He planned to be in the NBA by now. Instead, he just led KU to the Big 12 title game

By Sam McDowell smcdowell@kcstar.com

Malik Newman was careful with his words. He says he’s happy with the way things have turned out. “It’s been for the best,” he insists, and that certainly is a lot easier to say because of the way the past 48 hours have unfolded — Newman scoring 52 points in two games to lead Kansas into the Big 12 Tournament championship game in Kansas City.

But the plan was to skip this whole layover in Lawrence. His ideas were grander than this. Bigger than playing in front of a packed, KU-friendly crowd at the Sprint Center, serving a key role on a team closing in on a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

It was almost exactly two years ago that, flanked by his then-coach Ben Howland, Newman sat in front of reporters and revealed what everyone in Starkville, Miss., already knew: He was leaving Mississippi State after just one season and jumping to the NBA.

“I will be pursuing my dream,” he stated then.

As it turned out, the freshman season at Mississippi State hadn’t done Newman many favors. He entered the year projected as a potential top-10 talent. He left the NBA combine with a grade outside the first round of the draft.

Plan B.

Lawrence.

Newman returned to school but transferred from Mississippi State — his father’s alma mater — and sat out a year at KU, hoping to reboot and then increase his draft stock. Before he had even played a game in a Jayhawks uniform, KU coach Bill Self declared that he’d be disappointed if Newman wasn’t an all-conference player.

“I did hear that,” Newman said. “It just showed the confidence he has in me and what kind of player he thinks I am and what kind of player he thinks I should be.”

Since leaving high school as a McDonald’s All-American, Newman has been surrounded by talk of the latter — should be — more than the former.

The talent has shown in flashes. It’s lacked consistency.

But two years later, Newman said he has never felt better about his game than this week, with the postseason arriving. In the Big 12 quarterfinals, he posted 30 points in a win against Oklahoma State. A day later, he dropped 22 more against Kansas State in the semifinals.

In the two games combined, he has made 19 of 29 shots, including 9 of 14 three-point attempts.

“It almost looks like an ocean right now,” Newman said of the basket. “Every time I raise my elbow, I feel like it’s going in.”

Sitting to his right in the KU locker room inside Sprint Center, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham added, “I’ve been thinking the same thing. Every time he releases it, it looks like it’s going on. When he misses, I’m kind of surprised. I just want him to keep it going. It’s the perfect time to get hot.”

It’s something the Jayhawks had hoped for all season. But there were dry spells. In a four-game stint in February, Newman made 6 of 26 threes. He was 15 of 46 overall in the same four games.

After one of them, Self pulled Newman aside and said he needed more productivity. “You’re capable of more,” Self told him.

“I was down,” Newman said, later adding, “I just knew if I wasn’t good, the team wasn’t going to be as good as it could be.

“It was just about me looking in the mirror and telling myself, ‘It’s really on you right now. You can’t point your fingers at anyone. You just have to man up and accept it and do something about it.’”

The adjustments have been mental more than physical, the payoff gradual more than immediate. It’s required patience, which Newman acknowledged isn’t exactly his strong suit.

That’s what prompted the NBA declaration two years ago — the urgency to make things happen now. His decision to re-consider has been KU’s benefit.

“I figured why not come back to school and work on my game and get another try later on,” Newman said. “I think it was a great decision. It gave me time to come back and better myself.”


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