Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
The Jackson, Miss., native was a McDonald’s All-American in 2015 and everybody who followed college hoops figured he’d be a one-and-done at Mississippi State.
But something funny happened on the way to that inevitable one-and-done year. The 6-foot-4 Newman was hampered by injuries and over-hype, and he never lived up to those expectations.
Now, three years later, he is here at the Final Four as a red-shirt sophomore with Kansas and he may well be the most dangerous player on any of the four rosters. Newman is averaging 21.8 points through four NCAA Tournament games, including the 32 with 7 rebounds he poured in last Sunday in an 85-81 victory over Duke in the Midwest Regional Final.
Kansas meets Villanova here in the second national semifinal on Saturday night, while Loyola-Chicago faces Michigan in the opener.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said here Friday when I asked if this is the best he’s ever played. “I would definitely say it’s best I ever played. At this stage and this moment, it’s the biggest stage that you can be on, in the NCAA Tournament; it’s definitely the headline of March so I definitely would say that this is the best that I’ve been playing.”
Kansas head coach Bill Self and assistant Jerrance Howard recruited Newman out of Callaway (MS) High School as hard as they’ve recruited anyone.
“I have Facetimed more with Malik than anybody else in the world combined out of high school,” Self said here Friday when I asked him about his recruitment of Newman. “And we didn’t even get a visit, I mean, come on, God almighty. But I think this is it. When we recruited Malik out of high school we thought he was the best all-around guard in the country.”
Howard watched every AAU game Newman played for two years and also saw him play seven times in high school.
“Every game, didn’t miss a game,” Howard told me in the Kansas locker room.
“I tell people all the time, he’s the most talented offense player I ever recruited,” Howard added. “Every time I went to Jackson, Miss., I used to come back to coach and call coach, he gave me 40-plus every time I came. There was never a game where I didn’t see him score over 40 points.”
When Newman chose Mississippi State over Kansas and Kentucky in April 2015, in part because his father Horatio Webster had played there, Howard said he was “devastated.”
“When he called me, before he ever said anything I knew,” Howard said. “He was the hardest kid I ever recruited and we had a great relationship and a great bond. It was hard for him to tell us that he was going to Mississippi State.”
Newman considered the blue bloods, but felt he could make his own history at Mississippi State.
“It was definitely tough,” he said. “It was a school that I picked and a program that I wanted to be a part of. My father went there, my uncle went there. So I definitely wanted to keep that tradition going and thought that we could have something special.”
Howard wished him luck, and the two went their separate ways.
During his one subpar year at Mississippi State, he was bothered by turf toe and averaged 11.3 points as the team failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
“When he went to Mississippi State he didn’t have a bad year,” Self said. “He just didn’t have a year that lived up to the expectations. Plus he was nicked up a lot. And he got humbled a little bit. And I’m not talking behind his back. And I think it’s made him hungrier.”
Newman opted to transfer to Kansas, which had recruited him so hard the first time around. He sat out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules.
“I definitely think it was the right decision,” Newman said. “It gave me a chance to get better, pick Coach Self’s brain, learn things that he been teaching over the years. Get better during the offseason.”
Newman said it took him a while to feel healthy after the turf toe, and he didn’t begin to feel right until the summer.
“I started feeling healthy maybe the second term of summer school when I first got here,” he said. “I took the whole first term off just rehabbing and treatment to get healthy so first two months here was no basketball, it was just strictly, weights, treatment and rehab and I started to feel better. I started to feel like I was more explosive, running faster, jumping higher, definitely the second semester of summer school.”
Still, Newman was really just an average player through most of this season at Kansas. On Jan. 9, he broke out for 27 points against Iowa State. Self had to repeatedly get on him to play defense and to the little things, even taking him out of the starting lineup to motivate him.
In March, Newman has taken it to a new level, scoring 20-plus in five of his last seven and 30-plus in two of those games.
“You also have to credit Coach demanding he be more than just an offensive guy,” Howard said. “Asking him to rebound, guard, get on the floor. Everybody knows Malik just got baskets, but he has developed into an all-around good basketball player instead of just a guy that can score the ball.”
Self seems pleased.
“Now you can’t say could Malik be any better,” Self said. “This is what we envisioned with all these guys this year, because it’s all keyed by their aggressiveness and confidence.”
This is the version of Malik Newman many had envisioned coming out of high school, certainly the vision Self and Howard had of the player they recruited.
Newman has also helped himself with NBA decision-makers, too. He may not be the projected No. 4 pick, like he once was, but his future is definitely bright.
“Definitely,” Howard said. “But I’m pretty sure hopefully after Tuesday night we’ll be getting those phone calls because he’s put himself in a good position. We just have to win two more games and it will get better.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.