell Plumlee after a turnover, missed free throw or stupid defensive gamble.I can only assume my wife thought Plumlee was some type of curse word. Really I just thought Mason was Josh McRoberts 2.0 and would never live up to the hype.
So the team is playing much better and has had an amazing start to the season. With that start people have looked for a reason why. Is it because Mason Plumlee worked on his free throw shooting? Is it because Quinn Cook has made huge leap? Is it because Ryan Kelly improved as a defender? All of those are factors, but a lot of people seem to be pointing soley to trading out Sulaimon for Rivers.
The thing is that I don’t disagree that the switch has helped the team. I tolerated Rivers, but love watching Sulaimon play. Give me even 2.5 more years of watching him play and he might reach Nolan Smith/Jon Scheyer/Shane Battier level for me. However, I find it confusing that people automatically point to Sulaimon being a better fit or more of a Duke type player. What about this? Sulaimon is just a better player than Rivers.
Sulaimon was the 12th ranked recruit compared to Rivers being 3rd, so while everyone assume Rivers was going to be a NBA level talent, it isn’t like people thought poorly of Sulaimon. And then when you look at actual play you see that Sulaimon has a better FG% (44% to 43%), better FT% (84% to 66%) and better 3PT% (40% to 36%). He also has more rebounds and assists per per game, while averaging almost a turnover less. And if stats aren’t your thing then just watch both of them play and see who you think is a better defender. So yes he is a better fit and this team does have much better chemistry. However, I think it is also clear that Sulaimon is just a much better player than Rivers. That combined with the improvement from everyone else has made this team a legitimate threat to win the national title. Now can we get back to wondering if Jabari Parker is enough of a Duke-type player?