SAN ANTONIO — At his lowest points this season, when his confidence waned and his McDonald’s All-American form seemed to have deserted him, Kansas guard Malik Newman could expect to hear the same encouraging words from his teammates.
“Every time he second-guessed himself, we would tell him, ‘Bring high school Malik back,'” Kansas guard Marcus Garrett said “Because in high school there was nobody who could stop him.”
“High school Malik” has reappeared just in time to fuel Kansas’ torrid March. No longer is Newman constantly drawing the ire of the Kansas staff for not living up to his potential on offense or expending enough energy on defense. The former consensus top 10 recruit is now scoring with the ease that he did at Callaway High School when he piled up more than 3,000 points, won Mississippi’s Mr. Basketball award twice and led his team to four straight state championships.
In seven games in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments this month, Newman is averaging 22.7 points and shooting 54.9 percent from behind the arc. The 6-foot-3 sophomore torched Duke for 32 points in Sunday’s Midwest Regional Final, scoring all 13 Kansas points in overtime to lead the Jayhawks to their third Final Four of Bill Self’s tenure.
No player at this year’s NCAA tournament has scored more points than Newman, but that’s not the only way he is contributing. He also has delivered at the defensive end, most notably on the final possession of regulation against Duke when he hounded Grayson Allen into taking a heavily contested 12-foot jumper that spun around the rim and out as the final buzzer sounded.
Newman’s sudden transformation from underachiever to breakout star has been a welcome sight for Kansas coach Bill Self. This version of Newman is exactly what Self envisioned when he vigorously pursued the high-scoring guard in high school and again after he opted to leave Mississippi State following a disappointing freshman season.
“When we recruited Malik out of high school, we thought he was the best all-around guard in the country,” Self said. “When he went to Mississippi State, he didn’t have a bad year. He just didn’t have a year that lived up to expectations and he got humbled a little bit. I think that’s made him even hungrier now.”
Hardly anyone would have expected Newman to still be in college this season given the trajectory of his career during high school. Newman didn’t just dominate Mississippi high school kids. He was was the leading scorer on the gold medal-winning 2014 USA Basketball World Championship team alongside future NBA lottery picks Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum.
This was a kid who grew up playing from sunup to sundown on a makeshift rim made of an old bicycle tire with the spokes taken out; who honed his jumper attempting 1,000 shots a day with his dad in middle school; who would sneak out of his family’s house at 4 a.m. as a high school senior to meet his coach and get in a workout.
Newman’s ascent halted abruptly after he spurned higher-profile programs like Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio State to sign with the home-state school where his father once starred. Mississippi State did not prove to be an ideal fit for Newman because he and coach Ben Howland clashed from the start.
“It was a terrible fit,” said Newman’s father Horatio Webster. “I’m not saying this because I’m mad. I’m speaking fact. Ben Howland hated the kid’s game. He liked nothing about the kid’s game. And Malik didn’t like how he coached.”
Expected to be the star of a Mississippi State team poised to ascend in the SEC, Newman instead averaged a modest 11.3 points per game and shot below 40 percent from the field. His numbers declined even further over his final 10 games that season while he was dealing with a cracked bone in one foot and other lingering injuries.
Newman declared for the draft after that season, but the feedback wasn’t kind. NBA scouts who salivated over him after high school now warned him there was a chance he might go undrafted one year later.
That left Newman with a decision to make: Stay at Mississippi State for another year, risk turning pro as originally planned or transfer and commit to at least another two years of college.
“The decision to leave Mississippi State was the easy part,” Webster said. “That wasn’t tough at all.”
Injuries contributed to Newman’s decision to transfer to Kansas instead of turning pro. He wasn’t healthy enough to try to make up the ground he had lost during workouts with NBA teams leading up to the 2016 draft.
While Newman healed while sitting out last season and impressed Self with his work ethic on the scout team, “high school Malik” didn’t reemerge right away like many expected. In fact entering March, Newman’s stat line wasn’t dramatically different from what he had produced before struck as a freshman at Mississippi State.
“I told Malik, ‘You’re still playing like you’re wearing maroon and white,'” Webster said. “If you were going to play this way, you could have saved me some money on gas and flights.'”
Both Webster and Self agreed on what was hindering Newman’s growth. On offense, he was playing tentatively, settling for jump shots instead of attacking off the dribble and deferring to star point guard Devonte Graham too much. On defense, he didn’t always give a consistent effort, a product of being such a celebrated scorer for most of his life.
Self tried pushing a number of different buttons to bring the best out of Newman. He held Newman out of the starting lineup for three games early in the Big 12 season and again at Baylor on Feb. 10. Asked about benching Newman and fellow guard LaGerald Vick against the Bears, Self said bluntly, “I’m really kind of tired of starting guys that don’t really put themselves in a position of what we need to do from an intangibles standpoint.”
More recently, Self has tried a different tactic — complimenting Newman as much as possible when he dove on the floor for a loose ball, sprinted back on defense or didn’t settle for a jumper. The positive reinforcement has helped reinvigorate Newman and restore his flagging confidence.
“The biggest thing that happened for Malik is that Malik allowed himself to be coached,” Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts said. “Coach told him, ‘I am going to coach you like a basketball player. You are not just a scorer. That’s not what you are. That may mean you’ve got to defend, that may mean you’ve got to get a rebound, that may mean you’ve got to get an assist. You’ve got to do the other things.’ I think he’s adapted to that.”
Newman’s March renaissance has transformed Kansas into a vastly more dangerous team. There’s no way Kansas would have overcome Udoka Azubuike’s absence to win the Big 12 tournament without Newman erupting. There’s no way the Jayhawks would have survived Graham’s shooting slump in the NCAA tournament without Newman picking up the slack.
“I’ve gotten hot at the right time,” Newman said. “A wise man once told me that if something don’t work the first time, that don’t mean it’ll never work again. That’s just how I looked at it. It was a great decision for me to not put my name in the draft, come to Kansas and develop and get healthy. I feel like I made the right call.”
The way Newman is confidently knocking down jumpers and getting to the rim, it reminds his dad of “high school Malik.” Meanwhile on defense, Webster believes his son has come a long way because of Self’s patience and persistence.
“I didn’t know his knees bent until he got to Kansas,” Webster joked.
As he made the day-long drive from his home in Mississippi to San Antonio on Friday afternoon, Webster reflected on his son’s journey. He said he is most proud of his son’s resilience in the face of unexpected adversity.
“He went from a top 10 prospect to falling off the face of the earth, but he still never broke,” Webster said. “You never heard him lash out or get in trouble. He stayed the course, never blamed anybody and took it on the chin. That in itself is special. I don’t know a lot of kids who could handle that.”
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