- A former five-star recruit and transfer from Mississippi State, Malik Newman was expected to be a one-and-done. But his journey to Kansas has helped morphed the sophomore guard into a vital part of the Jayhawks' tournament success. Is a national title next?
SAN ANTONIO – Horatio Webster, the father of Kansas guard Malik Newman, called his son in early March. He did not soften his tone or sugarcoat his point. He told Malik that it was a good thing that a school like Kansas had three seasons—regular season, conference tournament and NCAA tournament—because that meant Malik had two of those seasons left this year to fulfill the vast promise he had shown but never quite lived up to.
“A new season is starting, wassup?” Webster told his son. “You have to look in the mirror and get this together.”
Newman didn’t disagree, and before hanging up, he told his dad the same thing he always tells his dad. “I’m going to be OK,” he said.
The Jayhawks played Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament on March 8. They had lost to the Cowboys by 18 points the week before. Webster expected another lackluster performance, so he didn’t even travel to Kansas City, choosing instead to stay home in Mississippi and watch the game by himself. There was his son, the one-and-done talent, the celebrated recruit, the future NBA starter, hanging 30 points on Oklahoma State, playing like he’s capable of playing. “I might have cried the whole game,” Webster said in a phone interview this week. “Because Malik deserved this. There were so many times I didn’t know who that was that I was watching. I had to check the numbers sometimes and ask, is that my son?”
If it’s not clear by now, father and son are close. Webster was once the No. 1 junior college player in the country, and he later transferred to Mississippi State, where he swears he had the coolest nickname in college basketball. They called him Big Train, and every time he scored the announcer would yell, “All Aboard!” and the crowd would chant, “Choo-Choo!”
Newman found that introduction corny, and yet in recent weeks, teammates bestowed him with his own nickname: Mr. March. In seven postseason games, spread across the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, Newman has nearly doubled his scoring average (from 12.4 points to 23.1) and increased his shooting percentage (42.7 to 54.2) and is making more than half (54.9%) of his three-point attempts. He won honors for most outstanding player in the Big 12 tournament and for the Midwest Regional, which Kansas won, advancing to face Villanova on Saturday night in the Final Four.
Newman had two high school coaches at Callaway High in Jackson, Miss. The second one, David Sanders, says, “I feel almost like the Biblical character Noah here. I’ve been telling people it was going to rain and nobody believed me. I’ve been saying that kid could get it done on that level for a long, long time.”
Newman has been obsessed with basketball all his life. Most days, he worked out at least twice, on his own, outside of practice. His father says Malik would often turn in early, like at 7 p.m., so as to avoid his father telling him should take the next morning off. Then by the time Webster would wake up, his son would be gone, off to the gym at 4 a.m. to hoist a few hundred jump shots. His other high school coach, his first one, Wayne Brent, says he can’t recall every seeing Newman with a girlfriend, or hearing him discuss the latest movies. It was all basketball.
The talent that Newman fed was considerable. Publications started to rank him on a national scale in seventh grade, and at age 14, he went on a local news program and stated his desire to win four state championships at Callaway. He did that.
By the time Sanders took over before Newman’s junior season, college coaches were more than interested. The first call that Sanders took was from Jeff Capel, Duke’s ace recruiter. Kentucky coach John Calipari made regular visits to the gym. So did Kansas coach Bill Self. For any guards who complained about playing time behind Newman, Sanders told them they’d have a better chance to be recruited just based on what they did in practice. Webster still has all the recruiting letters; they fill several boxes now taking up space in his garage. He says he can’t wait for his son to own a home so Malik can take the boxes off his hands. “It was ridiculous, man,” Sanders says. “I’m just now to the point where I kind of miss it. For the last two years, I was glad he was gone. It was too much.”
Newman was can’t miss as can’t miss can be. Sure, it’s one thing to dominate at a Mississippi high school level. But he was also the best scorer on his USA Basketball U-17 teams, alongside future one-and-done players like Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson. They won the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championship. Newman won tournament MVP. Teammates called him Young Kobe. “I had no doubt that he was going to do one year in college, put his name in the draft and go to the NBA,” Brent says. “One and gone.”
Newman wanted to go to Kansas. His father preferred Kentucky. They debated back and forth and instead chose Mississippi State, a choice that Sanders strongly disagreed with. The Bulldogs had a new coach, Ben Howland, and Sanders thought that Howland’s offense was a bad fit for Newman’s skillset.
Sanders was right, although circumstances played a role. Webster says his son suffered a cracked bone one foot and a back injury, while dealing with turf toe and cramping issues. On top of that, Webster says, “Ben didn’t like Malik’s style of play. I think Ben thought he was the worst player he ever coached, to be honest.” He seems to be joking there, or playing up the truth, but Webster also adds that: “They took the love of the game away from him. It was bad. We’re talking about a kid you had to lock out of the gym. That was his medicine. It was hard.”
At one point, Webster asked his son if he wanted to leave the program at Christmas time. They decided to push through. Newman averaged 11.3 points and shot 39.1% from the floor. After the season, Webster says he called Howland and asked what his plans for Malik where for the next season, 2016–17. Webster says Howland told him he planned to his use son the same way. “That was our last conversation,” he says. “I honestly think that was his way of telling me he didn’t want to coach him anymore and to get the hell out of there.”
Newman decided to jump to the NBA, only to learn he’d probably at best be a second-round draft pick, the wrong kind of one-and-done. “I’m sure Calipari uses that story now,” Sanders says. “Do you want to be (former UK guard) Jamal Murray? Or do you want to be Malik Newman?”
The answer now—the answer recently—is both. Newman sat out last season, which Sanders says was the best thing that ever happened to him, mostly because it gave him time to get healthy. It was also good for Newman to acclimate to Self, who pushed him hard, refusing to let Newman settle for what he’s best at: jump shots.
Webster says his son tried too hard to please Self and play mistake-free basketball, thus making errors because he wasn’t in his best rhythm. Sure, he showed flashes—the 27 points he scored against Iowa State in early January, the 24 he put up against Baylor a couple weeks later—but not the consistency that has surfaced this March.
In December, Newman had returned home and worked out with Sanders. “He was real down,” Sanders says. “I told him to stop second-guessing himself. I told him, when you start hitting that step-back jumper, then I’ll know you’re really Malik Newman.”
Self met with Newman as well around that time. He told Newman to be more aggressive, to stop ceding to point guard and conference player of the year Devonte’ Graham. Self said the Jayhawks would give Newman time to find himself but he needed to speed that process up. “I deserved it,” Newman says. “I definitely wasn’t providing enough for my team.”
When Kansas’s big man Udoka Azubuike missed the Big 12 Tournament with a sprained knee, Newman stepped into the void. Kansas excelled in its four-guard lineup, the floor spread, with Newman jacking triples—and hitting step-backs. Then in the NCAA tournament, Azubuike returned—adding the post dimension that Kansas has lacked throughout the season—while Newman continued to shoot lights out. This series of events, Self says, made Kansas “a different team”—one capable of winning the school’s first national title in 10 years.
Against Seton Hall in the Round of 32, Self pulled Newman aside and reminded him to stay aggressive. It was only the second game back for Azubuike, and the Pirates center, Angel Delgado, was killing Kansas in the post. Newman scored 28 to position Kansas to advance. Several of his baskets were key shots down the stretch.
He played even better against Duke in the Elite 8. At halftime, Webster was worried and he caught his son’s eye, as Malik made his way off the court. “What’s going on?” Webster mouthed. “I’ll be fine, dad,” his son mouthed back, while pushing both hands down for emphasis, as if to say calm down. Newman finished that night with 32 points. He scored all of KU’s 13 points in overtime. He also locked down Grayson Allen, contesting a shot that would have won the game for Duke in regulation. Even his dad said of Newman’s defense, “I was like, who the hell is this kid?”
“I hear everybody saying that Kansas doesn’t have a superstar,” Webster says. “Whatever! They have one in Graham. And they have one in my son! Anybody who has followed his career knows this kid can do this. What you saw against Duke is what I’ve been watching my whole life.”
It’s no coincidence that Kansas has won 12 of its last 13 at just the exact moment when Newman went on his hot streak. Even Self says that Graham may be Newton’s sidekick now and not the other way around. Villanova will find out soon enough, or Villanova will beat Kansas and advance to the national title game.
“We’re gonna cut the nets down,” Webster promises. “I really believe that.”