'New guy on the block' Rasheed Sulaimon feels blessed, excited to be a Terp after transferring from Duke

After Duke, Rasheed Sulaimon and his family turned to Mark Turgeon, with whom they already had a 'bond.'

When Rasheed Sulaimon was introduced to the crowd at Xfinity Center on Saturday for Magic Maryland Madness, the public address announcer didn't mention the dreaded D-word, saying instead that the 6-foot-5 senior transfer had "spent the past three seasons playing on Tobacco Road."

Sulaimon is pretty candid talking about the transition from Duke to Maryland, the circumstances that led to his becoming a Terp after being the first player ever dismissed from the Blue Devils by coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Still, the circumstances surrounding Sulaimon's midseason departure from a Duke team that eventually won a national championship without him could help Maryland do the same with him this season.

"I went through some hurt. I hit rock bottom," Sulaimon said Tuesday during Maryland's media day. "My mom and dad, they're both immigrants — they didn't quit when they found hard paths in their road to get here and raise six children. It's not in my nature to quit. I was just waiting for that opportunity and God blessed me with that opportunity."

It came when several schools offered him the chance to finish his career after he graduated from Duke last summer. Nearly from the start, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had a decided advantage based on the relationship he and assistant coach Dustin Clark had with the Houston-born Sulaimon and his family, dating to when Turgeon was coaching at Texas A&M.

In an interview on Monday with The Baltimore Sun which represented the family's first public comments since the dismissal, Angela Sulaimon echoed several things her son said after choosing the Terps back in May.

"It's about trust," she said. "We thought we could trust before and we trusted before and the trust failed us. As a mother, I did not want to see him go through that again. We know Mark and Dustin since he was in sixth or seventh grade and I felt those are the people we could trust. I told him 'Trust Dustin and Turgeon 100 percent.' If they fail me I don't know what I would do because I trust them."

Angela Sulaimon recalled the first time Maryland played at Duke during her son's freshman year and Turgeon came over where she was sitting behind the bench.

"When they played at Duke, he came straight up to the bench and hugged me," Angela Sulaimon said of a game in which her son scored a then career-high 25 points, including hitting six of nine 3-point shots. "Duke fans were saying, 'Why are you hugging this Maryland coach?'"

When she and her husband, Kenny, joined their son for his visit to the Maryland campus last spring, Angela Sulaimon said, "I felt at home, I felt relaxed, it felt more like a family than it did at Duke. This is not just a relationship forming. This is a bond from a long time ago."

Aside from senior forward Jake Layman, who played on the same under-18 national team the summer before their freshman year, Sulaimon didn't know any of his new teammates. But in the two months since he arrived, Sulaimon says, "Our chemistry off the court is already great."

"We're working on the chemistry on the court. That's going to be a day-by-day process," he said. "The thing I've been impressed with is that nobody has egos, everyone wants to play for the name on the front of the jersey. That's really all Coach can ask for."

Turgeon said Tuesday that he is counting on Sulaimon to join Layman and junior forward Robert Carter Jr., who sat out last season after transferring from Georgia Tech, to fill the leadership void left by the graduation of All-Big Ten guard Dez Wells.

"Sulaimon is a guy that's a natural competitor and kind of gets it," Turgeon said. "In between the lines, he's doing a lot of leading, lot of talking — he's really good at it. Off the floor, out of respect to Jake and Robert, they've been here longer so he's letting them do a little bit more."

Said Sulaimon: "It was kind of a shock to me because I've never been in a leadership role. I'm coming into their locker room. I'm the new guy on the block, so to speak. Last year they had a tremendous year without me. As time goes on my voice will probably get louder."

Sulaimon might have filled that role at Duke, but when his playing time and production diminished as his relationship with Krzyzewski deteriorated last season, so did the opportunity to be a leader. He was surprised to see the way his new teammates responded to him, especially considering where he played before.

"It says a lot about these guys," he said. "They set a school record last year for [26 regular-season] wins, played in a new conference and [were] very successful. To have a new guy come in, especially from Duke or wherever like that, and to embrace me the way they did, I feel like I'm a blessed individual to land in such a great spot.

"I think it's going to be a great partnership and I'm excited."

Considered among the nation's most promising NBA prospects after averaging more than 11 points a game as a freshman, Sulaimon wants to reclaim that status with the Terps. More importantly, he wants to prove he is willing to do whatever Turgeon needs from him.

"What I've been trying to do is bring my experiences I learned at Duke. I've been to the Elite Eight, I've been to the [NCAA] tournament three years in a row, these guys have been like sponges and I haven't been overbearing or anything like that," Sulaimon said.

If anything, Sulaimon has tried to set the tone defensively in practice, hoping to take over from Wells and Richaud Pack as the team's best perimeter defender.

"I feel like I have the talent to be a great defensive player, spark the energy on that end," Sulaimon said. "To be honest with you, offensively we have a lot of talent, we have a dynamic team. I feel like if I bring a lot of energy on the defensive end and be an energy-giver and motivator on that end, everything will fall into place on the offensive end."

Sulaimon concedes that watching the Blue Devils win a national championship without him was not easy.

"It was more or less bittersweet," he said." It was bitter because I wanted to be a part of the whole process. Those are the guys I worked with all summer. I was so close with those guys. At the same time it was sweet because I was happy for those guys and everything they did accomplish. It brought tears of joy, honestly, to my eyes."

The irony of being at Maryland this season, given the location of this season's Final Four in his native Houston and fact that the Terps are considered among the favorites to win a national championship, is not lost on Sulaimon. He tries not to look too far in the future, though getting a chance that eluded him last season serves as motivation.

"Not getting ahead of myself because not all the time talent wins; look at Kentucky last year," Sulaimon said."At the same time, everything that I've been through, the transition that I came here, there would be no better ending. It would almost be like a fairy book ending to finish my career back where it started."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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